The New Guard: 10 Modern Martini Bars

The best bars to try a new twist on the classic drink

By Kara Newman

Published on May 15, 2015

The martini is a straightforward cocktail, but that hasn’t stopped bartenders from experimenting. In fact, many seem to regard the martini as a fertile blank canvas. Modern riffs on the classic drink include scaling the drink down into mini ‘tinis and upsizing it into a bottled drink for a group. We’ve seen molecular martinis chilled with liquid nitrogen and flavor boundaries pushed with martinis that skew fashionably briny, pine-y, or bitter.

Consider, for example, the Silvertone cocktail at Dallas's Midnight Rambler, which partner Chad Solomon describes as a "neo-classical" take on the original. Made with gin or vodka, dry vermouth, and orange bitters, and garnished with house-pickled onions, it follows the basic template for a Gibson. But he also adds saline solution and a full ounce of Texas "Crazy Water," a local mineral water, to the mix. It still looks, smells, and tastes like a martini, but it feels weightier on the tongue, and that minute dash of salt creates a seawater-like effect. Overall, it makes the drinker feel off-kilter, like having a martini while jet-lagged.

No matter how bartenders tweak and “improve” upon the classic martini, however, one aspect doesn’t change: the ritual of making it. Though the cocktail has crossed over centuries, it’s still poured, stirred, and presented with care—if not outright reverence. Whether your drink of choice skews toward classic versions or next-generation modern riffs, head to one of the following cocktail dens and other destinations to enjoy a martini right now:

Maison Premiere, Brooklyn, NY

Although it’s best known for oysters and absinthe, this New Orleans-by-way-of-Williamsburg bar recently introduced tableside martini service for two with the Old King Cole martini. It’s a nod to Martini di Arma di Taggia, a bartender who some credit with creating the martini at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1912. Of note, the Old King Cole mural painted by Maxfield Parrish (which now hangs in the St. Regis Hotel), originally was commissioned for the Knickerbocker.

Instead of London Dry gin, this martini variation features Old Raj gin, made with saffron for a spicy flavor and light straw hue. A sidecar of various garnishes (buttery Castelvetrano olives, elaborately “manicured” lemon peel, even seaweed) encourages guests to customize their drink. To make it, combine 3 oz. Old Raj gin, ¼ oz. Dolin dry vermouth, and 2-3 dashes orange bitters in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir and strain into a martini glass. Serve with a sidecar of ice, Castelvetrano olives skewered with a pin, a lemon twist, and seaweed.

Maison Premiere
298 Bedford Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Midnight Rambler, Dallas, TX

Named for a Rolling Stones song, this rock & roll-inspired newcomer set in a dark subterranean space is the brainchild of bartending vets Chad Solomon and Christy Pope. Their drink the Silvertone is “a twist on the Gibson martini,” Solomon says. “Gibson is also a musical instrument company which produced a specific brand of sound equipment sold at Sears from 1915-1972 that was named Silvertone.” What makes this drink so different is the addition of Crazy Water—a high-alkaline mineral water from Mineral Wells, Texas, that gives the drink a noticeably substantial weight on the tongue—as well as a couple of dashes of saline solution for extra "pop." The addictive, slightly spicy cocktail onions are pickled in-house using white vinegar, Dolin dry vermouth, chipotle peppers, sage, grapefruit and lemon peels, and coriander seed. Combine 1 oz. mineral water, ½ oz. Dolin dry vermouth, 2½ oz. Beefeater 24 Gin, 1 dash orange bitters, and 2 drops mineral saline in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with 2 house-pickled onions on a pick.

Midnight Rambler
1530 Main St
Dallas, TX 75201

Townsman, Boston, MA

After a decade as chef/owner of Farmstead in Providence, RI, Matt Jennings has returned to Boston to pay homage to New England cuisine. An "all the fixins" approach to martinis gives guests the opportunity to dress up their drink with a lemon twist, Caselvetrano olive, and house cocktail onions pickled with sherry vinegar, juniper, star anise, and Szechuan pepper. The restaurant's signature martini, inspired by the first dry martini recipe published in the 1896 printing of Stuart's Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them, is served in a mini carafe on ice alongside the chilled cocktail glass, so guests can refill as needed. Stir together 2½ oz Plymouth gin, 1 oz Dolin dry vermouth de Chambéry, 1 dash Fee's orange bitters, and 1 dash Regan's orange bitters in a mixing glass until well-chilled. Strain half of drink into a frosted Nick & Nora glass and the rest into an iced carafe. Garnish with a lemon twist, pickled onion, and Castelvetrano olive.

