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The story of the dirty martini – a cocktail invented sometime in the 1870s and not officially christened ‘dirty’ until the 1980s – lies more in the pedigree of the olive brine used to tart up the crisp juniper of the gin or, if you’re like me, the unstinting chill of vodka. It’s a story also intrinsically tied to New York City.
John E O’Connor purportedly added olive brine to a regular martini at New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel in 1901, marking its inception. However, it wasn’t until GH Steele’s My New Cocktail Book was published in 1930 that “a dash of olive brine” appeared in any martini recipe, up until that point an unexacting mix of two parts gin to one part vermouth.
The salty olive brine adds a savory texture that has long made these the drink of Manhattan power lunches and, more recently, endowed them with a revitalized future among younger generations flocking to classic New York cocktail spots like The Carlyle’s Bemelmans and the Rainbow Room. The drink’s resurgence in popularity has even spawned a rise in martini-inspired foods, like dirty martini roast chicken and dirty martini pasta.
Despite its evolution, the dirty martini – whether shaken, stirred, wet or dry – remains a classic cocktail. The best can still be found loitering at the finest bars and lounges in New York, where skilled mixologists craft exceptional dirty martinis that perfectly capture the essence of this iconic beverage that continues to rival any trendy competition.
In 2013, restaurateur Florian Hugo opened this Upper East Side outpost of Brasserie Cognac, the home of Parisian charm in New York. One of the best dirty martinis in the city can be found amid the red booths and gallery walls and, for those interested, a frequent filming location of Sex and the City. Each comes with three medium olives and is perfectly briny – not sour nor overpowering – employing Bel Aria pitted Castelvetrano olives (which Bon Appétit called the best olives, and who are we to argue?).
At Orsay, a neighboring diner, upon hearing my dirty drink order, leaned over to tell me that he ordered a Vesper martini because it is James Bond’s drink of choice in Casino Royale. You cannot write about martinis without mentioning their number one advertiser.
At this French brasserie on the Upper East Side, which took over the prized halls of upscale celeb-packed hotspot Mortimer’s, dirty martinis are served using the brine of Cosmo’s pitted queen olives. Three large, plump ones are included in the glass and swim around tiny chips of ice. Delicious.
Holland & York pitted olives provide the signature flavor in the dirty martinis made at Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, an unassuming and modest bistro with old-school glamour and attentive waitstaff. The food is as good as in many other, pricier eateries, but head here for a drink and the largest shrimp cocktail you’ve ever seen. You’ll decompress in the relaxed atmosphere where Adam Driver’s character sings ‘Being Alive’ in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, accompanied by the restaurant’s grand piano that provides a pint of entertainment to patrons every Friday night.
No restaurant better encapsulates the current see-and-be-seen fervor of dining out in the Big Apple quite like Aisa Shelley’s Casino on the Lower East Side, which opened in late 2022. Housed in the former digs of Mission Chinese, this coastal Italian restaurant has locals falling over themselves to snag a reservation to try ’nduja bread with honey butter and oysters on the half-shell while mooning about at half-moon banquets for a fun people-watching experience.
Their dirty martini isn’t yet as popular as the more trendy espresso martini on the menu. In fact, it’s not even on the menu. But with a heavy pour of juice from a jar of Imperial queen pitted olives and garnished with three of formidable size, it’s all too easy to sluice down and order another of the same.
At El Quijote in the newly reopened Hotel Chelsea – the legendary hotel was under construction for the better part of a decade before throwing open its doors earlier this year – there is a surprising contender for the best dirty martini.
The tapas and traditional Spanish fare from chef de cuisine Byron Hogan pair well with the dirty martini, using brine from gordal olives. Just one pierced through with a toothpick bathes in this drink, but the glacial fragments and culturally significant surroundings more than compensate for the dearth of meaty olives.
In Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, diners often queue for a beloved Italian restaurant that has remained a neighborhood mainstay since opening in 2004. Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli are the co-owners and operators of this haunt, which pioneered the crostini long before it became a menu staple everywhere.
Their take on the dirty martini – and yes, this one deviates from the classic recipe – uses not olive brine but their own signature extra virgin olive oil, made at their farm in Sicily using Nocellara Del Belice olives. A tiny pool of the oil floats tantalizingly in your glass as you contemplate whether or not a dirty martini is, really, the answer to all of life’s problems.