It’s fascinating how cocktail flavors transform into completely new sensations with the most subtle adaptations.
The Martini is famously that drink. Adjusting the vermouth up or down changes it from “wet” to “bone dry;” trade out the garnish to cocktail onions and you suddenly have a “Gibson.” Or dash in some orange bitters, and your glass will more closely resemble how the drink was served at the turn of the 20th century. And, when it’s lightly laced with olive brine—or heavily doused, depending on your preference—it becomes a Dirty Martini.
The Dirty Martini tends to be lumped in with steak dinners or a business lunch, and while those are fine times to consume one, consider this savory cocktail for your next pre-dinner drink. An aperitif is supposed to whet your appetite, and I find that a Dry Martini laced with olive brine is akin to putting out a plate of olives and mixed nuts for company before you get to the main meal. Make it with blue cheese stuffed olives and you’ve got the cheese plate covered too.
What’s a Dirty Martini?
The Dirty Martini has been around since the early 1900’s, initially made with muddled olives, and later with a bar spoon of olive brine. But it was the 1990’s that saw the onslaught of bars shaking up this polarizing drink. If you order this drink while out, be prepared for a variety of notions on just how much olive brine is supposed to go in it. You frankly don’t need a massive glug of olive juice to get the full effect, but let’s talk about what should go into the drink.
Traditionally, a Martini calls for a gin base. One made with vodka is technically a “Kangaroo” but you’d be flexing your obscure cocktail knowledge with that jargon and probably get a raised eyebrow.
With a Dirty Martini, you’re looking for a base that will work with that briny olive taste, so start with a London Dry gin like Beefeater, or a neutral, non-flavored vodka.
Steer clear of new American-style gins that incorporate many flavors beyond juniper, as their flavor profiles will often compete or clash with the olive brine. (Unless of course you find an olive-distilled bottle, then that might work.)
What’s the Deal with Shaken vs. Stirred Martinis?
More polarizing than the Dirty Martini itself, is the question whether to shake or stir a Martini. Here’s what I’ve been told by bartenders for years: If your drink contains any fluids other than alcohol (juices, dairy, etc), shake it. But popular culture—and specifically the stories of a particular British spy who goes by 007—tells us that a Martini, composed solely of alcohol, can also be shaken. So, is there a “right” answer? No.
Like anything you eat and drink, your personal preference and taste can dictate how things can be done. I have a friend who only likes Martinis when they’re shaken, because they enjoy the bits of floating ice in the drink. (This also dilutes the drink more, as ice will constantly be melting into your drink and watering it down.) Personally, I would not be happy to get a drink with a sea of ice floating on top, so I have mine stirred.
If you’re not sure which is best for you, try both! Maybe not in one sitting, but taste and see what you enjoy and what works for you.
Tips and Tricks for Making a Dirty Martini
If you’re ordering a Dirty Martini, you definitely want to taste the olive brine, but go easy. This recipe calls for 1/4 ounce added in when shaken together, which rounds it out with enough saltiness to be detected, but not enough to overpower the drink.
Want to just have a touch of brine but are afraid you might kill your drink? Here’s a trick: Rinse the glass with brine instead of adding it directly into the mix. If the term “rinsing” is new to you, let me explain!
First, you don’t need to break out your dishwashing gloves. Rinsing refers to pouring a small amount of a liquid into your cocktail glass, swirling it around to coat the bottom and sides, and then pouring it out. This technique is used when you have strongly flavored liquids that you only need a whisper of in your drink—like an absinthe rinse in a Sazerac cocktail.
Olive brine is such a strongly flavored liquid that it can quickly overpower the other ingredients, leading to an unbalanced cocktail (probably why there are many who turn down the drink when offered). If you want only a touch of salt in the drink, try the rinse method.
Another tip for this drink is to keep the quantity on the smaller side and keep it cold. Again, those oversized Martini glasses exist, but they are not a friend to this cocktail. Trust me when I tell you, you do not want to drink a warm, briny Dirty Martini.
To make your drink nice and cold, go ahead and store all the drink components in the fridge at least an hour prior to making. This will also stop the ice from instantly melting when you mix all the ingredients together in your cocktail shaker.
Just an FYI, if you have a particularly oily olive brine, you might notice some globules of oil that appear at the surface. Stir vigorously when you are making this drink to help break them up, however, they probably won’t go away as oil and water don’t mix. This will not affect the cocktail, and sometimes it looks pretty cool too.
How to Garnish a Dirty Martini
I am a believer that a garnish should not be purely ornamental (tiki drinks excluded) but should represent an element of the cocktail. If you’re drinking a Dirty Martini, the appropriate garnish is an olive—or a few, depending on your preference. But you can get creative with the types of olives used.
The standard is green olives, and if I go that route, Castelvetrano olives are my pick. They’re big, green, buttery, firm olives and one or two are a decent size for a coupe glass.
However, I also am a fan of stuffed olives and if they’re available, blue cheese stuffed olives have a piquant tang that complements the brine without overpowering the drink. Other choices include tuna or anchovy, or the standard pimento.
Dirty Martini Glassware
When one asks for a Martini, you probably think of the ubiquitous, V-shaped Martini glass. Choose one that will hold just enough of your cocktail (4-6 ounces)—not a giant 10 or 12-ounce glass.
Making a drink large enough to fill up the giant glass will only ensure you end up with a warm Martini, and that’s just not going to taste great. I recommend the more traditional coupe for a Martini because they are on the smaller side and tend to hold the perfect amount. They are very nice to look at, too.
More Marvelous Martini Recipes
If time allows, chill all the ingredients one hour prior to making and serving. For a lighter amount of brine in your drink, rinse the glass with the olive brine instead of adding it directly into the shaker. To do this, pour the olive brine into a coupe or Martini glass and swirl to coat the interior. Discard liquid.
- 2 ounces London dry gin, like Beefeater
- 3/4 ounce dry vermouth, like Dolin
- 1/4 ounce olive brine
- Olives for garnish, optional
Pour spirits into a mixing glass:
In a mixing glass filled 2/3 with ice, pour in the gin, dry vermouth, and olive brine. Stir to chill for 20 seconds with a bar spoon or chopstick.
Strain cocktail, garnish, and serve:
Strain using a cocktail strainer into a cocktail glass. Garnish with olives. Serve.