Big Little Recipes

Your Dirty Martini Is Due for an Update

July 27, 2021

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One hundred and thirty-three years ago, the martini made its publishing debut. In an overhauled edition of Bartender’s Manual, Harry Johnson shared a recipe calling for equal parts of Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth, plus a few dashes of gum syrup, bitters, and Curaçao, strained into “a fancy cocktail glass.”

As one century blurred into the next, the martini rose to an Olivia Rodrigo level of popularity and, in the process, started to have an identity crisis. In its early years, the drink was either sweet or dry, or somewhere in between, depending on the gin and vermouth. But by the mid 1900s, the refreshing, ruthlessly dry martini won out.

And then, in the early 1990s, there was a crack in the space-time continuum. “Bartenders started slipping a little of the salty stuff into the usual mix of gin or vodka and vermouth,” writes Robert Simonson in The Martini Cocktail (a must-read for anyone who looks forward to a martini after work). This changed everything.

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Top Comment:
“My favorite (nightly in fact) vodka martini is over ice with a crushed fresh basil leaf or two and a twist of Meyer delicious! ”
— Connie B.

What started as an amber drink, and became famous as a clear one, had now turned dirty. You know, in a good way. The “salty stuff” refers to brine—almost always olive (and occasionally cocktail-onion, though I’d argue such a swap is swimming away from a martini and toward a Gibson).


But why stop at olive brine? (No offense to olive brine, which I love and never don’t have—and, by the way, did you know that you can buy it straight-up?) There are so many brines out there. Pickle brine, which has become a newfangled dirty martini favorite. Or caper brine.

Or feta brine.

This milky liquid tags along with any block of good feta. And while the cheese might have been the intended purchase, the by-product is a special ingredient all its own. Look no further than this genius Feta-Brined Roast Chicken from Melissa Clark. Or this passionate ode to feta brine from our columnist Ella Quittner. One commenter shared, “I actually drink it sometimes.” To which Ella responded, “Honestly, same.”

And honestly, same. Because while olive brine is too salty and vinegary to sip solo—and this comes from a person who, as a child, ate capers, just capers, as a snack—feta brine is mellower. It is salty and savory, but fuller and softer, the round boy of the brine world.

With a feta-overstuffed olive, it yields my new favorite martini. And you don’t even need the fancy cocktail glass.

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in October 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Connie B. July 31, 2021
My favorite (nightly in fact) vodka martini is over ice with a crushed fresh basil leaf or two and a twist of Meyer delicious!
Author Comment
Emma L. August 2, 2021
Sounds so good!
Connie B. August 2, 2021
Forgot to mention.......I add a good splash of water too.
Steve July 27, 2021
A Martini is a gin cocktail. Your cocktail was originally called a Kangaroo Kicker, then a Kangaroo. Now it is most often called a Vodkatini. A fine cocktail. But not a Martini any more than a Boulevardier is a Negroni.

Kangaroo Kicker, 1943 Cocktail Digest by Oscar Haimo of the Hotel Pierre, p49

Kangaroo Kicker, The Stork Club Bar Book by Lucius Beebe, 1946
jeanfc1 September 22, 2021
i agree martini's started as a gin drink.then vodka came into the picture. what really gets me these sweet or concocted drinks being called a martini when i look at a menu and it shows all kinds of concoctions as a martini. yuk too moste of them!