Martini & Myth Part 3: Shaken, Not Stirred

William Powell (R) as Nick Charles, a.k.a. "The Thin Man", waxing poetic with a shaken Martini
William Powell (R) as Nick Charles, a.k.a. "The Thin Man", waxing poetic with a shaken Martini

Editor’s Note: August is Martini Month at Alcohol Professor! Why? Well, any day is an excuse to sip a refreshing Martini, however, in the dog days of summer, there’s nothing like a Martini to quench a thirst. Enjoy this hebdomadal  sipping trip through the lens of some familiar pop cultural figures. Cheers! See Part 1 – on James Bond and the Vesper cocktail here. Part 2 on the Martinez vs. the Martini here

Ordering a Martini can be needlessly complicated. Granted, you can walk into pretty much any cocktail bar and just order a damn Martini, and the bartender will nod and make you a drink (etiquette suggestion: do not walk up to a bartender and literally order “a damn Martini” unless you are Lee Marvin). But the drink that bartender makes for you — well, it could contain any number of ingredients in any number of combinations. Gin and vermouth, right? Some people are even iffy on the olive (I am; I hate olives). And what kind of vermouth? How much? Ah, you want vodka, not gin? Oh, you’re James Bond and you want vodka and gin? Oh, you want a Martini, but you want it made with Disaronno? Come on! The line has to be drawn somewhere. Straight up? Straight up with a twist? Perfect, extra dry, dirty, down? It's ridiculous, but if you want to dig into the details...

A Basic Martini – the gold standard, no screwing around – uses gin and dry vermouth in a 2:1 ratio, stirred over ice, then strained into a tall stemmed glass containing no ice ("up") and garnished with either a twist ("up with a twist") of lemon or olives. A Perfect Martini splits the vermouth 50/50 between dry and sweet. An Extra Dry Martini reduces the amount of vermouth by half. A Dirty Martini adds brine from the olives into the mix. A Martini served down is served in a tumbler or rocks glass (that's how they make them at one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite bars, Harry's New York Bar in Paris). If you want cocktail onions instead of a twist or olives, you can do that; ask for a Gibson. you shake it or stir it? Ah, there's the question.

In an episode of the television show The West Wing, President Josiah “Martin Sheen” Bartlet said “Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James [Bond] is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.” But then, Bartlett also once said, “To be called bourbon it has to come from Kentucky, otherwise it’s called sour mash,” so the guy's know-it-all game is substantially worse than Bond's. But why shaken? Ian Fleming (who, as befits all great storytellers, is not always the most reliable source when it comes to his own life), has his own story about how he, and thus James Bond, came to prefer his Martinis shaken. As the story goes (different than “legend has it”), Fleming was in Berlin after the end of World War II, working as a correspondent for Kemsley Newspapers, which allowed him to continue to indulge his taste for travel and adventure. While there, he encountered a bartender by the name of Hans Schroder, who shook the Martinis. Fleming adored them.

Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) clink mini Martini glasses in The Thin Man
Nick and Nora (William Powell and Myrna Loy) clink mini Martini glasses in The Thin Man

By the end of the Fleming era, Bond had still shown no preference for vodka or gin martinis, and except on occasion, he doesn’t seem to mind whether they are shaken or stirred. The first utterance of “A Martini. Shaken, not stirred” comes in 1956’s Diamonds Are Forever, but it is the third person narrator who says it, not Bond himself. In 1958’s Dr. No, 007's diabolical captor offers Bond a Martini, “shaken and not stirred.” It wasn’t until the movies that Bond's preference for shaken (and vodka) was entered into the public consciousness, to be forever repeated by corny barflies doing their worst slightly slurred Sean Connery impersonation. However, even Connery doesn’t utter that immortal line until the third of the films, Goldfinger.

