Popular martini styles have changed massively over the years, shifting with current events and trends in drinking. Throughout its century-plus history, what was once a relatively sweet cocktail has become drier, then briny, then wetter again. It’s survived Prohibition, the rise and fall of global empires, and even the trend of calling anything in a V-shaped glass a martini. 

 

The Martini continues to evolve today, borrowing from the past while looking forward. Here’s how this classic combination of gin and vermouth has changed since its debut.

 

1880s: The Sweet Martini 

 

As classics scholar and Rutgers University professor Lowell Edmunds writes in his seminal 1981 book Martini: Straight Up, “The destiny of the martini is easier to grasp than its earlier history.” 

 

While the exact origins of the drink have long eluded cocktail historians, what we do know is that early recipes were much sweeter. “It was unevolved,” says Edmunds of the 19th-century Martini.

 

The popular early choice of martini spirit may have been malty genever or slightly sweetened Old Tom gin. Sweet vermouth, then called Italian vermouth, often went into the mixing glass, along with modifiers like absinthe, curaçao, gum syrup, and bitters.

 

In The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, cocktail historian David Wondrich writes that the first recorded combinations of juniper-forward spirits and vermouth date to two 1883 newspaper articles. However, they were labeled as Manhattans and included genever rather than modern styles of gin.

 

Similar drinks soon began to appear in bartender manuals, such as O.H. Byron’s 1884 book The Modern Bartender Guide. Often cited as a precursor to the martini, the Martinez was included as a variation on the Manhattan, which called for equal parts whiskey and vermouth along with curaçao and aromatic bitters. (“Martinez: same as Manhattan, only you substitute gin for whisky,” as the book specifies.) 

 

George Winter’s How to Mix Drinks, published the same year, called for “Tom gin,” Italian vermouth, and Peruvian bitters under the moniker Turf Club.

 

The first published reference for a drink that was actually called a “martini” appeared to be in an 1886 Illinois newspaper article, which listed Old Tom gin, absinthe, and orange bitters as ingredients. But somewhat confusingly, similar combinations went by other names, according to Wondrich, among them the Martena, Martine, Martineau, and Martigny.

 

The drink also had an identity crisis in books from two masters of the craft: It was called the Martinez in Jerry Thomas’s 1887 Bar-Tender’s Guide (Old Tom gin, vermouth, maraschino liqueur, Boker’s bitters), and the martini in Harry’s Johnsons’ 1888 New and Improved Bartender’s Manual (Old Tom, gum syrup, bitters, curaçao, vermouth). The latter recipe would go on to influence the definition of a “martini” right up until Prohibition, while the Martinez has become a classic cocktail in its own right.

 

1890s–1900s: The Dry Martini

 

The Martini as we might recognize it today didn’t really emerge until the 1890s, and martinis made with French dry vermouth became standard by the turn of the century. Plymouth and even drier London Dry gins began to replace Old Tom, and recipes started to drop the sweetening agents like maraschino liqueur and gum syrup. But while the ingredients might have come into clearer focus, they often weren’t called martinis.

 

Take the Mahoney Cocktail from Charles Mahoney’s 1908 Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide, which called for equal parts London Dry gin and dry vermouth, plus orange bitters—essentially a 50/50 Martini in today’s parlance. In the same book, Mahoney’s “Southern Club Martini Cocktail” hewed closely to the Harry Johnson original, with Italian vermouth, curaçao, and gum syrup. 

 

The Marguerite has also been referenced as an early iteration of the Dry Martini. In 1900, a recipe appeared in Johnson’s own Bartender’s Manual, calling for equal parts Plymouth gin and French vermouth, along with dashes of orange bitters and anisette. (Once again, the “Martini” recipe included Old Tom gin, gum syrup, and curaçao or absinthe.) A 1904 version of the Marguerite from Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them was even drier, omitting sweeteners entirely.

 

Regardless of what the gin-and-dry vermouth combination was called, the general trend was a drying out of the martini, which would continue for the next century. 

 

 

1930s: The Thin Man Martini

 

Like many cocktails, the Martini suffered a blow during Prohibition, as top bartenders left the U.S. and brought their craft and recipes to Europe. But the drink survived the “noble experiment,” with President Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly mixing the first legal martini, post-Prohibition, in 1933. Then, the drink gained new popularity after it graced the big screen in the 1934 film The Thin Man. 

