Despite its name, the Mexican Martini is not particularly Martini-like in construction. But, in its native Austin, Texas, the drink’s rabid following and cultural impact put it on a par with the gin classic.
A straightforward build of tequila, Cointreau, fresh lime juice and olive brine, shaken and served up in a salt-rimmed Martini glass, the Mexican Martini has been a staple at Austin’s Cedar Door since the early 1980s, arriving by way of Matamoros, Mexico.
As current owner Heather Potts tells it, a Cedar Door bartender named Ellen was served an olive brine–enhanced Margarita while on vacation south of the border. Impressed by the cocktail’s sweet-salty profile and thirst-slaking capabilities, Ellen introduced the idea to Cedar Door founders Gus and Diane Koerner. The drink was quickly adopted with a Cedar Door flourish: three pimiento-stuffed olives and a lime wedge, served with the shaker full of the excess drink on the side so guests could top up their glass—a presentation that’s been duplicated at bars and Mexican restaurants across Austin.
Of course, as so often happens in cocktail lore, the Cedar Door is not alone in claiming the Mexican Martini. Trudy’s, a local Tex-Mex chain, has long asserted that the drink was invented there, where it is known instead as the Mex-Mart. But Potts respectfully disagrees, saying that Cedar Door has documentation in its archives about the cocktail’s migration to Austin.
“Ellen introduced it, but it was late longtime bartender Jim LeMond who made it famous,” she says. “Jim was a career barman, a great storyteller; he had a way of connecting with guests and that made him instrumental, along with other employees, in the Mexican Martini’s success.”
LeMond was a beloved part of the community, and so intrinsically tied to the Mexican Martini that it was referenced in his 2019 obituary. He was even quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Bartenders I knew would come in and ask me how to make [it]. And two weeks later I’d see it on their menu.”
Potts, a native Austinite, recalls that when she and her husband, Steve, bought the 48-year-old bar from the Koerners in 2002, the Mexican Martini was already well-established as the city’s unofficial cocktail, owing partly to its pared-back build. “It’s just a very simple, unpretentious drink,” she says.
Today, the drink is no less ubiquitous and riffs appear on menus across town, including a “secret … spicy” version at Polvo’s restaurant and a jalapeño-stuffed olive-adorned riff at Chuy’s Tex-Mex. It can even be found in some other Texas cities, but remains indisputably an “Austin thing,” says Potts. There, the drink acts as a cultural touchstone and summertime necessity.
“It’s a fun, refreshing tequila cocktail that’s sweet, salty and acidic at once; perfect for a city with hot weather and full of patios,” says Erin Ashford, proprietor of the forthcoming Eastside bar Holiday, where she’ll be introducing Austinites to a frozen Mexican Martini made with tequila, triple sec, lime and an olive brine float. “While I love the interactive aspect of presenting the classic with the shaker, they take up space on the table and it’s messy having people pour their own,” she says. “I figured the only way to serve it without letting guests down was to change the format.”
Potts, for her part, is a stickler for the classic, writing off versions with unorthodox additions like orange juice or Sprite as heresy. She prefers her Mexican Martini “shaken hard for a frothy, icy drink.” But most important to her is the drink’s connection to her hometown. “When people tell me why they love the Mexican Martini, it always goes hand-in-hand with the city’s laid-back vibe and the stories told while imbibing,” she says. “It’s a cocktail meant to be shared over lingering conversation.”