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Best Midwestern gins for martinis

We blind tasted more than a dozen martinis to decide which Midwestern gins make the best version of the classic cocktail. The results were surprising.

Photo: Martha Williams Gin Martini at Scofflaw
By Anthony Todd |

To many, the martini is the gin drink. It’s the simplest (just two ingredients, three if you count the garnish), the most sophisticated and the one that the most people love to bitch about. Every martini lover has his or her own version of the proper ratio, and it’s incredible how much ink has been spilled over a drink that, theoretically, should be so easy to make.

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Since there are only two liquid ingredients, the controversy has always focused on the proper ratio. Churchill famously favored the all-gin martini—the proper way to make it, he said, was to combine ice-cold gin with a short bow in the direction of France. A famous old martini recipe had the user place the bottle of vermouth next to a window and allow the sun to shine through the vermouth bottle and into the shaker; that, went the legend, was the proper amount of vermouth. Julia Child, on the other hand, preferred the reverse martini: an enormous amount of vermouth, topped with a small amount of gin.

For our testing, we used the official International Bartenders Association formula, which calls for 6 parts gin to one part vermouth. We used Dolin dry vermouth for our testing, and results may vary with different vermouths. Each of our test martinis got a fixed number of shakes over a fixed amount of ice and an olive garnish. Tasting was blind—more of a game to see if we could figure out what gin was being used than an official sampling technique.

The results were surprising. Because the martini is so simple, it’s incredibly easy to tell the gins apart from one another. All of our tasters identified the vast majority of the gins correctly. Unfortunately for the lesser gins, there’s no way to hide in a martini. If the gin is bad, it only gets worse when you make a martini out of it.

So what were the four best gins for martini making?

A consensus emerged among the tasters that the old-fashioned, juniper-heavy gins made the best martini, but the very best came when that juniper note was combined with something else strong and distinctive. For instance, New Holland Knickerbocker (a bargain at about $27 a bottle) makes a lovely martini, with strong coriander notes adding an herbal touch so distinctive one would swear the drink had a third ingredient. Similarly Letherbee, with its distinctive flavors of fennel and citrus, makes for a good martini that tastes stronger than it is—a real gin-lovers martini. If you’re looking for a traditional martini, stick with North Shore No. 11, probably the best of the bunch if you’re looking to keep it simple. Lastly, if you’re introducing a new drinker (especially a vodka drinker) to the gin martini, try Death’s Door. Its light flavor means that it doesn’t smack you over the head with a juniper branch, though experienced gin imbibers may find it somewhat limp.

Where to buy the gin: All four gins are available at Binny’s locations.