 

In the movie, a retired detective and wealthy heiress, Nick and Nora Charles, captured the drink in all its post-Prohibition glamour. “A Dry Martini, you always shake to waltz time,” Nick famously declared, decades before James Bond’s “shaken, not stirred” directive. 

 

This choice wasn’t just a cinematic flourish. 

 

“Modern practice prescribes shaking for a dry martini,” wrote A.S. Crockett in the 1934 Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book. “This, however, weakens the mixture and used to be discountenanced by bartenders who believed in tradition.” 

 

As for what would have gone into the shaker? “​Right after Prohibition, those recipes kept appearing of equal parts dry vermouth and gin, sometimes two parts gin to one part vermouth, and in some cases even a little more gin,” says DeGroff.

 

But the post-Prohibition martini was also defined by what it lacked: orange bitters. Although bitters still appeared in some recipe books, they were getting edged out of the standard recipe, with many bitters producers having ceased operations during Prohibition.

 

Several decades later, the Thin Man Martini would become most well-known for the glassware in which it was served—a diminutive, slightly rounded glass that gave the drink an air of elegance. In the 1980s, DeGroff revived the glass for the opening of his New York City bar when he convinced Minners Design to create a mold for a “Little Martini” glass he had found in one of the house’s old catalogs. DeGroff lovingly nicknamed the small coupe a “Nick & Nora” glass, which became its official name when Steelite International purchased the design from Minners. 

 

1950s: The In-and-Out Martini 

 

What Edmunds calls the “dryness fetish” took hold after World War II and lasted well into the 20th century, as the martini’s ratio of gin-to-vermouth reached upwards of 25:1.

 

The reasons for this shift were myriad, says DeGroff. Distilleries had shut down during the war, putting the focus on basic cocktails like Manhattans and martinis. “People were just happy to get booze,” he says. “But [the martini] was getting drier and drier as the century went on.”

 

Whatever the case, making the driest martini possible became something of a challenge. In a 1952 New York Times article, “The Consummately Dry Martini,” author C.B. Palmer poked fun at this growing phenomenon. 

 

“Along every stretch of polished mahogany in public places and in countless living rooms there is no talk of the world crisis or of Kefauver’s chances but only of how to get a martini really dry,” he wrote. Ironic “home cooking” tips included letting “the draught from an electric fan blow across an open vermouth bottle towards the mixing glass.” 

 

And the dryness trend wasn’t relegated to the U.S. In 1959, a London bartender told the New York Times, “If you used the [classic 2-to-1] formula today you would lose a customer.” 

 

Although the Martini’s glassware and base spirit would evolve, vermouth continued to be an afterthought for the next few decades. While the most common method of making an Extra-Dry Martini was to rinse the glass with vermouth before discarding the liquid, devices like a vermouth syringe and vermouth dropper hit the market in the 1960s.

 

1960s–1970s: Vodka Martini…on the Rocks 

 

“Like many American institutions, the Martini did not easily survive the 1960s,” writes Edmunds in Martini: Straight Up, citing the rise of health concerns and newly popular markets like light beer and white wine. 

 

But as it had before, the drink adapted. A 1961 New York Times article identified both the martini on the rocks and the Vodka Martini as the “most significant recent developments” to the cocktail. 

 

These developments were significant enough that, in 1966, the American National Standard Institute published tongue-in-cheek requirements for a dry martini, which defined “rocks” as “the solid state of H20 on which an American Standard Dry Martini is never served” and “vodka” as a “fitting accompaniment for fresh caviar” that “is never served in a dry martini.” 

 

The move to serve a martini over ice cubes, rather than stirred and strained into a chilled glass, was perhaps a rebuff to such rigid attitudes. “The casualness of the martini on the rocks obviously corresponds to many other changes in the social life of the 1960s, that decade of riots, assassinations, and war,” writes Edmunds. 

 

Vodka’s rise, on the other hand, was undeniable—and far from a short-lived trend. The neutral grain spirit had been distilled in the U.S. since the 1930s, but its rise to fame really began in the ’50s, spurred in part by campaigns from Smirnoff that the odorless spirit would leave you “breathless” when you returned to the office. The popularity of drinks like the Moscow Mule and Screwdriver helped to raise vodka’s profile even further, and by 1967, the spirit was outselling gin.

 

In 1976, vodka surpassed whiskey as the top-selling spirit in the United States, and its inherently neutral flavor profile became an ideal canvas for flavored bottlings. This combination of novel product and consumer sentiments ushered in the oft-maligned ’Tini era that came to dominate bar menus over the next two decades. 

