The Martini renaissance has meant boom times for the dirty Martini, which has not only enjoyed a new moment in the spotlight, it’s also gotten dirtier. But the qualifier “dirty” is no longer confined to Martinis alone. Today there are dirty highballs, dirty Salty Dogs and dirty Margaritas. Briny is the flavor of the times, it seems, and there’s no one way to do it.
A standard, straight-from-the-bottle brine—olive and pickle are the classics—is the easiest option, but bars are increasingly turning to bespoke versions. In response to what some are calling the “brine crisis” (a consequence of the popularity of extra-dirty, filthy Martinis), the new brines blitz whole pitted olives with water and Everclear, or skip the olives altogether, using lactic acid or apple cider and toasted sesame to approximate the savory-tart flavor. Some bartenders are pickling tomatillos, onions and more in-house.
For others, an actual brine isn’t necessary to achieve an umami-packed drink. A number of bartenders call on an infusion, especially for the vermouth portion of the cocktail. The Trash-Tini, for example, infuses dry vermouth with the charred scraps from two onions, while the miniature Chupetini combines alliums and herbs to make “Umami Bomb infused vermouth.”
Dirty cocktails are increasingly relying on spectacle—with varying levels of success. (A clever, pintxo-topped Martini surprises and delights with its structural garnish, while a cheesy rendition is a curdled, regrettable mess.) Perhaps one of the biggest signs of the times is that even cocktail ice cubes, which bartenders once obsessively tinkered with to ensure a crystal-clear appearance, have gone dirty. “My M.O. is that you can’t have too many olives, so the more the merrier,” says Leslie Kirchhoff, founder of Disco Cubes, which makes designer ice, including versions from frozen brine. “It’s become Martini-mania in the last few years,” says Long Island Bar proprietor Toby Cecchini. “And all of these topers want their dirty Martinis progressively dirtier and dirtier.”