My fingers are tangled around a very long spoon and I jab awkwardly at a large container of ice. I'm attempting to recreate the ritual serve of a cocktail classic.
"Ritual" is the important word here. So sacred is the correct way of serving this drink that the London bar I've found myself in has named itself after the very thing it worships: the martini.
Like a temple to an icon, the focal point of London's Dry Martini cocktail bar is reserved specifically for the preparation of dry martinis—kind of like the altar of a church. They're serious about the martini here, almost to the point of religious obsession, and bartender Craig Petrie is attempting to initiate me in the rites of an immaculate concoction.
Which so far, has had me cack handedly trying to hold a spoon. But details like this matter. If you thought a dry martini was a simple mix of gin and vermouth with an olive on a stick, you are very mistaken.
"No one knows where the dry martini came from," says Petrie enigmatically, adding to theatrics and mystery as I struggle not to drop my spoon.
There are theories though. Harry Craddock, the longest serving head bartender at The American Bar at the Savoy Hotel, perfected the drink for his American customers fleeing the strictures of Prohibition in the 1920s. Before Craddock, the optimum ratio of vermouth to gin was most likely worked out by the head bartender at The Knickerbocker Hotel in New York.
Then of course, there's the link to Martini, the Italian vermouth brand named after one of the company's three founders, Alessandro Martini.
But these are all apostles merely following in the footsteps of Jerry Thomas.
"Thomas wrote the first ever drinks book How To Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion but by the time it was published, he had died," explains Petrie.
A dead cert move if you want to transcend into the realms of mythology. The book contains a gin and vermouth cocktail called the "Martinez," the holy grail of the Martini story.
"But the recipe was very vague," say Petrie. "Instead of a measurement, he'd written 'A glass of vermouth', for example, and because he was dead, no one could ask him what he meant or where he'd got the recipe."
Due to Thomas' untimely death and poor note-taking skills, the Martini has been open to variation ever since. There's the perfect martini made with red vermouth, wet martinis made with a greater ratio of vermouth, the Gibson martini served with a pickled onion instead of an olive, the dirty martini with a salty swoosh of olive brine, and even the Churchill martini.
"During the War, it was said that when Churchill ordered his martini, all he wanted to do was look at the bottle of vermouth and that was enough," explains Petrie.
A martini can be a deeply personal thing but Petrie is convinced that Dry Martini has nailed the definitive method—so much so that every time bar staff make a dry martini, they issue the drinker with a certificate commemorating the event, almost like you've just taken your first communion. A counter on the wall tallies the number of pristine dry martinis made and served.
"We do our martinis very dry so the gin is incredibly important," says Petrie. "It's the star of the show."
I'm getting cramp in my fingers from stirring and holding the spoon weirdly, so he intervenes to show me.
"When I stir, my fingers are stretched out," Petrie explains. "My thumb pushes the spoon around and it's supported with my middle finger on the outside and my other finger on the inside facing towards me. My arm is not moving, it's literally just my wrist."
I nod blithely, just glad to have completed the first test, and am allowed to tip away any melted water to leave a perfectly cold glass in which to begin to make my drink.
Finally, we can crack on with the booze.
"There are different classes of gin," Petrie continues. "Jenever is the original juniper spirit made by the Dutch and drunk by them before battle, hence the phrase 'Dutch courage.' Because the Dutch were allies with the British against the French at the end of the 1700s, the spirit came to London and started a gin craze. That's where we get London Dry gin."
Londoners went so mad for gin that the government imposed a steep tax to limit the amount being made.
"Under the sign of the old Tom black cat would be a pipe where you could post coin and receive a shot of gin as a fix to see you on your way," adds Petrie. "That was Old Tom gin. Old Tom was the gin used in a Martinez cocktail, but a dry martini is made with London Dry."
Then there's the vermouth.
"Back in the day, it might have been an Italian vermouth which was sweeter and had more botanicals so was spicier too," he says. "Or it could have been a French vermouth which was drier."
Petrie opts for a classic French vermouth to make his martini particularly dry. I'm amazed there are so many variables to choose from, all affecting the ultimate outcome.
"In the cocktail world, what's important is to stimulate the senses," he says. "What you smell can almost make you nostalgic. There's a magic to it, which is why we have a ritual around how we make a dry martini."
And at long last, Petrie shares with me his ritual:
"Under the spotlights of the bar, I stir, drain off the dilution, and top it up with ice. Then I place the olive in the glass. I free pour behind the bar: five parts gin and one part vermouth—two dashes. That's it. I take a strainer and with three fingers on one side and the other two on the other, I pour it into the Martini glass. The glass is on a tray so that I never have to touch the glass. I'm the bartender-priest and the cocktail is my offering."
With a wave of his hand, he squeezes essence of lemon peel over the drink and it's done.
My attempt is not as elegant, but the result tastes alright and gratifyingly, makes the count on the wall. Stirred not shaken, bone dry, and aromatic, my baptism into the school of the true dry martini is well and truly complete.