It wasn’t all that long ago that bartenders talked of “cleaning up” the loathed Dirty Martini, an elegant classic made murky by a dose of olive brine. Today, those same bartenders are leaning into the murk, turning the Dirty Martini, well, dirtier.
Many of these new variations draw inspiration from the kitchen, yielding drinks that read like unholy mashups of Dirties and food-laden Bloody Marys. At Boston’s Blue Owl, for example, bar manager Molli Rohland channels the flavors of a caprese salad into her Caprese #2, made with mozzarella fat-washed vodka and clarified tomato water blended with salt, pepper and basil. “It sounds kind of gross, but ends up real nice,” she says. The drink is strained through cheesecloth overnight to give it that expected Martini-like clarity.
Inspired by the concept of creating “a salad in liquid form,” Rohland describes this “extra savory” clarified creation as landing on the matrix somewhere between the Dirty Martini and Bloody Mary. Blanc vermouth and citric acid balance the drink, while basil oil on top adds an herbaceous aroma. A cherry tomato wrapped in a basil leaf adds “a pop of color” atop the glass and nods to the Dirty Martini’s typical olive garnish.
Once a steakhouse staple, the ultra-Dirty Martini is proving ripe for experimentation. “It’s new ground,” says Lance Bowman, beverage director for The Alderman and Pilsen Yards in Chicago. “Bartenders have riffed on every cocktail to infinity and back, but the Martini has gone largely unscathed.” And of all the Martini variations, the Dirty seems the least sacred.
It’s also a natural evolution of the taste for all things umami, which has seen the introduction of umami bitters and a propensity for cocktail ingredients like mushroom and tomato in recent years. For his Over The Top Dirty Martini, Bowman laces a baroque gin Martini (three gins, two vermouths, maraschino liqueur) with a mushroom-and-MSG umami tincture, which ticks the same savory box as the Dirty Martini’s requisite brine. Christine Wiseman, meanwhile, looks to charred onion–infused dry vermouth and celery shrub to add vegetal interest to her on-the-rocks Trash-Tini.
The “dirty” elements of today’s Dirty Martinis chart territory well beyond a utilitarian splash of brine. The format has become an invitation to add complex, savory flavor that nods to a sense of place, a bar or restaurant’s culinary ethos, or a bartender’s personal heritage. Consider: Hainan chicken broth with vodka and cucumber slices (Sharon Yeung, for Austin pop-up Daijoubu); heirloom tomato dashi and white soy (Devan van Eyck, for Manhattan “farm-to-bar” café Festivál); or potlikker, the liquid left from braising collard greens, mixed with honey and hot sauce (Tye Harrison, for Benne on Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina). As Bowman explains, “A delicious Dirty Martini is more than just spirit and brine.”
For some, the Dirty Martini is more conceptual than practical; a personal challenge to see just how “dirty” the drink can get.
At Night Drop, a gin-focused basement bar beneath Cincinnati restaurant Branch, Giacomo Ciminello sought to re-create a Martini with the flavors of local favorite Cincinnati chili. (He left Branch in 2020, and is currently beverage director at Cincinnati Distilling.) The offbeat drink, part of a “Misguided Martinis” collection, remains a popular order, he says.
A “three-way shrub” adds chili-like piquancy with tomatoes, vinegar and spices to the gin base; a half-ounce of onion brine is optional for a “four-way” variation, evoking the onions that might be added to Cincy chili. The drink is served in a wide, bowl-like coupe glass, piled high with cheddar and an oyster cracker.
“People love the salinity, the chewiness to it, the meaty quality, because tomato shrub gives it a density,” says Ciminello. “It’s like a Manhattan version of a Dirty Martini: a little bit darker, and bolder.”
Yet, even a chili-inspired Martini isn’t the weirdest version he’s undertaken. That prize goes to a mac ’n’ cheese–inspired Martini, which is still a work in progress. But Ciminello has no qualms with the concept. “What is a Dirty Martini? You have the clear, beautiful spirit you’re trying to muck up. That’s where it all comes from,” he explains.
Asked whether it is possible to push the Dirty Martini too far, he replies: “I don’t think there is a ‘too far.’”