The Dirty Martini: a salty, powerful, standby

Some people are slaves to their sweet tooth. I’m at the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: My taste buds crave the saltiest of salty, from briny cornichons and unctuous tinned sardines to garlicky saucisson sec—even the occasional bag of (dare I say) Cheetos.

That goes double for my libation of choice: the dirty martini. The cocktail’s provenance is foggy—origin stories range from early 20th-century Big Apple bartender John O’Connor to FDR (no, seriously), a theory posited by Dale Degroff, King Cocktail himself. Ultimately though, the identity of who first spiked a crisp cocktail with the salty nectar of olive brine is less important than this ultimate truth: The dirty martini may well be the ultimate cocktail for this moment in time.

Think about it: while sheltering in place, simplicity is key—we may have the time, but few of us have the desire to deal with obscure ingredients, and it doesn’t get much simpler than vodka, olives, and brine. (I’ve decided not to adjudicate the does-gin-or-vodka-constitute-a-martini? matter here: I will say, however, that I favor vodka for the dirty variety.)

Even with so few ingredients, it’s easy to shake up an inferior version. A few crucial tips:

1. Chill your glasses.

Cold is key, so pop your martini glasses in the freezer for at least 30 minutes prior to drinking, and remove them only when you’re ready to pour.

2. When it comes to olives, size matters.

The bigger the better; the more the better. Go for pimento-stuffed Spanish queen olives; a jumbo 4-inch skewer accommodates four easy. Want to get fancy? Pluck out the pimento and hand stuff ‘em with crumbled blue or gorgonzola—an easy purchase at the grocery store and 10 times better than the mealy pre-stuffed variety.

3. Choose your own adventure.

No olives in the house? Anything pickled will do to add briny zip to the drink (I personally love a “Dirty Dilly,” with pickle juice and a baby dill garnish, or a spear of pickled okra).

4. Your shaker is your friend.

Using a jerry-rigged combo of two pint classes to shake a cocktail is perilous. Invest in a quality shaker; I prefer one with a built-in strainer, and this one is a champ.

5. Shake like your life depends on it.

Nothing is more disappointing than a martini served tepid—I have stopped frequenting bars (remember those?) based solely on repeated offenses of this crime against the cocktail—so fill your shaker with ice and go to town. Sing Happy Birthday twice. Count to 20, at least—whatever it takes to get to Icy Town.

For the final word on the subject, we consulted the experts at iconic Chicago steakhouse Gibsons, one of the city’s top drinking spots, which shook up a whopping 62,485 martinis in 2019—including barrels full of dirtys—at its two Gold Coast restaurants. “When done properly, a martini is like jazz,” says Gibsons barman Mark Wagner, a staple at the restaurant since ’92. “For a dirty martini, as with adding salt to food, the pleasantness of the brine balances and heightens the flavor of the spirit. The pairing of the two stimulates and pleases the taste buds.” And how.

Here, Wagner shares his recipe for the ultimate dirty, famously “served as cold as your ex’s heart” and available for shaking up at home with the restaurants’ DIY cocktail kits.

Gibsons’ Dirty Martini

Mix 4 oz. Grey Goose vodka and 1/2 oz. filtered olive juice. Fill a stainless steel shaker with ice and pour in vodka and olive juice. Shake vigorously ten times, let sit for 30 seconds, then give another ten shakes. You’ll know its ready when the shaker is very cold to the touch and ice forms on the outside. 

Pour boldly into a chilled martini glass, garnish generously, and serve.