Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Martin Miller's Gin Class

Miller's Residence

111a Westbourne Grove
London W2 4UW

Within seven seconds of entering the bar at Miller's Residence I was holding a cold, crisp martini. Now that’s what I call a welcome. I say ‘bar’, but this was more like a drawing room full of oddities and uncommon things. We were here for a gin class, and my martini was part of the lesson. By the end of the evening, led by gin master Craig Harper, we had worked our way through five variations of the classic drink, and would have happily stayed behind for detention if given the chance.

Before I get to the drinks, if you please, I'd like to share some of my lecture notes. The cocktail, we learned, was born some 200 years ago, in America, as a short, sharp, strong ‘eye-opener’ to start the day. Over the years it developed, with the emergence of the early evening cocktail hour, as the beverage that marked the point when work gave way to leisure, a moment poetically captured by historian Bernard de Voto, in his 1950s book The Hour:
"This is the violet hour, the hour of flush and wonder, when affections glow and valor is reborn, when the shadows deepen magically along the edge of the forest and we believe that, if we watch carefully, at any moment we may see a unicorn."
Gin, we also learned, came into first use as a medicine, of sorts, before Dutch soldiers began downing the stuff as they charged into war, with attendant “Dutch courage”, and the spirit caught on as something to imbibe for pleasure.

At Miller's Residence - the spiritual home of Martin Miller's gin - our journey started in 1884 with the first known martini recipe to make it to print, the Martinez (below right), which I quickly decided was the closest thing I’d ever tasted to a Winter Martini, if such a drink exists. In contrast to more recent recipes, this one used sweet vermouth, the Italian kind, made with about 50 different herbs and spices, rather than the dry French style, which uses about 20.


35ml (1.2oz) Martin Miller’s Gin
35ml (1.2oz) sweet vermouth
5ml (one bar spoon) Curacao
2 dashes of bitters

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

It was sherry-sweet, which M loved, with a rather heavy mouthfeel, but I felt the sweet vermouth was rather too present. It was certainly interesting. Try one and see.

Dry Martini

35ml Martin Miller’s Gin
35ml dry vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes Curacao
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass.

This was a Dry Martini circa 1903, back when the "Dry" denoted the choice of dry vermouth, rather than the near-absence of any vermouth, as current fashions seem to prefer it. This was the first time I’d had my martini with Curacao (Grand Marnier, to be specific) and bitters, and overall it made a nice, pinkish aperitif, crisper than the Martinez. Someone said the taste was “flat”, and I see what they meant. It provided less of a gin taste than one would normally expect from a martini, which some palates might like.

Time passed, and soon we’d reached 1922 on our gin travels. The Harry’s Dry Martini (below right) distinguished itself here by its call for the cocktail shaker, a choice that would no doubt find favour with a certain British spy.
Harry’s Dry Martini

50ml Martin Miller’s Gin
25ml dry vermouth
Orange or Angostura bitters, if required.

Shaken with ice, not stirred. Strain into a cocktail glass.

This was the first time I’d really appreciated the difference between stirring and shaking. The shaken ones (make sure you use lots of ice!) look cloudier than the stirred ones (that would be the air bubbles), but they’re also significantly colder, as well as more diluted. Ice-cold, crisp and gin-strong – this may well have been my favourite of the evening.

Post-war, things got a little more ginny, with a Martini De Lux from 1948 increasing the ratio of gin to vermouth to seven-to-one.

Martini De Lux

70ml Martin Miller’s Gin
10ml dry vermouth
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and add a twist of lemon peel.

This was the drink I was served as I entered the classroom, and it was certainly one of my favourites. Craig's simple and effective lemon twist technique was a revelation, spraying a fine citrus mist into the air and covering the surface of the drink with fragrant lemon oils...

Lemon Twist

1. Use a knife to cut a circle of lemon peel, about the size of a 10-pence piece, taking care to leave behind the pith.

2. Hold it over the glass with the peel-side facing the drink.
3. Pinch it fiercely between thumb and forefinger, spraying the oils over the surface of the drink.
4. Discard peel.

Finally, to the Fifties. The Super Dry Martini Doble (circa 1951) called for Martin Miller’s Westbourne-strength gin (45.2% abv rather than the usual 40%). My impression was of a crisp, slightly sweet drink, with an appealing anise aroma.

Super Dry Martini Doble

50ml Martin Miller’s Westbourne-strength gin
25ml dry vermouth
2 dashes absinthe
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon twist

Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and add a twist of lemon peel.

I didn’t need convincing that gin was a fine drink but I came away from the tasting more convinced regardless. As for Martin Miller’s Gin, in particular, it’s distilled in England before being shipped to Iceland to be mixed with "unbelievably pure" Icelandic water; the aroma is juniper and lime, the taste is clean and a touch citrus-sweet - and it makes a fine martini.


  1. Tanqueray Tim28 April, 2010

    Why is the gin taken to Iceland. Surely it would save a return journey to ship the water to the UK? I always serve my martinis with an olive. Is this just uncool?

  2. We were told the undiluted spirit travels better (ie. spoils less) than unadulterated Icelandic water, which becomes robust enough for the return journey only when mixed with the raw booze to make the final product. Don't ask me why. On the olives, I'm not the best arbiter of cool, but to quote Jamiroquai, as I am wont to do in these situations, "If you like it, just do it".