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Martini Madness

Martini Madness
Written by Hannah Lee Leidy | Image by Andrew Cebulka

In the spirit of March Madness, we turned, not to our televisions, but to bartenders around the South. Looking to shake up a classic drink, the dirty martini, we asked what they might reach for—aside from the traditional olive brine—to add filth to the cocktail. After all, who’s to say olive brine is superior to the flavorful juices that accompany other pickled and preserved foodstuffs? 

Not us, and definitely not these beverage professionals. 

Some pulled contributions from their cocktail menus, and others turned to their own creativity for inspiration. From the sensible to the zany, try these expert-recommended additions to shake up your at-home martini game.

Olive-the Other Ways to Make a Dirty Martini

phytoplankton brine martini at Seabird, Wilmington
Image by Doug Young

Phytoplankton

The seafood-focused menu at Seabird in Wilmington, North Carolina, extends even to their beverage menu. They serve a martini made with freeze-dried phytoplankton along with castelvetrano olive juice. “The taste is like ocean meets scallops meets truffle, so super concentrated ocean flavor,” says chef and restaurant owner Dean Neff. 

Seabird, Wilmington, North Carolina

Rosemary-Infused Brine

Colin Bard of Oak Steakhouse steeps olive juice with rosemary sprigs, and, after it sits for a few days, he blitzes it with a Vitamix and double strains the resulting liquid. He uses this as an earthier, herbaceous take on the traditional dirty martini, garnishing it with blue cheese olives skewered on a rosemary sprig. “The whole thing made me think of someone working in their herb bed on a hot day with dirty, soil-covered hands and a little sweat on their brow,” Bard says. Hence the drink’s name, the Dirty Gardener.

Oak Steakhouse, Highlands, North Carolina

Mignonette + More!

Brasserie la Banque in downtown Charleston offers various brines to dirty up a martini, including pickled olive brine, cassis brine, and balsamic de modena, in addition to olive brine. “My personal favorite,” says bar manager Koky Lopez, “is our house-made champagne mignonette. It adds the respective flavor profiles, attitude, and acidity!”

Brasserie la Banque, Charleston

Silver Bullet, a blue cheese infused dirty martini
Image courtesy of Helen, Birmingham

Blue Cheese

The bar staff at Helen in Birmingham makes a funk-forward drink by infusing 2 cups of Dolin Dry with 1 cup of cubed blue cheese and 1 tablespoon of dried orange peel. The mixture, after sitting for three days, becomes their house brine for gin martinis.

“The infusion is in place of the typical vermouth. Toss a cube of blue cheese in the bottom of the glass and enjoy a fun alternative to a dirty martini for any and all blue cheese-stuffed olive lovers out there,” says the bar managers, Hannah Smarr and Kristine Brown

Helen, Birmingham, Alabama

Spicy Onion 

“We do an onion brine with serrano chilis and saffron that is to die for,” Kenneth Vanhooser, the bar manager at Le Loup in Nashville, says. The solution additionally includes mustard seed, bay leaves, coriander, garlic powder, cinnamon, carrots, and celery. They reserve the onion water to freeze into ice cubes. Just ask Vanhooser:“It’s next level!” 

Kenneth Vanhooser, bar manager of Le Loup, Nashville

The OBD Martini at Jargon in Asheville, garnished with an olive and scallion

Pickled Ramps

For “an Appalachian spin on the dirty martini,” try pickled ramp brine. Andrew Bradford serves this, the ODB Martini, seasonally at Jargon in Asheville, North Carolina. He pickles fresh ramps in a rice wine vinegar solution for at least a month. Then, the brine is combined with caper brine (“for a salt element”) and Carpano Dry vermouth.

“The finished cocktail has a wonderfully fresh allium backbone,” Bradford says.

Jargon, Asheville, North Carolina

Olive Oil

Lyla Lila prepares their dirty martinis with a fat-wash of olive oil, which gives a silkier and more complex texture to the drink than the brine alone. It works with both gin and vodka. This base offers a clean slate to experiment with additional flavors. “We also add citrus peels to the infusion, but adding additional botanicals like basil or rosemary or thyme could really dial up the savory aspect of your martini!” beverage director Alex Brashears says.

Lyla Lila, Atlanta

Stop Making Sense martini made at Lyla Lila, with an olive oil wash

Stop Making Sense

Get the Recipe

Pickled Peppers

Jose Medina Camacho of Automatic Seafood and Oysters in Birmingham puts heat on the dirty martini by using a pickled pepper brine. He recommends using La Morena. 

Automatic Seafood and Oysters, Birmingham

Caperberry Brine

Lee Katrincic of Corpse Reviver bar in Durham, North Carolina, suggests swapping olive juice with caperberry brine. Use the same amount that you would with olives, but the end result puts a tangier bite on the average dirty martini.

Corpse Reviver, Durham, North Carolina

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