In Search of the Best 50/50 Martini Recipe

Perhaps more than any other cocktail, the Martini is a frame of mind. It evokes sophistication, steakhouses, ritual and lore. It’s elegant, but undeniably hard-hitting. As bartender Sarah Morrissey of Ernesto’s explains, “When I drink a Martini, I’m in a certain mood.”

The 50/50 Martini, an equal-parts rendition of the drink made famous by Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club, can meet that mood—without the pitfalls of a full-proof cocktail. “I can still have the thing that I want,” explains Pouring Ribbons’ Joaquín Simó of the drink’s ability to answer the Martini’s call, “but it’s not going to end you before you even begin.” It is, in his words, “a civilized way to start a night.”

At our recent blind tasting of 11 50/50 Martinis, the panelists—myself, Simó, Morrissey and Leanne Favre of Clover Club and Leyenda—were unanimously fans of the fashionably wet preparation, despite the drink’s divisive stature in certain cocktail circles.

Unlike its more austere sibling, the 50/50 is in many ways an aperitivo Martini—a drink that can be lingered over. “Even though it’s a stirred drink, there’s something refreshing about it,” said Favre. “It’s supposed to be bright and lively.”

Understanding vermouth’s significant role in the equal-parts formula proved critical to winning the favor of the judges. Finding the right gin-vermouth pairing is, in Simó’s words, “almost a flex for how well you know your backbar.” Just as the simple Bamboo has become a measure of bartender prowess, the 50/50, a popular drink among the industry crowd, is an opportunity to showcase a deep understanding of how the botanicals of gin can boost or bully those of vermouth—and vice versa. The recipes that failed to showcase an understanding of the interplay were found to taste, according to Favre, like “dirty socks.”

Hitting all the right marks, or “dancing in all the right ways,” as Simó said, was the 50/50 Martini of Javelle Taft, head bartender at Death & Co New York. His recipe was the only one in the running to opt for an overproof gin, Old Raj 110 Proof, which lent noticeable structure to his Martini. Dolin Dry filled the vermouth role and a dash of orange bitters—an equal-parts mix of Regans’ and Angostura orange—along with a lemon twist completed the drink. “It’s the perfect marriage of the gin and vermouth,” said Morrissey. “You don’t know where one ends and the other begins.”  

Coming in second was another Death & Co bartender, Alex Jump, representing the bar’s Denver outpost. Her recipe calls for Tanqueray No. 10, Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth and a dash of Regans’ orange bitters. The judges found it to be “textbook” and “moreish,” with a “beautiful finish.” 

Taking third place was James Bolt, of the Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina. Bolt was the only bartender to split both the gin and the vermouth, opting for a blend of Scottish Botanist gin and Japanese Roku gin, complemented by Dolin Dry and Mancino Secco, plus two dashes of Scrappy’s Black Lemon Bitters. (Due to a shortage of the Mancino, Dolin was substituted as a standalone vermouth; all the panelists agreed that the split vermouth would’ve only improved the drink.) “You get a progression of flavors,” said Simó, “which is what I want to see in a 50/50 Martini.” 

Honorable mention went to Alec Bales, of Atlanta’s Ticonderoga Club, whose recipe blended Fords Gin and Carpano dry vermouth with two dashes of Regans’ orange bitters. The judges found the gin to work as scaffolding for the vermouth, which gave the drink pronounced vanilla and confectionary notes. “The gin is framing the vermouth,” explained Favre. “It lends structure, which is necessary, because otherwise, why not just drink vermouth?”

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