Easy, elegant and potent, the Dirty Martini is an ideal choice for drinkers who prefer savoury over sweet, and like their cocktails straightforward rather than fussy.
Unlike some other variations on the classic Martini, such as the Espresso Martini which debuted as recently as the early 1980s, the Dirty Martini has a long and distinguished history.
According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, quoted in Punch, the first incarnation of the Dirty Martini was created way back in 1901, ‘when John E O’Connor served a Martini with mixed olives at the Waldorf Astoria’. Fast forward 30 years, and GH Steele’s My New Cocktail Book includes the recipe for a drink made with gin, vodka, vermouth, bitters and one teaspoon of olive brine.
Famous fans of the Dirty Martini include US president Franklin D Roosevelt, who used to serve and drink them at the White House. Although it has many other fans, the Dirty Martini can be a polarising cocktail and does have its detractors – some purists see it as the unnecessary bastardisation of the classic Martini.
For those of us who can’t get enough of the Dirty Martini’s saline kick, help is at hand. Elon Soddu, formerly head mixologist at London’s The Savoy and owner of Amaro cocktail bar in Kensington, says there are many small things you can do to make your Dirty Martini taste better. Freeze your glass, he advises, and stir the Martini in a stainless steel mixing glass, using an ice block, to keep the temperature very low.
It goes without saying that high-quality gin and vermouth will make for a more satisfying serve. This is a cocktail that can be made with either vodka or gin. Soddu likes the complexity that gin brings to the mix: ‘You see the botanicals coming through, blended with salty brine and olives. The vodka version is less complex.’
He tends to choose a London Dry style for a Dirty Martini, such as Tanqueray, but there are many exciting options that will work a treat (see below). Soddu favours a classic style of dry vermouth, such as Cocchi or Noilly Prat, using it to make a dry or wet Martini according to the customer’s preference. ‘In a dry Martini, you use it just to rinse the glass, whereas in a wet martini you actually add the vermouth into the mix, stirring it well (never shaking).’
Don’t forget the quality of the olive brine and the olives for garnish too. ‘I like to use Nocellara olives,’ says Soddu; ‘the pulp of the olive has a perfect texture, not too thick or thin.’ You can use olive brine from your olives, straining through a fine strainer if necessary, or a ready-prepared brine such as Dirty Sue’s Premium Olive Juice.
When it comes to adding the brine, there are different approaches. Some bartenders prefer to muddle the olives in the mixing glass to release a bit of juice and then add just a little brine. The alternative is to just use the brine – this is more dirty, and how American drinkers tend to like it. Bitters can be added, such as olive bitters from The Bitter Truth (pictured above). Soddu likes to use a couple of dashes of orange bitter, for contrast.
Elon Soddu’s perfect Dirty Martini
Garnish Nocellara olives
Method Add the gin, vermouth, bitters and brine to a stainless steel mixing glass and stir for about 20 seconds using a large block of ice. Strain into a chilled Martini glass.
15ml dry white vermouth
20-25ml olive brine
couple of dashes orange bitters
Best gins for a Dirty Martini
Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin Navy Strength
Bottled at a higher strength than the original Bathtub Gin, this packs a flavour punch too, infused with crushed botanicals that include cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander and orange peel. Mouthfilling and intensely flavoured, this has an oily texture which works well in a Dirty Martini, plus a lingering finish. A good choice for cocktails where you want the botanicals to shine through. Alcohol 57%
Four Pillars Olive Leaf Gin
Launched in 2020, this Australian gin combines olive leaf from three varieties of olive with seven other botanicals including coriander seed, rosemary, olive leaf, extra virgin olive oil, bay leaf, lemon myrtle, macadamia, orris root, and fresh lemon and grapefruit. Perfect in a Dirty Martini, you could also try in a Gibson (60ml gin, 10ml dry vermouth and 10ml dry sherry, stirred in a cold glass and garnished with a couple of cocktail onions. Alc 43.8%
Dà Mhìle Seaweed Gin
Originally designed to complement seafood, this savoury gin is infused for three weeks with seaweed sourced organically from the Newquay coast, after it has been distilled. Notes of garden herbs mingle with the coastal, saline, sea spray character, the perfect complement to the olive notes in a Dirty Martini. Alc 42%
The ultimate Mediterranean gin, this adds thyme from Greece, rosemary from Turkey, basil from Italy and Arbequina olives from Spain (note the olive leaf pattern on the bottle) to the more commonly found botanicals of juniper, coriander, citrus peel and cardamom. Using this in a Dirty Martini accentuates the salty olive notes in the gin, and gives a crisp, savoury flourish on the finish. Alc 42.7%
Portobello Road London Dry No 171 Gin
The excellent Portobello Road Distillery in London produces this savoury gin using Mediterranean botanicals including rosemary and green olive, plus a pinch of sea salt – notes that chime perfectly with a Dirty Martini. There’s a lovely soft olive oil unctuousness to the texture that makes it perfect for a Martini, along with a proper hit of juniper and cleansing citrus to refresh after each sip. Alc 42%
Rutte Celery Gin
Celery leaf has been used by this Dutch distillery in its gin since it was founded back in 1872. Light and citrussy, the gin also has notes of coriander and parsley. The savoury celery note works a treat in a Dirty Martini, but also makes this gin perfect to use in a Red Snapper (a Bloody Mary but with gin instead of vodka). Alc 43%
Always a popular choice, this gin is made with the same four botanicals that featured in the recipe created by Charles Tanqueray in 1830: juniper, coriander, angelica and sweet liquorice. Distilled four times for absolute smoothness, Tanqueray pairs perfectly with olive brine, making this a good mainstream option. Alc 47.3%
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
In 2020, Bruichladdich distillery on the Scottish island of Islay became the first whisky and gin distilling company in Europe to become a certified B Corporation, making this the perfect choice for the socially and environmentally conscious shopper. Of the 31 botanicals used, 22 are foraged from the hills, bogs and shores of the Hebridean island, and the flavour profile is citrus- and herb-led. The olive brine in a Dirty Martini helps the umami notes that you find in this gin to shine through. Alc 46%