a crisp martini in a glass with olives

The Best Martinis in Charlottesville

Charlottesville’s Best Martinis

The martini. It’s a divisive drink, maybe a generational one–it says old school, high class, something my grandfather drinks. Says Hemingway’s excuse to drink a glass of gin. It calls to mind sharp suits, long dresses, well-manicured nails, lipstick that doesn’t last on the glass, the three-martini lunch of Wall Street and the Ad Men in the ‘80s. Like much of the old school, the Martini is alive and well in Charlottesville–and we’re here to tell you how and where you can get yours, historic, updated, and truly delicious. 

Common House – For the nearly-30-something

Cold, crisp, and imminently sleek, the martini that Carl behind the Common House bar poured for us was a real reflection of Common House itself. Carl isn’t, by his own admission, a huge martini drinker, but he is a great martini maker. He mixed us the martini he makes the most often which was a nice touch. Since Common House is a hybrid co-work space, swank bar, and members-only club, it was an excellent way to get a sense of what Charlottesville’s successful young professionals are drinking. Turns out, it’s an ultra-cool, shaken, vodka martini, light on the vermouth and finished with a bright lemon twist. 

Temperature: 4/5 – A bit icy, but a good home for a polar bear.

Liquor: 4.5/5. This could be a 5/5, but I’m biased against vodka martinis. Cirrus vodka, though, was perfect for this drink- local, as are many of the spirits and ingredients Common House sources, and clear as glacier water.

Vermouth: ⅘. Dolin, as Carl said, gets the job done. 

Olives: No Olives Here. This martini is finished with a lemon twist, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Personality: 4/5 This martini is imminently datable, but would I marry it? I don’t know. It’s a perfect vodka martini–cold, bright, clean, mountain-stream clear. It’s the right drink for a minimalist- and the right drink for the moment.

Overall Score: 16.5/20

Tastings: For the Serious Cocktailer

Woah. If you haven’t been to Tastings, go! It’s a proper wine shop, all dusty light and bottles like racked jewels, the air smells just slightly of cork, and owner Bill Curtis has about 73 years of wine and spirits knowledge to offer up. Bill’s martini is, as he says, the martini of the ‘50s or ‘60s; reminiscent of a different age of libation. The glass he presents is simple, full of hand-picked ingredients, and just plain good. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a good story on the side. 

Temperature: 3.5/5 This is not your super-chilled martini; the glass is chilled down, but not frosty. I’m spoiled on a super-cold martini. To be fair, the flavor in this glass didn’t need to be chilled out. 

Liquor: 4.5/5 Bill made a bold choice for his martini liquor- Junipero, by Fritz Maytag (heir to the Maytag appliance fortune, and a friend). Coming out of California, this gin earns its name, and is more herbal than I would reach for with a martini in mind, but it married into the vermouth beautifully. Caveat: his favorite gin, Dingle, is unavailable in Virginia, but is worth tracking down; it took the grand prize at the last World Gin Awards, out of a 400-gin blind tasting. 

Vermouth: 5/5 Perucchi Bianco. This Spanish wine smells so good you almost don’t have to taste it. Clear gold, it colors the Tasting’s Martini just right, as if, like the shop, the glass were ringed in sunlight. 

Olives:  5/5. These olives, sourced from New York, are pasteurized, instead of salt-cured, making them less salty, more snackable, and less of a feature in the cocktail, leading to a more balanced drink. So good, I may have taken a few home. 

Personality: 5/5. This martini is a real cocktail. It’s not the martini you order for the glitz of drinking a martini; it’s a martini you order because you love martinis. Big flavor, not for amateurs. 

Overall Score 23/25 100% will go back for another. 

Bang!  For a Good Time

Go up a short landing and through the front door of this old brick house and Bang! You have arrived. Downtown. On 2nd Street. Into a din of energy and charm and sex appeal. Since it opened 17 years ago, this chic lounge has been laying it down consistently. Their menu features small plates and over 40 cocktails. “Almost anyone can find something they like,” says bartender Chariya Fisher, flashing a confident smile, “but we can also make the serious drinker what they want.”

Martini please. The effect:

Temperature:  4/5 like the English Channel itself, cold but no ice on the pond.

Liquor: 5/5  Bombay Sapphire. Covered in silk. Chariya continues… “It’s earthy, and very mixable.”

Vermouth: 4/5  Dolin Vermouth de Chambery. Just a whisper, faint but audible, for instant transport to the alpine meadows above Chambery.

Olives:  3/5 Pimento, acceptable if standard.

