In a Bid for Savory High Notes, Bartenders Play Dirty

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For too long the dirty martini has been something of a guilty pleasure, occasionally divisive, even as it remains a fan favorite among guests. Recently, the ultra-briny martini is coming out of the shadows, and with bartenders embracing its quirky charm, these dirty martinis innovations are so delicious they don’t need to clean their act up. 

“Truly savory cocktails are few and far between,”

Michael Moberly, a beverage innovation manager from Reno, Nev., says. “I’ve always found the concept of a dirty martini a really fun way to communicate umami in a cocktail.” 

Moberly turns to traditional broth-making techniques to tease out rich flavors from ingredients such as morel mushrooms that take the place of the traditional olive brine. Broths can feature onions, celery salt, black garlic and even tamari, soy sauce or peppercorns. “The martini is a great vehicle for articulating flavor that is maybe too intense on its own,” Moberly explains. 

Moberly’s finished broth is dark, and gives his martinis a black tea-like hue. “That’s why I like to garnish with a mushroom, because then that story is told across the board,” he says.

He’s also produced what he calls the “ultimate dirty martini” with a custom infusion designed to out-olive the olive brine. Moberly starts with sourcing a bright, aromatic Spanish olive oil, which he uses to fat-wash vodka (emulsify the oil and vodka, infuse, freeze, then remove and discard the oil). The resulting olive-flavored vodka is buttery and crisp, like biting into a luscious Castelvetrano olive. “Once it was stirred and the cocktail was fully prepared, it had this really decadent flavor,” he says.

Over in Portland, Oregon, what do you call a martini that’s so dirty it features blue cheese-infused vermouth and a pepperoncini brine? The “O.D.B.,” of course, as a nod to legendary Wu-Tang rapper Old Dirty Bastard as well as the drink’s savory mouthfeel.  “I wouldn’t say it’s spicy but it does give it a little bit of pepper bite,” Adam Robinson, a bar owner and veteran bartender in Portland, says. “You taste all of the elements involved. It’s not a sum of its parts.”

The “O.D.B.” begins with blue cheese (a nod to the fan favorite blue-cheese stuffed olive), which is vacuum-sealed with a full bottle of white vermouth, then left to infuse in the fridge for two days. The mixture is then strained through double cheesecloth and a fine sieve. The vermouth will be cloudy, and may settle overnight. The vermouth (.75 ounce) is added to 1.5 ounces vodka and .75 ounce pepperoncini brine, and then shaken up briskly.

“Before they get it, guests are a little confused about what it’s going to taste like,”

Robinson says. “People are surprised and delighted. More often than not, it’s ‘You have to try this,’ and the drink gets passed around. Generally speaking, people will order a second one.”

For many years, Brooklyn veteran bartender St. John Frizell couldn’t help but notice the unappetizing take on “dirty” in “dirty martini.”

“Everyone who has ever stepped behind a bar knows: It’s hard to not look at a container of olives and brine and not see a petri dish,” the esteemed Brooklyn bar owner says. “You don’t know how long it’s been there or how long that brine has been sitting there. It could be a solera system of olives and brines. You don’t know the brands of olives that have traveled through there.”

Between a wild variance of olive brine quality to bartenders using their own specs, Frizell set out to reverse-engineer an always-consistent brine that would deliver that  “dirty & salty” complexity yet be easy to replicate for service at his bars. 

His solution is an actual solution. Through research and side-by-side taste tests, he developed a saline and lactic acid solution that mimics a high quality olive brine. Armed with a clear brine for dirty martinis, the biggest challenge is convincing customers that their transparent cocktail is properly made. “Dirty martini drinkers are in some ways very hard to please,” the veteran bartender says. “To make a dirty vodka martini that people can order and have two of, that makes me very happy.”

“This is the thing: There’s no olives in my olive brine,” Frizell jokes. “No olives were harmed in the making of my brine. It’s purely through chemicals. It’s salt, lactic acid and water.”

“If I make you a martini with this stuff and I drop an olive in there, you swear it has olive juice in it,”

Frizell says. “It’s a really cool sensory illusion.” 

And if you happen to be that customer that wants extra brine? (You know who you are.) “It’s easy for us to send out a little sidecar with extra brine,” Frizell says. “It’s just salt water with a little acid in it. We can make more.”

Check out our Campari Academy recipe: Mushroom Dirty Martini