The trite adage holds true for many cocktails: All classics are, eventually, new again. Consider the Martini. Once evocative of outmoded ideas of glamour and indulgence, the symbol of sophistication is now ubiquitous—more popular than ever before, one could sensibly contend. Venture into any reputable cocktail lounge and you’ll likely encounter 20-somethings cradling stemmed glasses filled to the brim with liquid as briny and cloudy as seawater—or, less often, crystal clear with a lemon twist.
This is, at least in part, the Espresso Martini’s doing. Ever since the sultry drink launched an unforeseen comeback last year, inspiring as much revulsion as delight, the drink—as well as its extended ’tini family—has remained lodged in the collective mind. That path eventually led back to the classic forebear and its spinoffs. On an average night at Bemelmans, the distinguished bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side serves upwards of 1,000 Martinis, mostly to those who are recently of age. Gen Z and hot girls, among the most influential voting blocs, have issued their unofficial endorsement. So advanced is the trend that ungodly marketing stunts have even begun to crop up. The most grotesque: the “Veltini,” a limited-edition riff unveiled by Velveeta cheese.
The most compelling and indisputable proof of the drink’s recent unwavering popularity, though, is the lot of bartenders playing around with its format. While the dirty Martini may be the preparation du jour, the cocktail landscape is flush with renditions of all kinds—from cheeky and innovative to dead-serious and nostalgic. Here’s a look at a few categories that represent the Martini’s current state of art, and how—and where—you’re bound to encounter them this fall.
The OnlyFans Martini at Chicago's Three Dots and a Dash | Photo: Lindsay Eberly/Lettuce Entertain You
This isn’t the first time in history the Martini has bewitched drinkers. In the ’90s and early aughts, kitschy Martinis—arguably, in name only—proliferated, spurring a sugar-fueled fad. It’s only natural that, during this second wave, bartenders would be riffing on the cloying ’tinis that emerged a few decades back, swapping out Technicolor liqueurs and canned fruit juice for more sophisticated ingredients.
At Miami Beach’s Sweet Liberty, you’ll find a number of beverage director Naren Young’s reinterpretations of the Appletini (made with Calvados, fresh green apple juice and apple cider vinegar) and the Lemon Drop (lemon juice, curd, bitters and grappa), as well as the bestselling Our Lychee Martini, which leans on lychee liqueur, St-Germain and sauvignon blanc. The Appletini, too, has reemerged at Washington D.C.’s Silver Lyan, a subterranean cocktail bar nestled in a former bank vault. There, internationally renowned bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana blends in fresh-pressed green apple juice and a touch of jasmine vermouth. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Three Dots and a Dash sells an au courant play on the Pornstar Martini, a passion fruit ’tini that has become a modern classic (and the most searched-for cocktail ever). Named the OnlyFans Martini, the fragrant variation is made with Brazilian cachaça rather than the standard vanilla vodka.
And of course, there’s the drink that led the kitsch resurgence. These days, all manner of food and drink establishments reserve a spot on the menu for Espresso Martini riffs, most of which are shaken with vodka and coffee in some form. But not all adhere to the drink’s formula so closely. At Pacific Standard, a new joint from famed Portland bartenders and longtime business partners Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Benjamin Amberg, the Espresso Martini—orders of which are limited to two per person—is built on a bold alliance of overproof vodka, Spanish brandy, Kahlúa and cold-brew extract.
The Jusanya at San Francisco's Wildhawk | Photo: Aubrie Pick
Though the Espresso Martini may have laid the groundwork for our current mania, it’s the dirty Martini that has a tenacious grip on our palate. In some notable spins, the classic olive defends its rightful territory. At Gunsmoke, a new Japanese American spot in Hollywood, the house Martini arrives with a dashi-brined olive, while at New York’s Ernesto’s, the Basque-inspired restaurant’s Pintxotini comes crowned with the Spanish pintxo staple of skewered anchovies, piparra (aka guindilla) peppers and olives. It’s a particularly hot garnish in Manhattan right now: Both Nudibranch and Lobby Lounge at Nine Orchard top one of their iterations with the same trio.
