The Dirty Martini

This variation isn’t as old as a classic martini, but it’s damn near as iconic. The name of the Dirty Martini can titillate some; for other fans it stands as part of their identity. Either way, it represents an ideal, sophisticated and deeply satisfying aperitif.

An Overview

It is made in almost identical fashion to a classic martini, but with a garnish of olives plus the addition of olive brine – usually 1-6 teaspoons depending on your predilection. It can be made with either gin or vodka.

Some people say that the best part of this martini is the olive, but I would argue that if this is the case, perhaps you haven’t been drinking very good martinis.

Bear in mind that a dirty martini with a lot of olive brine IS NOT called a filthy martini. That is a different variation (made with a pickled caperberry). Don’t worry, many people, including reputable sources and distilleries, have made this mistake.

The Dirty Martini is a savoury drink, in a world where the vast majority of cocktails, including most of the martini’s ancestral predecessors, fall on the sweeter end of the flavour spectrum.

The saltiness of the brine, and the addition of olives makes it very well suited as a pre-dinner aperitif. The olives will stave off any hunger pangs without ruining your appetite while the salt will keenly whet it.

It can feel like an oasis of sanctity after a hot day. The salty cold elicits a sense of jumping into the sea after a spell of sunbathing.

It can be a useful option for someone who doesn’t want their martinis quite as strong as a classic. A dirty martini can see the alcoholic potency of the cocktail reduced to 70-95% of its full strength. It can also help take the edge off a poorer quality of spirit if you find yourself in a bind.

Furthermore, a dirty martini is a reliable option if you find yourself making martinis without fresh lemon to hand. Olives in a jar can keep for months. If you keep your martini glasses and gin/vodka in the freezer, you can mix up a dirty martini in a matter of seconds so it’s ideal for any last-minute martini requirements.

L’histoire du Dirty Martini

What we know as a martini today emerged as far back as the 1860s but it was many years until it evolved into the drier, predominantly gin or vodka drink that we know today.

As regards the inclusion of olives, they began being used as a cocktail garnish at some point in the late 1800s. Olives were being muddled with drinks on occasion at least by the turn of the century, imparting olive juice into certain more savoury drinks, including the martini. It was 1901 when New York bartender John O’Connor was officially recorded as adding the brine of preserved olives to a martini, which might be the earliest written record that we can hope to find.

In a city known for its lovers of steak, seafood and all-round hedonism, the aperitif proved popular.

US prohibition caused an exodus bartenders, who travelled the globe, spreading with them the concept of Le Bar Américain (essentially what we now recognise as a cocktail bar) but martinis persevered in the country, albeit behind closed doors. The use of various stashes of bootlegged booze and bathtub gins might’ve provided temporary solace to those flouting the law in the country’s many speakeasies, but the lower quality of many of these spirits meant that special measures had to be adopted to take the edge off some of the illegal spirits. In many cases this would’ve included fruit juices, but olive brine likely would’ve assisted as well.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president of the United States in 1933. Not only did he sign the Cullen-Harrison Act within days, paving the way for the repeal of prohibition, he ensured a quick return of the dirty martini, introducing them to half-American British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill during the pre-war years.

Perhaps that was the most iconic endorsement of this beautiful drink. It didn’t sway Churchill from his preference for almost neat gin in a glass, but the image of the two veteran drinks bonding in the years after prohibition and prior to WWII (and President Roosevelt’s death in 1945) stand out as key milestones in the beautiful (but somewhat hazy) history of the martini.

Daniel Craig also orders dirty martinis in the James Bond film Spectre, but he and his co-star Lea Seydoux are unable to finish them before a would-be assassin rudely interrupts.

How to make a Dirty Martini

Bear in mind that you can use both gin or vodka. Indeed, if you want to enjoy and savour a complex gin, it might be better to forgo the olives and brine so as not to mask the botanicals. As such, vodka is an excellent choice for a dirty martini.

Otherwise, a dirty martini is made in very similar fashion to a classic martini:

  1. At least six hours before you intend to drink the martini put a bottle of gin or vodka plus the relevant number of martini glasses (ideally conical glasses, with a size/volume of around 100-130ml or 3.4-4.4 US fluid ounces) in the freezer.
  2. When it’s time to serve, take the glasses from the freezer.
  3. Pour vermouth into the glass to taste (usually around 2-15ml or 0.5-3 teaspoons).
  4. Top up with the gin or vodka – around 80-120ml or 3-4 US fluid ounces, depending on glass size/preference.
  5. Add olive brine to your taste, usually 1-6 teaspoons (and see below for guidance).
  6. Add one or more olives to a toothpick.
  7. Use them to stir the drink then place them in the drink as a garnish.
  8. Serve, potentially with more olives on the side.

How much brine?

As with many aspects of a martini, I would recommend adding as much brine as you like! However, if you are new to martinis, it would be disastrous for you to pour a martini and add far too much brine for your preference and ruin the drink.

So, for a start I would suggest that you serve a dirty martini with one teaspoon of brine if you are cautious, or otherwise two. Next, take a sip. If you want to experiment, increase the amount of brine incrementally, either with this drink, or with subsequent drinks over a number of days or weeks.

I find that most people who like dirty martinis usually sit on the spectrum of 2-6 teaspoons of brine per 100ml.

I have put together a scale (subject to change) to describe the various amount of brine in a martini (based on a 100ml serving).

“How do you like your dirty martini?”

  • 1 teaspoon – with a spray
  • 2 teaspoons – light
  • 3 teaspoons – medium
  • 4 teaspoons – coastal
  • 5 teaspoons – saline
  • 6 teaspoons – briny
  • 7+ teaspoons – Jonah-esque?

And remember: a Filthy Martini is a totally different drink!

How many olives

This seems to be an aesthetic question as much as anything, and again it comes down to preference. The usual number is either one, two or three.

One olive in the drink is visually concise and often the number depicted in martini illustrations.

Two is visually distinctive and often written about in terms that would imply that the majority of aficionados consider it ‘the correct amount’. There are further instructions that with two olives the drinker eats one at the start of the drink and the other at the end of the drink.

Three olives or more is for someone who simply likes olives.

If you have long enough toothpicks or skewers you could include multiple olives – bearing in mind any limitations on physics and engineering.

You could serve an olive for each teaspoon of brine in the drink. This can also help to differentiate between glasses if you are serving several different dirty martinis at a time.

Some fans fastidiously argue that the number of olives should be odd rather than even, which might guide you on how many to include.

Ultimately, the number of olives should come down to your preference – and remember, you can always serve olives on the side and let the drinker choose how many they would like.

Other points

As with all martinis, a drink so simple can be altered radically with the inclusion or omission of the slightest step or ingredient. A dirty martini can take on a whole different character depending on the type of olives you use, especially if the olives are stuffed.

There are lots of potential varieties. Here are just a few:

  • Pimento
  • Lemon
  • Anchovy
  • Cheese

You can add olive juice instead of olive brine to really beef up the olive flavour.

It is also possible to squeeze in a twist of lemon peel to the glass before you pour your martini, as in the classic recipe, just to impart some freshness to the dirty brine.