I am smitten by the dirty martini. It’s like a sickness. It gets under your skin and suddenly nothing else will do. Take back your dry martini, shining silvery and crystal clear in its glass. Take back your lemon twist. Give me a glass with that tantalising haze and a trio of stuffed olives marching down the pick into its briny depths.
Sarah Rense, writing in Esquire, feels the same way.
A Dirty Martini doesn’t just take guts to order, but to drink, as well. Boldly briny and salty as the sea, it’s disgustingly good, with that cloudy swirl of olive juice attacking your taste buds. But when you want a Dirty Martini, you want a Dirty Martini. It’s like craving a can of salt and vinegar Pringles. Nothing will do until you’ve got them.
If the dry martini is elegant perfection, the dirty martini is perfection elevated by an artful flaw. It’s a beauty spot, it’s sprezzatura, it’s wabi-sabi in drink form.
Drinkers have been delighting in this dash of deviance since at least 1901. Yes, we were filthy beasts back then too. But it’s only in the 1980s that we gave this delicious sin its name, which makes me wonder: how did we order dirty martinis before then?
As with so many cocktails the ratios are endlessly changing. Some recipes have you add just a bar-spoon of brine; others split vermouth and brine in equal parts; in some vermouth is demoted to third place. It’s all a matter of taste.
If you’re unfamiliar with the drink, the best tactic is to start with just a splash of brine and work your way up from there until you find the amount you like.
There are only three ingredients: gin, dry vermouth and olive brine. Maybe four if you want to add a dash or two of bitters. OK five if you count ice, of which you will need plenty. Either way, it’s simple and therefore a great make-at-home cocktail.
Your choice of gin matters. You could go for a classic London Dry to balance out the olive brine’s oil and salt, or you could go with a citrus-forward gin to cut through the umami from the olives. You could also lean into all that umami and salt with one of the modern seaweed gins which give a maritime–umami undertone to the usual gin botanicals.
Here are some suggestions.
I’ve gone on long enough so I’ll spare you the in-depth discussion of which dry vermouth and which olives to use. I’m sure you can pick something decent yourself. Let’s move on to making our cocktail.
- 2½ measures gin
- ½ measure dry vermouth
- ½ measure olive brine
- 1 or 2 dashes orange bitters (optional but recommended)
- 3 olives to garnish
Combine all your ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir until viciously cold.
When it’s ready strain into a chilled glass (I like a Nick & Nora). Garnish with 3 olives speared on a pick.
Coldness is key. The more components you can chill in advance the better: gin, vermouth, glass, mixing glass… You want to chill your drink fast so you don’t over-dilute it. A well mixed martini should have a silky texture with a crisp edge from the chill.
Finally, here are a couple of stories to read while you sip your drink.
- One about bartenders making their own olive brine, because demand for dirty martinis is so high that there’s not enough in the jars.
- One on how dirty martinis are getting dirtier as bartenders experiment with more umami flavours in drinks.
My next book, Gin: A Tasting Course, will be published by DK Books in September 2023. It will be “a flavour-led approach to the world of gin” featuring over 100 gins reviewed and grouped by flavour profile.
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