Personality: 5 /5 Like a happy cousin, this martini aims to please and amuse. In Bang!’s lively setting and neon ambiance, it feels like a reunion, and this martini invites you to let your guard down because we’re all friends here and the evening is young.

Overall Score: 21/25. Here’s a cocktail and an experience we recommend doing laps on.

Alley Light: Staging is everything

Charlottesville’s first “modern-era” speakeasy is down a shallow alley off 2nd Street near the Downtown Mall. Past a few trash bins and an iron grate that remind you of a Hollywood set, you’ll step up and into Alley Light, another of impresario Will Ritchie’s creations, now owned by Chris & Robin Dunbar.

Without hesitation, your hosts will extend exquisite hospitality and a wink of their eye. Past antique menus from New Orleans to Paris, you’ll enter a 19th-century Parisian cafe, where candlelight flickers and accordion music wafts. Then the curtain comes up to reveal Alley Light’s signature martini, the Tuxedo #2. 

Named for the legendary New York Tuxedo Club founded in the 1880s, the Tuxedo #2 is a martini that playfully engages the traditionalist. Served in an antique coupe glass with a spritz of absinthe, Angostura Orange Bitters, and a lemon peel, this cocktail has a range that anticipated the Gay ‘90s. 

Temperature: 4/5 Not cold. Instead like the establishment’s interior lamplight, it’s faint, even temperate, to stage the flavor to come.

Liquor: 5/ 5 Hayman’s Old Tom Gin. Botanically intensive and lightly sweetened, this old school British gin is central casting for a fresh, pre-prohibition redux. 

Vermouth: 4/5   Dolin Dry. Part apothecary, part constable, a splash of Dolin serves to balance the sugar of Old Tom.

Olives: N/A No such thing. The Tuxedo #2 is served with a lemon peel, fully cut with the feel of a tongue depressor.

Personality: 4.5/5 Fresh, floral, and delicious, the Tuxedo #2, when enjoyed before dinner within Alley Light’s marvelous ambiance, ushers the thrill of a vintage carousel from which you’ll step into your future.

Score: 17.5/20

Vitae Spirits: For the Spirit-Obsessed

The only distillery on our list, Vitae is bound by ABC law and only allowed to pour a 1.5 oz shot for their cocktails- which means we got to sample two iterations of their house martinis, both designed to highlight their excellent gins. If you haven’t been by Vitae, it’s definitely worth a trip – their award-winning liquors are all small-batch, in-house, intriguing and delicious. With their serious focus on community and community representation through their products, they’re one of our top places to go for a taste of Charlottesville-distilled. 

#1 Old Tom Gin Martini

The first martini that TJ, the man behind the martini (and the bar) mixes up is made with Vitae’s Old Tom Gin, a distiller’s reserve finished in Ragged Branch Rye barrels for six months.

Temperature: 5/5 Because this drink is bruised, it comes out slushie cold. Because it’s poured through a strainer, it’s iceberg free.

Liquor: 5/5 Everything about this martini exists to make the gin shine, and it does. 

Vermouth: ⅘ Dolin Blanc. A softer version of the Dolin we saw as a frequent bartender’s choice, this vermouth lends itself to an easier, smoother drink. 

Olives: N/A. Lemon all the way- an olive would clash with this herbalicious gin. 

Personality- 5/5. This drink is an example of taking a beautiful gin and a good vermouth and shaking in some magic. It shows off the gin, shows off the distillery, and is a must-try. 

 

Score: 19/20

#2 Modern Gin – Traditional Martini 

Temperature: 5/5. The makeup of this gin means that it louches- a handy cocktail vocab word we picked up from TJ, meaning that it turns cloudy- when shaken or otherwise mixed with water, like absinthe, or ouzo. Like their other cocktail, it is shaken hard and intentionally, bruising down the juniper notes of the gin and opening up its citrus aromas. 

Liquor: 5/5. Vitae makes wonderous spirits, and, as our friendly bartender reiterated, “the guys in the back give (him) great stuff to work with.”

Vermouth: ⅘ – Dolin Dry- We’ll say it again, it gets the job done and is more of a backdrop than a partner in this 6:1 cocktail. 

Olives: N/A – lemon twist and lemon rim serves this libation well, enhancing the underlying lemon notes of Vitae’s modern gin. 

Personality: ⅘ – This martini is good, a crowd-pleaser, and on its own, might have gotten that extra point- but it was handily outshone by the Old Tom for this taster’s palette. 

Score: 18/20

For a complete guide to dining in Charlottesville, click HERE