Late last year, Leanne Favre, head bartender at Brooklyn’s Leyenda, began to get an unusual drink order: dirty tequila Martini. “It was happening so often that I was concerned my server was suggesting them,” she says. “I was like, ‘Kevin, is this something you’re offering to guests?’”
Kevin wasn’t. Neither, as far as Favre could tell, was anybody else. “A lot of these trends can happen from brands promoting certain drinks,” she notes—we might never have had the Aperol Spritz–soaked summer of 2018 were it not for the concerted efforts of Campari—but the sudden collective appetite for dirty tequila Martinis had no obvious source. It is a quiet bubbling: Not every night, but some nights, a small handful of people put in orders for the drink. “It doesn’t sound like huge numbers when you explain it that way,” Favre says. “But it is when they just pop up out of nowhere.”
To say that the dirty tequila Martini is not a classic cocktail is putting it mildly. At least, according to Orlando Franklin McCray, bar director at Nightmoves in Brooklyn. “It’s not a thing,” he says. “I’ve never seen those words next to each other.” Favre herself describes the call as “esoteric,” but she, too, was unsettled by the first several requests. “It just seems like a strange pairing to add all of that brine to tequila,” she says. But she believes in giving the people what they want, and the people wanted dirty tequila Martinis, so she made them. “I was like, You know what, this isn’t so bad,” recalls Favre. In fact, with the right balance of vermouth, tequila is a natural match for brine. “We kind of ran with it,” she says. “We were like, ‘Let’s do it, but let’s do it right.’” In April, Favre and her team at Leyenda added their own version to the official menu, called the Toma-tini, which gets a dose of pickled tomatillo brine.
“It’s not an isolated thing that you’re describing,” says Nico Diaz, head bartender at Ranstead Room in Philadelphia, who has found himself mixing them with increasing frequency. Joey Smith, bar director at Chez Zou in Manhattan, has also noticed the recent uptick in dirty tequila Martini orders. “At first, it was really novel and weird,” he confirms. Indeed, a few years ago, if Jorsand Diaz got a ticket for a “tequila Martini,” it was almost certainly a mistake. “Most of the time, I’d check with the server; they’d say, ‘Oh, I meant Margarita,’” he recalls. Now, though, diners at Williamsburg’s Ensenada, where he heads the cocktail program, are ordering them on purpose. “More and more, it’s actually becoming a thing. And once you have a table ordering them, they will order more than one.”
If dirty tequila Martinis are having a moment, or at least, if they are poised to have a moment—well, on some level, of course they are: It’s the perfect marriage of two omnipresent trends. One: Martinis. Martinis are everywhere; nobody can get enough of them. Simon Sebbah, bar director for Grand Tour Hospitality, the New York group behind Saint Theo’s and American Bar, reports that Martinis, in all their many forms, account for somewhere between 85 and 90 percent of cocktail sales. But savory Martinis, which is to say dirty Martinis, are particularly in demand. And at exactly the same time, tequila is on the rise. The thirst is not new, but it is increasingly unquenchable; based on the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.’ numbers, it is second only to vodka in popularity, and demand is growing faster. “There are so many delicious, additive-free tequilas that are being made the traditional way,” says Nico Diaz, “and one of the best ways to really showcase their flavor is by way of a dirty Martini.”
It is an order that is both familiar and adventurous: Everybody knows Martinis, and everybody knows tequila, but the twist is in the pairing. Really, Favre argues, it’s a logical combination if you think about it. But until recently, she hadn’t. Tequila, earthy, with green pepper notes, maybe some hints of chile on the finish, is a natural match for brine, which is bound and balanced by the vermouth. It is, in her assessment, a very modern drink.
Of course, it is early days still. The world is not drowning in dirty tequila Martinis—yet. But the framework is in place for the drink’s big break. “I feel like if people actually started knowing about this, and people start seeing this on the internet and stuff,” says Sebbah, “I think it can actually become a trend.”