Cocktail Club

Cocktail Club: ‘It’s time to appreciate the dirty martini as a classic cocktail’

Cocktail Club host Jackson Cannon makes a case for the dirty martini.

Join Cocktail Club on March 10 at 7 p.m. for vodka cocktails. Johann Trasch on Unsplash

As the cocktail movement picked up steam in the early 2000s, the list of drinks that craft bartenders seemed to turn their noses up at was long.

In one sense they were right about the shortcomings of certain drinks: margaritas and whiskey sours are only as good as the ingredients you use. Chemical enhanced citrus mixes are, in a word, gross — and they were commonplace even as the craft movement started to gain momentum towards fresher choices. Most first and second tier tenders in those days had gotten their start straddling those two worlds but when the barkeep was able to work with fresh juices, a lot of these prejudices were quickly resolved. Some of the issues revolved around craftsmanship and technique.

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It’s strange to acknowledge it but the first modern classic, the Cosmopolitan, by the early 2000s was as reviled by tenders as it was popular with our guests. Its original delicate recipe, requiring professional execution had been so subverted, that most house recipes were overly sweet and contemptible. And the revival craft tenders, abhorred vodka, thinking it more fit for washing their clogs than ‘truly’ classic drinks.

For those of us always in it for the hospitality, who loved to learn about the classics and serve them while also thrilling to meet our guests where they were at, this always seemed at best silly, more often snobby and ridiculous. We’ve struck back against this impulse. Many of the popular drinks have had their day in craft cocktail court and been judged worthy again. Jeffery Morgenthaler’s rework of the amaretto sour is a craft bar staple, and espresso martinis have enjoyed a rebirth so voluminous that you can find them on tap in the crowded bars of many cities.

One drink that still seems to inspire disdain from young, eager craft tenders is the dirty martini. The version that has been sloshed about over the last few decades is a bit of a mess, suffering from three different strikes against it. One, it’s made with vodka instead of gin; two, it no longer carries any vermouth in it at all; three, the olive brine often used to make it dirty is just run off from the garnish tray.

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Let’s look at those one by one, but first I’ll say that the person ordering this drink is craving flavor, while making a conscious choice to drink their booze with less alcohol than the dry martini they are choosing this over. I’ve often thought that in the dirty martini drinker, I have someone who actually might like vermouth in their cocktail, they just haven’t been offered versions of these drinks that suit their pallet and experience. 

David Wondrich’s timeline establishes the known arc of the martini, born from a variation on the Manhattan, and moved through trend and taste to the dry gin martini, now considered canon, by the close of the nineteenth century. The first mentions of a dirty martini come from 1901 and credit New York barman John O’Connor, with muddling the olive garnish, at the time still a pretty new variation from the lemon twist, directly into the drink. By mid-twentieth century the drink was very popular and gained a boost from Franklin D. Roosevelt, after repeal he’s known to have personally mixed a cleaner version of this at the White House that uses dashes of olive brine instead of the muddle. It’s fair to say, that if he actually served these at the 1945 Yalta Conference, as reported, that is the high culture watermark for the dirty martini.

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Post World War II, vodka rose in use and the templates for drinks made with it often were classics created first with gin. One would have to specify a vodka gimlet or vodka martini (occasionally called a Kangaroo) to differentiate from the more established gin versions. But as time went on, and craft bartending went into hiding, many people came of drinking age expecting martinis to be vodka, with less and less vermouth, until there was none. Combined with expanded portion sizes by the 1980s a martini was often nothing more than a large quantity of alcohol shaken and poured in a giant glass. Sure you could also get those with artificial sweeteners, in the colors of the neon rainbow, as these fruit flavored ‘tinis’ became a mainstay in bars. You could also get it cut with olive brine by provocatively calling for yours to be made dirty, wink. Rejecting them was a point of emphasis for the craft minded set. But alas we threw the craft drink out with bathwater, and for a time ignored the pedigree and application of the dirty gin martini and its vodka descendent.

The time is now for a full appreciation of the dirty martini as a classic cocktail. Careful measuring, storing of the olive brine, and even house crafting of that ingredient, need to become de rigueur. New names for house variations and other savory tactics like atomized vermouths, flamed citrus peels and exocticly stuffed garnish olives, should all enjoy a reboot. The dirty martini drinkers have held on through all the hype and retro-innovation that that craft movement brought forward. If everything new is old again, it’s time to welcome them inside the big classic cocktail tent. Oh wait, they’ve been here at a back corner table all along, having a blast.

Dirty martini 

Ingredients

  • 2 oz gin or vodka
  • ½ oz olive brine
  • ½ oz dry vermouth
  • garnish with olives (and an optional lemon twist)

Instructions

  • Stir over ice until and serve up in a chilled martini glass.

Watch our virtual cocktail class

Watch Cocktail Club host Jackson Cannon and special guest Alice Farquhar, Global Education and Training Manager for Belvedere Vodka as they stir a modern take on the classic Martini and shaking up an inventive blackberry and lemongrass sour. Everything you need is here.