The Secret’s in the Brine

The problem with all the recent enthusiasm for the dirty Martini, according to Long Island Bar proprietor Toby Cecchini, is that at some point, the olive brine runs out. 

“Customers routinely say: ‘filthy, like literally make it half olive juice,’” explains Cecchini. “Some while back, we realized we were having a brine crisis, not unlike the oil crisis of the 70s: There just wasn’t enough available in the large cans of Castelvetranos we use.” 

In response, the Brooklyn bar began reverse-engineering its own. “One of our clearer-headed barkeeps, KJ Williams, began making up batches of fabricated brine,” says Cecchini. The batch involves blitzing equal parts pitted Castelvetrano olives and water in a blender before adding still more water and a 12:1 salt brine solution, resulting in a salty, pulpy mix that then rests in the refrigerator for a week. Next, the mixture is strained (first through cheesecloth, then a paper coffee filter), yielding a slightly “hazy greenish” hue, before being stabilized with a dollop of Everclear. 

“This has become so necessary [that] it seems preposterous we haven’t been doing it from the beginning,” Cecchini says. “And his brine has fervent acolytes.”

Over at Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, St. John Frizell also developed his own dirty Martini brine—although his version doesn’t actually contain any olives.

“Olive brine from a jar is kind of gross and hard to work with if you’re trying to be serious about cocktails,” he explains. “There’s often stuff floating in there, and if you change olive brands, the brine changes too.”

To create a brine that would be shelf-stable, appropriately salty and tart, yet crystal-clear—“so the Martini would taste ‘dirty’ but look ‘clean’”—Frizell turned to lactic acid, mixing a small amount with a roughly 18:1 saltwater solution, taste-testing it against the brine from a good jar of olives. The not-olive brine is featured in the dirty gin and dirty vodka Martinis at Gage & Tollner, and is used at Frizell’s new location, Fort Defiance, as well.

Others are creating bespoke solutions to amp up the brine and layer in other savory flavors. Consider the MSG Martini from Bonnie’s in Brooklyn, created to honor chef Calvin Eng’s vision of incorporating the umami ingredient throughout the menu. The recipe, developed by Channing Centeno, incorporates an MSG olive brine. (While the exact solution used in the drink is a proprietary blend, the flavor can be replicated at home by combining dissolved MSG with olive brine.)

Chicago’s Lance Bowman likewise uses MSG, combining an “umami tincture” (mushroom, fennel seed, MSG and fleur de sel), “allium tincture” (onion, scallion, chive) and turmeric pickled onion brine—but no olives—to add savory interest to his Over the Top gin Martini. Meanwhile, at San Francisco bar Wildhawk, Christian Suzuki built a “sesame brine” with toasted sesame seeds and saltwater, using apple cider vinegar for tartness, in his Jusanya, a spin on a dirty vodka Martini. 

Bartenders have long obsessed over every other facet of the Martini, dirty or otherwise: the gin, vermouth, garnish, glassware, even minutiae like the amount of water that dilutes the drink and bitters blends that are doled out in dashes. For the dirty Martini in particular, a laser focus on fabricated olive brines, made with or without olives, may represent the final piece of the puzzle—and a necessary one, as demand continues to be strong. 

“It’s become Martini-mania in the last few years,” Cecchini warns. “And all of these topers want their dirty Martinis progressively dirtier and dirtier.”

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