120 Kingston St
Boston, MA 02111

Vie, Western Springs, IL

Chef Paul Virant’s mainstay in the Chicago suburbs is known for its low-key, farm-to-table approach to French fare, including a strong wine list that leans heavily on offerings from France. Their wine-inspired reverse martini was created by bar manager Bill Anderson in an effort to convince a favorite, wine-loving customer to try a “proper cocktail.” The end result: this wine-lover’s apéritif utilizing three different wine pours in place of vermouth (which is made with wine, after all). Anderson’s offer to the customer: if she didn’t like the cocktail, he’d bring her a glass of wine on the house. (She liked it.) Stir together 1 oz. chardonnay (“butter-fest Napa style” preferred, Anderson says), 1 oz. albarino, 1 oz. Banyul dessert wine, ½ oz. Bols Genever, ½ oz. North Shore No.6 Gin, and 5 drops Meyer lemon tincture in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist. If you don't have a Meyer lemon tincture, below is Bill's recipe, or you can substitute with a few drops of a manufactured lemon or orange bitters; real lemon juice would be too acidic and the tincture helps impart warmth and depth.

To make the Meyer lemon tincture: Remove the peels from three Meyer lemons, being careful to avoid as much pith as possible. Place the peels in a glass mason jar and pour in a neutral grain spirit, such as gem clear or everclear, to cover the peels. Seal and let sit for one week. Strain out through a cheesecloth and discard the peels. Best used with a dropper.

4471 Lawn Ave #100
Western Springs, IL 60558

Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago, IL

Located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood inside the Hotel Palomar, this bustling, high-energy “American gastro-lounge” references 1940s glamour as well as industrial touches in its décor. Their Fake Tales of San Francisco, created by bartender Mony Bunni, is a savory, herbal martini riff. This drink really layers on the herbal notes, starting with St George’s “Terroir” gin, a particularly pine-forward variation, followed by Salers Gentiane, a French apéritif wine made from gentian, the root of a wild plant that grows at high altitudes—here, used in place of the traditional vermouth. Accented by a small amount of herbaceous green Chartreuse and a dose of celery bitters, this green-tinged drink is an adventurous take on the classic cocktail. In a mixing glass, stir together 1½ oz. St. George Terroir gin, 1 oz. Salers apéritif gentiane liqueur, ½ oz. green Chartreuse, and 2 dashes celery bitters with ice. Strain into a chilled Georgian glass. Twist a lemon peel over top of the drink to express oils and then use to garnish drink.

Sable Kitchen & Bar 505 N State St
Chicago, IL 60654

Terrine, Los Angeles, CA

This airy California brasserie opened in December and focuses on rustic meat-centric dishes—think terrines (of course), choucroute, and duck stew. They have printed "Martini Cards" to help educate guests about their individual martini preferences. The card includes Wainwright's own recipe, an 1895 recipe from mixologist George Kappeler (author of Modern American Drinks), and space to jot down the makings for a customized combination (a choice of gin or vodka, preferred vermouth, etc.). Their Plymouth martini, a classically-styled apéritif, sets the pace. Head bartender Ryan Wainwright makes a point of expressing lemon peel oils into the glass first, not last, so the oil will "fold into the drink." In a cocktail goblet, twist the lemon peel over the glass first, expressing the oil into the glass. Set lemon peel aside. Stir together 2 oz. Plymouth gin, 1 oz. Dolin dry vermouth, and 1 dash Regan's orange bitters with large ice cubes, strain into glass, and garnish with lemon peel.