 

1980s–1990s: The Cocktail-As-Martini 

 

Although crystal-clear vodka martinis continued to outsell their gin counterparts throughout the 1980s and ’90s, drinks in every color of the rainbow began to appear in the Martini’s classic V-shaped glass. 

 

In his 2002 book The New Craft of the Cocktail, DeGroff credited the French Martini as “one of the sparks that got the cocktail-as-Martini craze started.” The pink-hued combination of vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice first appeared on the menu of Keith McNally’s Soviet-themed New York City bar in the 1980s, on which DeGroff consulted. 

 

The French Martini was just one example of the saccharine-sweet drinks that ruled the decades, from the Appletini to the Espresso Martini, which originated as the Vodka Espresso in the 1980s but eventually changed identities when it, too, landed in a V-shaped glass. 

 

Edmunds, who wrote a second edition of Martini: Straight Up, in 1998, also considers the period a boon to the cocktail’s popularity, even if the drinks being served were Martinis in name only. 

 

“The first edition [in 1981] was kind of what I thought was an elegy for the Martini, because it seemed to me that the Martini was dying out at that point,” he says. “And I think it was, really, in a way. Little did I know that it was going to make the big comeback that it made in the 1990s.”

 

2000s–2010s: The Wet Martini

 

The craft cocktail revival of the early 2000s saw many bartenders looking to old recipe books for inspiration, and their research turned up several early martini recipes.

 

One such bartender was the late Sasha Petraske, who opened a New York City bar in 1999, where he became known for his exacting standards and reverence for cocktail history. Petraske made his martinis with a 2:1 ratio of gin-to-vermouth and orange bitters, details he had picked up from old bar manuals.

 

Toby Maloney, an early employee and today a partner and beverage director at several bars, remembers using a digital thermometer to ensure martinis were served at exactly 20 degrees. “That six-ounce coupe with a little sidecar on the side was also a huge transformative thing where you could get through your martini and it would still be cold,” he says.  

 

Another pioneer was Saunders, a DeGroff protégée who opened her own bar in 2005. Saunders began serving her martinis in a Nick & Nora glass with a sidecar “dividend,” a concept she had been introduced to by DeGroff in 1999.

 

But arguably Saunders’s biggest contribution to the drink’s path forward was the Fitty-Fitty Martini, made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth, plus a dash of orange bitters. Inspired by her time as a bar director in New York City where international guests would often order vermouth on the rocks and gin martinis, the Fitty-Fitty Martini might have seemed radical but was in fact a concession to tastes of the times.

 

Even if most craft bartenders didn’t create their martinis in fully equal parts, they were embracing vermouth more, as quality bottles became accessible in the U.S. They were also adding a dash or two of orange bitters, which many bartenders assumed had disappeared during Prohibition but had been “discovered” by cocktail writers.

 

Nevertheless, changing public perception of what a martini should be, after a century of ever-drier specs, wasn’t exactly easy. Maloney started serving martinis with gin and vermouth in the 2:1 style in 2007. “We didn’t have olives in-house and people lost their goddamn minds,” he remembers. “We had one type of vodka that no one had ever heard of.”

 

But by around 2010, “even if they didn’t like it, people understood the idea of this mustachioed, fedora-wearing mixologist who made drinks like they used to be,” says Maloney. “People weren’t as shocked when you didn’t get a shaken Vodka Martini with a blue cheese-stuffed olive.”

 

“It took a lot of education, but we finally got there,” says Saunders. “We made it cool to drink Gin Martinis again.” 

 

2020s: The Extra-Dirty Martini 

 

Modern times have seen the revival of another—if less traditional—martini variation.

 

Some versions of the dirty martini date to at least the early 20th century, and it received its current name in the 1980s. But the drink—often made with vodka, better to highlight the briny characteristics—has arguably never been more popular. Today a dirty martini is a common order, right alongside the iconic Vesper, and the drink has evolved far beyond a simple addition of olive juice. Bartenders now experiment with forms of brine ranging from fish sauce to pasta water.

 

Dirty ’Tinis aside, both DeGroff and Maloney see drinkers returning to a drier spec, although they acknowledge that we probably won’t return to the days of 15:1 any time soon. 

 

And at the end of the day, what’s in the glass might not matter as much as the message it sends.