The Case for Filthy, Sopping-Wet Martinis

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Vicky Wasik

In the spring of 2015, our resident cocktail expert, Michael Dietsch, sent out an email to the Serious Eats staff asking whether anyone wanted to participate in a taste test to help him determine the best gin for a martini. As a dirty-martini fiend with strong feelings about day-drinking—particularly day-drinking for work—I didn't hesitate to volunteer. I even went so far as to forward the message to a few friends, with some braggy I can't believe this is my job remarks.

And so, a week later, we assembled at the Serious Eats office on a Friday afternoon, a crew of bartenders and drinks writers and Serious Eats staff members, all prepared to sip-and-spit our way through 10 different gin martinis. But halfway through the test, I threw my hands up and withdrew from the experiment: I could barely tell one gin from the next, and, even worse, without that signature splash of olive brine (which Michael's on record saying he's "never understood"), I found every martini to be borderline undrinkable.

Exasperated, I grabbed a few of the cups, with their miniature martini portions, and dumped them into a single glass for a mystery potion of gins, diluted with a generous pour of olive brine and a half dozen olives, and retreated to my desk to mull over my failure.

I'd love to say it was all Michael's fault, that the drinks were poorly mixed or the gins were all crap. But I'd be lying; he'd whipped up balanced, icy 2:1 blends of gin and vermouth, portioned out in perfect, even servings. The gins were all mid- to high-end, well-respected labels. I was simply the anomaly on the panel, the only one who wasn't hmmm-ing and aha-ing her way through the test, taking extensive notes on the nuances of each drink and searching for just the right proportions of juniper, coriander, and cardamom.

Ask the die-hard martini enthusiasts of the world and they'll tell you that this 2:1 iteration of the cocktail is revelatory. That it's capable of showcasing the intricate botanical flavors of excellent gin, coupled with a mellowing, acid-sweet touch of dry vermouth. As Michael wrote in his story detailing the taste test's findings, a great martini should be "a crisp, cold, silky-smooth drink that tastes of juniper and woody herbs and citrus peel."

It sounds good. Really good. Just not my good.

The problem, I realized, is that a dry martini has a lot in common with its most iconic consumer in pop culture—like James Bond, it's strong, sexy, and, dare I say, typically quite stiff. But at the end of the day, neither one is really my type: Dry martinis are simply too boozy (and Bond a little too misogynistic) for my palate. Even when the cocktail's made with the best of gins, it blows out my taste buds; to me, it tastes more like straight rubbing alcohol than a carefully made botanical spirit. And, to be totally frank, it wasn't until that fateful day that I realized not everyone felt that way—for years, whenever I saw someone order a dry martini at a bar, I'd imagine them internally cringing with each sip while basking in the aura of badassery that surrounds the cocktail-lounge classic.

Certainly, I struggled through my fair share of aspirational-cool martinis before my olive-obsessed college roommate introduced me to their brine-doctored counterparts. That first oceanic sip was a transformative moment. Together, we sat on our dilapidated couch, sipping from elegant chilled martini glasses and making our way through a bowl of La Española anchovy-stuffed olives, reveling in the jolting saltiness of the whole endeavor. Soon I was making martinis at home on the regular, splashing olive juice and vermouth into my glass until the concoction went down nice and smooth, without the slightest eye-twitching pucker.

Which is how, over the better part of a decade, my homemade cocktails have slipped from martinis into something so unrecognizable that I can't, in good conscience, order it in public: a filthy, savory, sopping-wet riot of olive brine, olives, vermouth, and gin (in roughly that order). It's a drink most serious gin lovers would scoff at. But the more people I talk to, the more I've learned that I'm not alone—almost everyone I've pressed on the matter actually admits they'd take a dirtier, wetter martini over its drier cousin in a second. Many do, and without hesitation, but countless others seem to live in fear of the judginess that martini purists reserve for so-called wimpier versions of the drink.

But if you look to the martini's origin story, my preferred level of dilution doesn't seem quite as absurd. The most reliable histories indicate that the proto-martini was likely the Martinez, a cocktail of faintly sweet Old Tom gin paired with sweet vermouth and a splash of liqueur. A far cry from the sharply saline mixture I treasure, but equally divergent from the drink most martini fans know today. Michael offers a more in-depth look at the emergence of the contemporary martini, but suffice it to say that the 21st-century dry martini is substantially drier than even the early-20th-century "dry" incarnations, which commonly featured equal parts London Dry gin and dry vermouth.

And the martini is a drink rife with potential for interpretation. No, I'm not talking about playing with shaken or stirred, straight up or on the rocks. Nor am I referring to extremes of cloyingly sweet apple-/cran-/choco-"tinis" on the one hand, or the tired, dubiously accurate white-man quotes trotted out by jokesters and irreverent straight-gin drinkers on the other—Winston Churchill's "I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini," Hitchcock's recipe of "five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth," and so forth. Increasingly, drinkers seem to be more thoughtfully embracing the martini's versatility, experimenting with vermouth substitutes—this sherry martini's a great example—or even testing out alternative spirits, like the mezcal martini at San Francisco's Cala: a savory mix of lightly smoky mezcal and salty-sweet Castelvetrano olive brine, softened with a touch of Mandarine Napoléon and a dash of fennel bitters.

Inspired by this new frontier, I've let myself embrace my martinis, and let them become even screwier. When I finish a jar of olives, I'll whip up a batched martini right in the jar. I'll throw in cocktail onions or capers, use pickle juice in place of olive brine—anything that combines that savory salinity with the floral bloom of gin and a juicy current of vermouth. Hell, I'll practically make a salad of the pickled ingredients, served in a delicate dressing of equal parts gin and vermouth. When I'm feeling really creative, I'll freeze that olive brine in an ice cube tray with an olive in each cube. Stirred with gin and vermouth, it makes a bracing but quick and easy picker-upper come evening.

The best part about the filthy, sopping-wet martini is that the quality of the gin matters less, not more: It's a budget drink, for thrifty cocktail-makers like me who are looking to use up the last of the pickling liquid and that final ounce or two of gin (off-brand or otherwise) sloshing around in a bottle. It gets me a little drunk and provides a nice snack to boot, and it tastes just how I like it—cheap, easy, briny, and delicious. Maybe, just maybe, you'll like it, too.