The dirty martini has a sordid reputation, but it cleans up nice

The dirty martini has a sordid reputation, but it cleans up nice


A decade into writing about cocktails, more than that into drinking them, I usually can’t remember the first time I tried a specific drink. There are exceptions: I remember my first taste of Negroni, a bolt of crimson bitterness across my brain, requiring a second investigatory sip and then an order of another.

And I remember the first time I encountered the dirty martini. Mostly because I thought it would be the last.

In the early 2000s, I had weaned myself off the sweet fuzzy navels I’d enjoyed in college and was trying to appreciate IPAs, mostly to better navigate my first-real-job happy hours. Almost everyone drank beer, and I was trying to blend in and hold my own among the funny, flirty gang. I’d reached adulthood; my palate still needed to graduate.

One evening, into one of these happy hours strode another colleague: a raven-haired, curvy, slightly-older-than-me woman who waved the waiter off when he began reciting the beers on tap.

She asked for a dirty martini. “And I mean filthy,” she purred, to his delight. In my memory, she winked at our male colleagues as she said it. My recollection of their response — eyeballs telescoping out to knock over their pint glasses, a horn bellowing ah-OOOOO-gah! — is probably also somewhat exaggerated.

Marinating in my inadequacy in the face of this sophisticated, “adult” drink order, I had time before the drink arrived to imagine just how sexy this “dirty” martini would look. The Jessica Rabbit of drinks? A lacy garter in cocktail form?

What the waiter presented was murky with brine. A skewer of toadish olives slouched against the side of the glass, blue cheese innards oozing grease across the surface of the drink. It reminded me of nothing so much as the swampy vat of froglike critters that Jabba the Hutt kept nearby for snacking.

Envious as I was of this woman’s confidence, I had serious doubts about her judgment.

I went on to spend a good decade happily avoiding the dirty martini. If I found myself inexplicably in the mood for a pile of liquid salt glop, I’d order nachos.

When I got into cocktails, it was the crisp, clean martini I came to, de rigueur amongst cocktail cognoscenti: Gin (of course), a generous splash of vermouth, a dash of orange bitters, lemon peel. This is still my martini — ice cold, crystal clear, juniper-clean on the palate, lemon-oil aromatics as you raise it to your face. Perfection.

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But dirty martinis didn’t care. They went on their merry way, glugged down in vast quantities outside the cocktail-snob bubble. “The protests of the Martini purist did little to discourage orders for the drink,” wrote cocktail writer Robert Simonson in his book, “The Martini Cocktail.” “Eventually, some bartenders tried an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach, electing to improve the unavoidable cocktail rather than banish it.”

I’ve kept an eye on bars and restaurants that have de-viled the dirty martini — not so much cleaning it up as dialing it in, keeping the salt and acid that drinkers love while tuning it to their particular frequencies. Fresher, brighter olives that haven’t been marinating in the sneeze-collection tray on the bar. Savory herbs and spices from various culinary traditions. Different wines, different savory ingredients infused into the spirit or added to the brine, or acid powders that add salinity and tartness without that swampy murk.

“People used to order dirty martinis sort of sheepishly, and now I feel like they’re more emboldened,” said Alexandra Bookless Turner, bar director at Albi in Washington. “It has had a little resurgence. People love to eat bar olives and a salty, savory flavor when you’re drinking. It makes sense that the drink is popular.”

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Albi, which draws on culinary traditions of the Levant — the multi-country region around the eastern Mediterranean — serves a variation called the Za’atartini, in which vodka is first infused with the herb za’atar, combined with a blend of vermouths, and fat-washed with olive oil. It’s topped with a few drops of olive oil infused with a za’atar spice blend, which adds both nutty and herbal aromas and a creamier texture, and served with olives on the side.

At Bonnie’s, a Cantonese-American restaurant in Brooklyn, the MSG martini is the No. 1 drink. “I knew I had to have a martini on the menu,” says Calvin Eng, chef-owner. The restaurant’s head bartender, Channing Centeno, “knew that MSG was a big deal for me because it gets a bad rap. … It’s all over our menu, we talk about it, we’re proud to use it.”

Centeno replaced the classic vermouth with Shaoxing rice wine, and then “we take our olive brine and jack that up with MSG and whisk that together until it’s fully dissolved, and that’s our dirty brine. It’s super-packed with umami,” Eng says.

At Fiorella, Marc Vetri’s pasta restaurant in Philadelphia, the Dirty Pasta Water Martini has become a staple — the brine is made with a mixture that’s equal parts olive brine and the salty, starchy water leftover from the pasta pot. The brine adds both flavor and a thicker body to the drink. Customers can opt for gin or vodka, but “you taste the pasta more with vodka,” says Kyle O’Neill, the general manager. “We were going to call it the pasta ‘wooder’ martini, because that’s how you say ‘water’ in Philadelphia, but we decided not to be so tongue-in-cheek.”

Infusing parmesan rinds and thyme into a local Vancouver gin with sea kelp among its botanicals gave L’Abbatoir’s Martini Reggiano “these beautiful creamy, nutty flavors and textures,” says former bar manager Dave Bulters.

