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The Dirty Martini Cleans Up Its Act

As loathed as it is enduring, the Dirty Martini has long been due for an upgrade. Gillian Ferguson on the history of the drink that bartenders love to hate, and what it looks like today.

It’s hard to imagine a drink that is equally as loathed and enduring as the Dirty Martini.

“The classic Martini is so beautifully balanced,” says David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Imbibe!. “It’s focused like a laser beam—cold, refreshing, incisive—and once you put olive brine in it, it kind of spoils all of that stuff.”

Yet hoards of people—people like me—continue to order it, savoring the guilty pleasure of cold vodka or gin sloshed together with suspect brine. It is a flawed drink with a remarkable fan base. Which is why many of the country’s bartender-critics are (however begrudgingly) trying to fix it.

According to Wondrich, the un-fairer Martini’s history begins in 1901, when John E. O’Connor served a Martini with muddled olives at the Waldorf Astoria. But a dash of brine doesn’t appear, at least in writing, until 1930, in G.H. Steele’s My New Cocktail Book. The drink, dubbed the Perfect, à la Hyland, consisted of half gin, half vodka, dry vermouth, three types of bitters and one teaspoon of olive brine. It appears again, in the years following World War II, sans bitters, perhaps most notably by way of FDR, whose Martini call was two parts gin, one part vermouth and a teaspoon of olive brine.

This brine-dashed variation remained an anomaly during the 1950s and 1960s, when the bone-dry gin Martini served as a stand in for post-war values: pure, strong and homegrown in the U.S. By the 1970s, however, vodka was outselling gin, and the cocktail aesthetic was skewing (much) sweeter. Fast forward even further, to the late-1990s, and the classic Martini had been sullied six ways from Sunday, making plenty of room for its dirty sibling to dig in.

“Nobody knew anything. Everything was bad,” says TJ Lynch, co-owner and bartender at New York’s Mother’s Ruin. “I’m sure there were some people doing the right things, but I made a lot of Dirty Martinis in the ‘90s, and it was literally just vodka and crappy olive juice.” (Today, he prefers a 50/50 gin Martini with a dash of Alfonso olive brine.)

With the rise of craft cocktails in the early aughts, the Dirty Martini went underground, but it never quite faded away. In fact, today, as bartenders seek to upgrade even the most un-loved cocktails, the drink has reemerged in the same bars that sought to estrange a generation from vodka ‘tinis.

Much of the new dialogue around the drink centers on the freshness and quality of the brine, and the method of employing it. For Josh Goldman, who consults on the bar program at Santa Monica’s Belcampo, the answer came in a teabag, which he first witnessed used in a drink (in horror) during the mid-2000s, when D.C. bartenders were making “Nicotinis”: nicotine-infused cocktails meant to placate smokers in the days following the city’s ban.

His method begins with a sachet of six ingredients, which he blanches in hot water—long enough to prime the aromatics but not unduly raise the temperature—before placing it in the glass. He then adds Aylesbury Duck vodka (which has been stirred to chill), alongside a finishing spritz of concentrated olive brine. Let it steep for 20 seconds if you like your Martini slightly dirty, he says, and a whole minute if you like it filthy. While Goldman won’t reveal his exact blend, I could detect olives, dried herbs and a hit of miso.

Lynnette Marrero, the bar director at Llama Inn, has taken a more post-modern approach. She is currently workshopping a riff that calls for thickening olive brine by adding modified tapioca starch and then painting it along the inside of a Martini glass—a perhaps unintentional but wholly appropriate ‘90s throwback move. (She hasn’t quite nailed the texture and flavor—an early attempt with Kalamata olive brine was unsuccessful—but, she says, “I’m going to keep pursuing it.”)

At Petit Trois in Los Angeles, beverage manager Courtney Rose is also taking a modern approach to the drink, by way of fat-washing. She makes use of the herb-studded oil the kitchen routinely tosses out by Cryovacing it with gin, then tossing the mixture in a sous-vide machine for an hour. She then freezes it, strains off the solids and pairs it with sweet vermouth and lemon oil for a “dirty” take on the Martinez, a precursor to the Martini.

The award for the most obsessive take on the drink may well go to New York’s Naren Young. During his tenure at Saxon & Parole, Young, an outspoken critic of the Dirty Martini, spent two years creating his Olives 7 Ways, which calls on a custom olive bitters by Bitters, Old Men and an olive distillate Young co-crafted with Allen Katz of New York Distilling Company. For the latter, they distilled a small batch of neutral spirit with Cerignola olives and used it as a replacement for brine. Robert Simonson, writing about the drink for the New York Times, described it as “more elegant than any offspring of the dirty martini deserves to be.”

While this kind of innovation on the bar side certainly has elevated the drink, it’s the advent of premium bottled brine that has had the biggest impact on the quality of the Dirty Martini nationwide.

Consider Dirty Sue. The brainchild of Eric Tecosky, Dirty Sue was founded in 2004 after a particularly rough service behind the bar at the Jones Hollywood. Aggravated by having to strain gallon jugs of olives during service, he found himself googling “pre-bottled olive juice.” It yielded zero results.

He eventually took to making phone calls to farms in California and connected with a grower who was also importing olives from Spain. From there, he formulated a product using the mother brine (the original brine that the olives are shipped in rather than the salt water and lactic acid they are distributed in) and, by 2005, began hand-delivering samples to his friends and colleagues in the industry.

Two years later, in 2007, brothers Daniel and Marc Singer came up with a similar idea in Florida. They noticed that bartenders were replacing pre-bottled mixes with fresh juices and adding herbs to the bar, but olives were still coming in from distributors in the same gallon jugs that they were using in the ‘90s.

“Everybody hated their olives,” Daniel Singer recalls. They were oily and salty, and no bar would cycle through them quickly enough to avoid oxidization, which made the liquid especially bitter.

The Singers looked at 200 types of olives around the world and settled on a coastal Greek variety that was less oily, with fleshy fruit. Rather than adopting the industrial method of curing olives in lye, they persuaded a family to naturally ferment the olives in salt water, changing the water every two days over four months to slowly draw the bitter glucoside out of the fruit. By comparison, the same process using lye takes only four days, but, according to Singer, lye “shuts down the pores and strips the fruit of all that woodiness and nuttiness.” To compensate, producers add a ton of salt and oil to return flavor to those gallon jugs of olives.

In 2009, the brothers launched Filthy Food, a line of artisanal cocktail garnishes that includes Filthy olive brine, which is made from their Greek olive brine and filtered five times before it is packaged in squeeze bottles and distributed around the country. Today, both Filthy Food and Dirty Sue ship to thousands of restaurants and bars nationwide, from P.F. Chang’s to Pegu Club. In fact, order a regular Dirty Martini at Dante, and Young will make it with Filthy olive brine.

Yet, despite cleaning up its act, the Dirty Martini’s dirty-pleasure status remains gleefully intact. And those of us who order it wouldn’t have it any other way. “I like to make them for myself where nobody can see,” says Petit Trois’s Rose, who tips the brine from habanero-stuffed olives into her gin Martini at home. “A lot of people I know drink them on the hush-hush.”

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Gillian Ferguson is a food writer and producer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, T Magazine and Lucky Peach among others. Before she began writing she was the long time producer of KCRW's "Good Food." She is currently working on a food documentary television series.