It would safe to assume that I’m rarely too far from a decent cocktail come magic hour each day. But one of the many reasons I’m obsessed with the Martini is how hard it is to craft a good one, let alone a great one.
For something so simple, we’ve all had versions that are less than ideal.
I’m written elsewhere about the facets that make for a great Martini, and what can go wrong. I estimate that only half the time do I even hit the right note at home, guilty of being distracted, not being in the right mood, the phase of the moon is wrong, take your pick.
This is doubly true in the wild, where hard working bartenders need to create perfection under pressure of time and other demands. The results can be variable to say the least.
This year has seen me travel about Australia, over to New Zealand and to California, the latter having claim to being the brith place of my favourite thing in a glass. Thus plenty of opportunities to sample Martinis in notable bars, glamorous parties, unexpected locations, airports and points between.
Rarely a day on the road would go by without my finding a way to get a decent drink, which as sometimes has included an impromptu masterclass for a well meaning staff member who had no idea, just making the world a better place one drink at a time. When visiting a bar for the first time I tend to order either a Tanqueray with an olive or Plymouth Gin with a twist, very dry, to determine a benchmark, there is no where to hide with these classic spirits.
So without further ado, here’s my top five Martinis and what made them so-you can also see last year’s list here .
#5 Martinis on the Mountain Party, Modernism Week, CA Palm Springs
Modernism Week is actually two weeks of mid-century style heaven that features hundreds of events that attracts 130,000 people from around the world to see some amazing houses, talks, movies, immersive mid-century modern lifestyle experiences, and not least, some fabulous parties. You have to book months in advance to get into many of these events and Martinis on the Mountain was top of my list needless to say. This is a classic example of a Martini experience being greater than the sum of the cocktails. The Martinis were shaken Hendrick, dry or dirty and bottomless, so not my usual vibe, but under a full moon overlooking Palm Springs on a very crisp Winter’s night, the venue was a 1920’s Spanish revival mansion and the people were just fabulous, all there because they loved the cocktail and dressed to the nines, and we came away having made friends for life.
#4 Hawthorn Lounge, Wellington
Wellington is one cool little city, a long way from anywhere globally, it punches above it’s weight across the board, not least in food and drink terms. Earlier this year I had the honour of judging their inaugural craft spirits awards. So naturally I made a point of trying all the good gin joints and was recommended the Hawthorn Lounge. I arrived before the rush, just me and the very engaging bartender. It was that golden hour, quiet jazz, a view of the street below, the place to myself for a little while, and following a chat about what style of Martini I’d like, and guiding me thoughtfully to an agreeable combination, the result was a serenely perfect cocktail to put the day in perspective. On the way out he gave me a handwritten list of other places to go. Love that city.
#3 Molly, Canberra
My home town, so they know me here. I get asked all the time where to get the best Martinis in the capital, and I always say a) it depends and b) recommend this place among a couple of others for being reliable all the time as to their Martini quality no matter who’s behind the bar. Tucked away in an alley way, I brought the Gintonica posse for cocktails after we launched their new Australian Gin book. With some live jazz in the background, great company, moved along nicely with several of the best Plymouth gin Martinis I’ve had for quite a while, including mine. Just on the money everytime, and it was one of those nights when you wake up crystal clear the next morning without having been thirsty at any time in the night. Winning.
#2 Maybe Sammy, Sydney
This bar opened recently and is a fabulous addition to Sydney’s cocktail scene. It was one of the best bar experiences I’ve had for a very long time. Located near the Four Seasons hotel and Circular Quay, I found a new happy place. If you want to experience what top flight cocktail hospitality is in a bar, go here. Every single person was greeted on arrival and made to feel welcome, no matter if they were lost tourists or bar aficionados, and every single person was thanked by the bar team as they left. The banter put everyone at ease and they guided the guests to the right cocktail for them, and in a town where talking to strangers can be a no-no, this place made everyone the best of friends. As for the Martinis, first class (delicious bar food too by the way), and touches like this: I had to take a phone call and stepped outside for a moment. When I came back in, they fetched my cocktail from the freezer where they’d put it to keep it pristine. Class.
#1 Raised by Wolves, San Diego CA
So here we are number one for 2019. Here’s the set up. In town for a couple of nights and had a short list of places I found in Instagram. You take a long Uber ride from downtown, and arrive at a upmarket Westfield mall. Not your usual mall though, think Chanel, Tom Ford, Jaguar, Bugatti and this place. By day a very elegant boutique spirits store with some of the best from around the world, but it holds a secret. You need to book and get there on time, but it’s oh so worth it.
Now, I was just a blow in with a couple of Aussie pals, no pulling rank here, but the service levels were exceptional. Imagine a large round library, seating over 100 or more with a central bar, table service and our guide just knocked the Martinis out of the park he took the time to go over the nuances of the drinks and I knew from the get go I could just leave the suggestions to him and go along for the ride in safe hands.
This large scale bar was packed all night, but they didn’t miss a beat and I had some of the best cocktails ever, including the illustrated Vesper that showed me I’ve been doing it wrong all these years. Check out the clips for some of the fun. Find it, go there.
How to get in? and
Honourable mention: Whitechapel Bar, San Francisco, CA
This downtown classy bar takes it’s hospitality, gin and mixology seriously. I chose this bar to meet some American vodka distillers, and they loved their first ever gin Martini which I ordered for them. First rate.