Terrine 8265 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048

Cooper Lounge, Denver, CO

Within the recently refurbished Union Station, a stunning Beaux Arts building originally built in 1914, this bar is set in a mezzanine space and is meant to evoke the Stork Club or the Starlight Room in the 1940s. For those who prefer a sweeter drink, their Cosmo de Oro spans the realm between classic martini and Cosmopolitan. Unlike the supersweet pink concoction that symbolized Sex and the City-style excess in the 1990s and early 2000s, the golden-tinged Cosmo de Oro (oro means "gold" in Spanish) shows some restraint. Made with Silver Tree vodka, a small-batch spirit from Denver producer Leopold Bros. and Cocchi Americano, an apéritif wine, in place of dry vermouth, the drink is then lightly sweetened with orange liqueur and white cranberry juice. As with all the cocktails here, this drink is served "club car style," presented on a silver tray with a small dish of spiced nuts or other nibbles on the side. Combine 1½ oz. Silver Tree Vodka, ½ oz. Leopold Bros. American orange liqueur, ½ oz. Cocchi Americano, 1 oz. white cranberry juice, and a splash of lemon juice in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Cooper Lounge 1701 Wynkoop St
Denver, CO 80202

Within the Ace hotel in downtown Los Angeles, this bar & brasserie also supplies what has to be the ultimate in-room amenity: bottled cocktails, including gin and vodka martinis. Beverage director Dan Sabo makes a classic dirty vodka martini (though gin is available as well) with molecular mixology-driven ingredients like olive oil-infused dry vermouth and “clarified olive brine,” plus fino sherry and additional droplets of olive oil for silky mouthfeel. The goal is to update popular cocktails from the late 1970s and early 1980s, a much-maligned period for cocktails. The finishing touch: a ramekin of vermouth-infused olives sprinkled with coarse Maldon sea salt, to garnish or nibble as the guest desires. Add 2½ oz. Grey Goose vodka (or Bombay Sapphire gin), ½ oz. olive-infused dry vermouth, ¼ oz. clarified olive brine, and 1 bar spoon Alvear fino sherry to a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass. Float four drops of olive oil on the top.

The Mezzanine at L.A. Chapter 929 South Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90015

BDK Restaurant & Bar, San Francisco, CA

Recently opened at the Hotel Monaco in San Franciso, bar manager Kevin Diedrich (formerly of Jasper's Corner Tap & Kitchen, Bourbon & Branch, PDT, Clover Club) oversees the bar. Drinks are named after the predominant flavor in the glass. The Apple, Diedrich’s take on the old-school Martinez, includes Calvados, an apple brandy made in Normandy, France, and Strega, an Italian herbal liqueur. The drink is accompanied by a sidecar for those looking for a little extra. In a mixing glass, stir together 1½ oz. Anchor Old Tom gin, ½ oz. Calvados, 1 oz. house sweet vermouth (1 part Cinzano Sweet and 1 part Punt e Mes), 4 dashes Strega liqueur, and 1 dash Angostura bitters with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, reserving extra in “sidecar” container.

BDK Restaurant & Bar 501 Geary St
San Francisco, CA 94102

The Up & Up, New York, NY

This new Greenwich Village bar felt old-school from the minute it opened. Maybe it’s because the space once housed the Gaslight Café, a Beat haunt that inspired Bob Dylan to write “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” But it’s old-school with modern mixology trappings, which may explain their new/old martini riff, the Carlson martini. The Up & Up revels in experimenting with unusual drink formats, from pint-sized “halfies” to large-format bottled cocktails. This martini is pre-batched and chilled, ready to serve groups of three (half bottle) to six (full bottle). It’s served just like a bottle of wine: presented in a wine bottle, set on ice in a bucket, and poured by a server at the table. The drink recipe itself is credited to Laura Carlson, currently a bartender at The John Dory Oyster Bar.

“It's basically a variation on an Astoria Bianco,” explains head bartender Chaim Dauermann, “which is a variation of an Astoria, which is in itself a variation of a martini.” The cocktail features St. George’s pine-y Terroir Gin, softened and sweetened by Dolin Blanc vermouth. Water is added to the bottle to mimic the dilution that stirring with ice ordinarily would provide.

“The result is a very balanced martini that is appealing for all palates,” Dauermann says. “Given how particular consumers can be about martinis, we have been very pleased with how well this recipe has played with all of our guests!” Stir together 12 oz. St. George Terroir gin, 6 oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth, 6 oz. water, and ⅜ oz. Regan's Orange Bitters. Decant into an empty wine bottle and chill for several hours before serving. Serve in a chilled glass with a lemon peel as a garnish.

The Up & Up 116 MacDougal St
New York, NY 10012

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