When I ran across a mention of that drink a couple years ago, I was intrigued enough that I found I could suppress the involuntary gag reflex I still experienced thinking of those blue cheese oil trails. Maybe that one Jabba-punchbowl didn’t represent the whole category. Maybe I should Jedi-mind-trick my way back to exploring the dirty martini.

I started wading in, splashing in the shallow end — a Castelvetrano olive here, a briny sherry there, and oh, what about preserved lemon? — getting more comfortable with the savory side of this cocktail.

Certain drinks become more than the sum of their parts. Drinks are loaded with signifiers. You drink them because your parents did or because they didn’t. You drink them because you like how they look or how someone else looks when she orders one. Drinks speak to us and for us. Never once, in book nor film, have I seen a hardboiled detective order a pumpkin spice latte, nor a kindly grandmother comfort someone with a shot of rye in a dirty glass. One need look no further than the peculiar anxiety some men still seem to have about ordering pink drinks or cocktails in coupes to know: Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar.

But sometimes “filthy” just means a lot of brine. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, I drink what I drink because I like it, be it an IPA, a fuzzy navel or a dialed-in dirty martini. I know that if I ever tried to pull off flirtation-by-drink-order, I would never stick the landing. But in my refrigerator now is a parmesan-infused dry vermouth mixed with Four Pillars olive leaf gin, and lemme tell you, it’s not half bad.

Rental Tux (a Dirty Martini)

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

This is a dirtied riff on a super-dry early martini variation called the Tuxedo. The original Tuxedo can have some savory notes from the sherry, but the Rental Tux has gotten all schmutzed up, thanks to caperberries (subbing for olives) and a few drops of toasted sesame oil, which enhances the nutty tones in the wine. If you’re not afraid of a little texture in your drink, skip the double-straining — the seeds inside the caperberries are delicious and fun to crush with your teeth.

  • 2 caperberries, divided
  • 3 to 4 drops toasted sesame oil, plus more for topping
  • Ice
  • 2 ounces London dry gin
  • 1 ounce fino or manzanilla sherry

Make a slit at the base of one of the caperberries, wedge it onto the rim of a Nick and Nora glass, then place the glass in the freezer.

Drop the other caperberry at the bottom of a cocktail shaker and crush it with a muddler, so that it’s torn open and the inner seeds are well exposed. Add the toasted sesame oil. Fill the shaker halfway with ice. Add the gin and sherry and shake hard to chill, about 15 seconds.

Double-strain into the chilled glass. Top with a few more drops of the sesame oil, if you like and serve. You can drop the caperberry garnish into the drink to make it a little saltier as you sip, and finish it off at the end.

From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

This salty-sweet martini marries preserved lemon, a pickled, salty-tart fermented citrus often used in Moroccan cuisine, with a citrus-forward gin (try Tanqueray No. 10, Citadelle’s Jardin D’Été or Malfy Con Limone). Note that the vermouth is blanc, not the standard dry, which makes for a slightly sweeter note that balances out the saltiness of the preserved lemon. If you like it drier, stick to dry vermouth; if you like a dirtier martini, add more lemon brine.

Where to Buy: Preserved lemon can be found at well-stocked supermarkets and online.

  • 1 thin slice preserved lemon, for garnish
  • Ice
  • Dash of orange bitters
  • 2 ounces gin
  • 1 ounce bianco or blanc vermouth (such as Dolin)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons preserved lemon brine, to taste
  • 1 strip fresh lemon peel

Thread the preserved lemon slice with a cocktail pick and set in a cocktail coupe or martini glass; transfer to the freezer.

Add ice to a mixing glass, followed by the bitters, gin, vermouth and lemon brine. Stir to dilute and chill, about 10 seconds.

Strain the drink into the chilled cocktail glass. Express the strip of fresh lemon peel over the surface of the drink, then discard the peel and serve.

From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

A hit cocktail at Fiorella, Marc Vetri’s pasta restaurant in Philadelphia, this dirty-martini riff utilizes olive juice along with an ingredient the restaurant has plenty of — the salty, silky water left over from cooking its pasta. Customers pick gin or vodka for the base; the pasta flavor is more noticeable with neutral vodka. Fiorella uses whole, unpitted Castelvetrano and Galleta olives; we won’t tell if you use pitted ones, but make sure they’re good olives.

Total time: 5 mins, not counting the cooking of pasta

Make Ahead: You’ll want to have the pasta water cooled and preferably chilled before making the drink. Pasta water can be refrigerated for up to 48 hours; shake before using.

  • 3 olives, for garnish (see headnote)
  • Ice
  • 2 ounces vodka or gin
  • 1/2 ounce pasta water
  • 1/2 ounce olive brine

Chill a Nick and Nora glass or a small coupe in the freezer. Spear the olives on a cocktail pick.

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add the vodka or gin, pasta water, and olive brine and shake to chill, 10 seconds.

Double-strain into the chilled glass, garnish with the olives and serve.

From Fiorella restaurant in Philadelphia.

Recipes tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to [email protected].

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