Elsewhere, the olive has been cast aside for less-traditional sources of umami and salinity. At Bonnie’s, a Cantonese American spot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, dirty Martinis are laced with homemade MSG olive brine, while the Liquid Picnic from Thunderbolt in Los Angeles leans on gin that’s been bolstered by tomato, rosemary and black pepper. Lobby Lounge also summons tomato—in this case, clarified tomato water and an heirloom cherry tomato garnish—alongside vodka, celery root liqueur and celery leaf vinegar for a similarly vegetal take called the Heirloom Martini. San Francisco’s Wildhawk takes a different approach in its dirty, swapping vermouth for sesame-washed fino sherry; at Temple Bar in New York, Michael McIlroy’s Salt & Pepper Martini adds a layer of heat by way of piment d’Espelette liqueur, alongside manzanilla sherry, saline and celery.
“Our savory Martinis do really well at Temple Bar, and we wanted to explore fun ways to steer away from the typical dirty Martini,” says Temple Bar head bartender Sam Casuga. It’s “still quite clean,” she adds—“elegant, yet adventurous.”
The Dukes Martini at New York's Lobby Bar | Photo: Eric Medkser
The Return of the Martini Service
While some bars are escorting the sophisticated Martini into yet-unexplored territory, others are leaning into its roots, carting purist versions of the drink to tables in dedicated Martini services. At Hotel Chelsea’s Lobby Bar in Manhattan, ice-encased bottles of Tanqueray 10 and Ketel One arrive tableside when you order a Dukes Martini, an impossibly cold and dry classic born out of 1980s London. For nearly a decade now, Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere has stirred its Old King Cole Martini before your eyes. And this fall, Le Rock, one of New York's buzziest new restaurants, will also introduce a tableside service featuring three freezer Martinis.
While “Martini service” is back on the menu at select bars, more often than not, the establishments aren’t rolling out the ceremonial cart. As part of Silver Lyan’s Silver Martini Service, you first decide on one of four preset blends, each representing a “perfect version of some famous Martini variants,” says Chetiyawardana. Alongside the drink, you receive all the standard accouterments plus a freshly shucked oyster. “We also serve them as a two-person serve, as it plays to our long-held view that sharing a Martini with someone close ahead of dinner is one of life’s perfect moments,” he adds. At The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina, the Martini Service will get you a drink made with “ocean vermouth,” prepared by steeping the fortified wine with dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu and crushed oyster shells from the raw bar; standard garnishes, as well as local sea beans, arrive on the side, allowing you to build your drink at the table. (While the service has been on the menu for three years, its current form is about a year old.)
Once Fools and Horses opens in Portland this fall, you too will be able to choose your own adventure. Built on a base of vodka and gin from the local Hood River Distillers (plus fino sherry and Lillet Blanc), the Martini will hit tables with a whole suite of seasonal garnishes and a house-pickled apple sphere, as well as the latter’s pickling liquid for spiking drinks. “Guests will be able to curate their own experience,” says owner Collin Nicholas. “We’re giving them all the tools that they need to create a really sound Martini.”
The Grand Martiny’s at New York's Martiny's | Photo: Joanna Lin
Wine that’s fortified has long had a place in Martinis, but what about the vast and often-overlooked world of that which is distilled? “Incorporating eaux de vie is a great way to add flavor and make a cocktail more complex,” says Eloy Pacheco, head bartender at New York’s Dante. This point of view has become the through line in some of the season’s serious riffs on the classic Martini. At the recently opened Corner Bar in New York, the Gibson Primavera gains an herbal note from the addition of basil eau de vie, which also features in the Amethyst Hour at Houston’s Better Luck Tomorrow. “I think brandy, at its best, captures the essence of the fruit delicately but also retains great structure,” says bar director Sarah Crowl of the drink, which is served nontraditionally in a rocks glass over ice, garnished with red grapes and basil.
At New York newcomer Martiny’s, the Japanese-style bar takes it to another level with the Grand Martiny’s, which features a combination of gin, manzanilla sherry, vintage port, Cognac and St-Germain, garnished with a fresh grape. Together, the elements “embrace the natural acidity from grapes,” says co-owner Takuma Watanabe. “Martinis hold a special place in my heart, since they’re my favorite cocktail, so I had to put a Martini on the menu with a ‘grand’ twist.”