The Shame of the Dirty Martini Drinker

Paul Blow

Adam Bryan of Bar Congress in Austin, Texas, told me that when he was manager of another great local spot, the East Side Show Room, he stopped carrying olives, one of the side benefits of which was that he could reject orders for dirty martinis without having to seem snobby. "The number of grossly dirty martinis served in this town is astounding," he said.

There was a short period in my youth when I myself was a dirty martini drinker. I had started dating a beautiful young woman who appeared to have a great, worldly taste for everything—music, clothes, cocktails. Her drink was the Ketel One dirty martini. And for a while it became mine, seeming, at the time, to be the height of sophistication.

Today, my loathing for that cocktail is intense. I agree with Marco Dionysos of San Francisco's Smuggler's Cove, who calls the dirty martini "a way for people who don't care for the taste of alcohol to pretend they're having a grown-up drink."

But Misty Kalkofen, one of the cocktail whizzes at Drink in Boston, stands up for partisans of briny cocktails (and for my younger self). "I don't think it's fair to make a sweeping generalization about the dirty martini drinker," she says. "Consider when it rose in popularity [in the ’90s], during a time when the majority of one's options on a cocktail list consisted of a base of vodka topped with several layers of overly sweet, artificially flavored modifiers. If I had to choose between a sickly-sweet nightmare or a dirty martini, I'd go dirty martini as well."

But not if that dirty martini is actually filthy. As Dionysos says, "Most bars pour warm olive juice right out of the garnish tray. Yuck." Kalkofen adds, "That warm garnish tray is the perfect breeding ground for all types of bacteria."

With that in mind, more bars are separating the olive brine and keeping it refrigerated or using a product like Dirty Sue, which is prebottled olive brine. At Drink, Kalkofen drains picholine olives from the brine, covers them in dry vermouth with thyme and sage, and lets them sit for a couple of weeks. When a guest orders a dirty martini, she says, "We muddle approximately four olives with a pinch of salt to get that 'savory' note that is the holy grail of the dirty martini drinker." Suddenly, it's not sounding that bad.

And from there, Kalkofen says, "I do my best to introduce the guest to the wonderful joys of manzanilla and fino sherries." She's had luck converting customers from dirty martini drinkers with cocktails like the Bamboo (equal parts dry vermouth and dry amontillado sherry with orange bitters) or the Dunaway (fino, Cynar, a touch of maraschino, and orange bitters).

"It's so common for bartenders to judge a person based upon the cocktail they order, and honestly, it says nothing about the human drinking the dirty martini other than they may have never had someone willing to take the time to shepherd them through a true cocktail experience," says Kalkofen. Thank you, Misty, for the path to redemption. Younger me, I forgive you for liking the dirty martini!

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.