It’s not easy tasting a dozen dirty Martinis in one sitting. About halfway through, the assembled judges were questioning the futility of the task at hand: to find the best, archetypal example of the classic. “Perhaps it’s not a drink that’s meant to be evaluated,” said one, after five mega misses in a row. “We’re looking for a balanced cocktail, but isn’t the point of the dirty Martini to throw the formula out of balance?” asked another.
Had this tasting been held even two years ago, it likely would’ve looked much different, yielding results that closely resembled one another in their generic approach. But in an age where bars are fielding calls for thousands of dirty Martinis a night, the drink—once an afterthought—has come under scrutiny, resulting in an explosion of specialized takes, each hinging primarily on one distinguishing factor: the brine. Whether it’s a matter of artistry (putting a house stamp on the formula) or practicality (stretching the brine to handle an uptick in orders), nothing determined the fate of each dirty Martini quite like the salty, savory core of the recipe.
The other primary components, gin (or vodka) and vermouth—components that make or break a traditional Martini—were relegated to the back seat. Gin outweighed vodka as the spirit of choice seven to three, with one recipe allowing either. And across the 11 submitted recipes, only two types of vermouth were specified, with two recipes omitting it altogether.
For the assembled judges—Toby Cecchini (owner, The Long Island Bar), Joaquín Simó (formerly of Pouring Ribbons), Izzy Tulloch (head bartender, Milady’s) and the Punch editorial staff—the challenge was finding a dirty Martini that created the requisite saltiness in a nuanced way. As Simó noted, as a general rule, “the proper amount of salt in a drink is that which you can’t quite taste.” Of course, by definition, the dirty Martini ought to have a more pronounced savory quality, but those that favored restraint over excess fared far better. Shaken examples were quickly written off, for tasting like, as Tulloch noted, “diluted ocean water.”
The unanimous winner was the dirty Martini from Brooklyn’s Gage & Tollner. Consisting of two and a half ounces of gin or vodka (it was made for this tasting with Edinburgh Seaside gin, as specified by the bar), three-quarters of an ounce of “dirty vermouth” (a 2-to-1 blend of fino sherry and dry vermouth) and a half-ounce of house brine (water, salt and lactic acid). “For me, this is the archetype: It’s restrained, it doesn’t club you with salt,” said Cecchini. It arrived crystal clear, thanks to the house brine that omits olive from the equation entirely, yet still delivered a refined salty note that answered the dirty Martini call. As Talia Baiocchi, Punch editor-in-chief, noted: “It’s a Martini purist’s dirty Martini.”
Tied for second place were two recipes that took two very different approaches to the same ultrasavory endpoint. The dirty Martini of James Bolt, from The Gin Joint in Charleston, South Carolina, combines two ounces of Four Pillars Olive Leaf gin (which counts olive leaf tea and olive oil among its distinctive botanicals), a half-ounce of navy-strength gin, a quarter-ounce of dry vermouth and a half-ounce of Cerignola olive brine, plus two dashes each of saline solution and Bitter Truth olive bitters to round out the recipe. Perhaps more than any other, it had a true-to-life olive flavor that Baiocchi described as “meaty, almost like drinking a Castelvetrano olive.”
Bolt’s recipe tied with that of Kelso Norris, from Genever in Los Angeles. Her dirty Martini, dubbed the Datu Datu, is a pre-batched combination of gin, dry vermouth, ground garlic, fish sauce and Datu Puti spiced vinegar. That latter ingredient, a traditional flavored Filipino vinegar, lent the finished product a distinctive vinegary note that stood out from the more typical salt brines, and appealed in its complexity. As Cecchini noted, “It attacks you in 12 different ways,” but all of them good.
Honorable mention went to the pre-batched “dusty” Martini of brothers Jean Michel and Eric Alperin from The Copper Room in Yucca Valley, California. Though the judges found the booze (in this case vodka) too muted, the drink made the cut for its notable brine, a combination of pickled jalapeño juice and muddled olives that are rested with the vodka for an extended period before being strained off. That it made the list only reinforces the all-important element of the brine. “It has too much brine,” said Cecchini, “but it may be the best one.”