Bond wasn’t the first cinematic drinking icon to prefer his Martinis shaken. Before Bond became synonymous with cocktails and killing, the world’s premiere drinking icons were husband and wife sleuths Nick and Nora Charles. Although created in 1934 by American writer Dashiell Hammett in his book The Thin Man, the definitive version of the characters (like James Bond) were their cinematic personifications: William Powell and Myrna Loy. Before the Hays Office came down on the series and switched out Nick's booze in favor of milk or non-alcoholic cider and their glamorous partying and nightclubbing in favor of raising a child, Nick and Nora were the picture of Jazz Age glamor and wit, sipping cocktails, dancing, and solving the occasional murder. One Martini recipe even bore the moniker “The Nick and Nora,” and there's a piece of glasswear, the coupe glass, that is commonly known simply as "the Nick and Nora glass."

Nick & Nora Martini

  • 2.5 oz/74 mL London Dry Gin
  • .5 oz/15 mL Dry vermouth
  • 1 dash Orange bitters
a bronx cocktail in martini glass
a bronx cocktail in martini glass

Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a Nick and Nora glass.

Although most recipes for a Nick and Nora Martini specify mixing the drink, The Thin Man is one of the first appearances of the Martini specifically “shaken, not stirred.” From the mouth of Nick Charles (William Powell) himself:

“The important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time. A Bronx to two-step time. A dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”

Nick Charles wasn’t alone in prescribing shaking for the Martini. Harry Craddock’s seminal 1930 bartenders’ guide The Savoy Cocktail Book instructs drink makers to shake Martinis (but does not specify to which beat). So why exactly is it that so many Martini enthusiasts blanche at the idea of a shaken Martini, or insist that a shaken Martini can be a delicious drink, but it’s not a Martini; it’s a Bradford? The most common reason you’ll hear is that shaking “bruises” the gin, which means the agitation causes it to become overly bitter. Another complaint is that the agitation of shaking the cocktail causes the ice to chip, diluting the gin, causing the drink to go slightly cloudy, and changing its flavor. You will also hear that shaking over-aerates the drink, that traditionally cocktails that are all spirit, as is the case with a Martini, should be stirred, while cocktails with a juice mixer should be shaken. The debate has gone to such lengths that the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada conducted a study to determine the effect of shaking versus stirring on a Martini, ostensibly because it had recently been put forth in another study that moderate drinking appeared to reduce the risk of cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. It turned out that shaking a Martini produced a drink with slightly more antioxidants than stirring it. Unfortunately, the biochemists failed to address which one tasted better.

Incidentally, you’ll notice in his quote that Nick Charles mentions a cocktail called The Bronx. While the Manhattan is one of the best-known cocktails even today, its New York borough brethren The Brooklyn and The Bronx have been largely forgotten. The Bronx is a close relative of the Nick and Nora Martini, with the only difference being that instead of orange bitters it uses the juice from a fresh squeezed orange and it doesn’t choose between sweet or dry vermouth; it uses both.

The Bronx

  • 1.5 oz/44 mL London Dry gin
  • 3/4 oz/22 mL Dry vermouth
  • 3/4 oz/22 mL Sweet vermouth
  • Juice of 1/4 orange squeezed into shaker
Brooklyn Cocktail in a Nick and Nora glass, photo by mobil'homme via flickr
Brooklyn Cocktail in a Nick and Nora glass, photo by mobil'homme via flickr

Combine all ingredients and shake, then strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange wheel. If you add 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters, the drink becomes The Income Tax cocktail.

Where The Bronx is very close to a Martini, a Brooklyn is much closer to a Manhattan:

The Brooklyn

  • 2 oz/60 mL Rye or other whiskey
  • 1 oz/30 mL Dry vermouth
  • 1/4 oz/7 mL Maraschino liqueur
  • 1/4 oz/7mL Amer Picon (if you can find some) 

Combine ingredients with ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry (optional).

As for the Queens and the Staten Island, well, yes, they exist, too. In the end, we come to that most common of conclusions: you order the cocktail the way you want it made. If someone turns their nose up at you for wanting it shaken, not stirred, you can rest assured that James Bond, Nick Charles, and Harry Craddock have your back. I'd take them over that West Wing President any day. Now as for Bond's preference for vodka instead of gin...