Why Is It Called a Dirty Martini?

Reviewed by Mixologist and BarSmarts Graduate Karen Frazier
Dirty martini

Many people wonder what makes a drink, particularly a martini, dirty. If you are a martini drinker, you may have noticed other bar patrons ordering theirs "dirty" and wondered what's in a dirty martini. While it may not sound appealing, a dirty martini is actually a flavorful variation on the traditional cocktail, and it doesn't involve dirt at all.

Why Is It Called a Dirty Martini?

The classic martini, which contains gin and dry vermouth, is very clean, dry, and aromatic. The color of the drink is as clear as a mountain stream because it only uses clear-colored liquors. However, when you add a splash of olive juice, it adds a cloudy appearance and interesting character to the drink that disrupts the clean flavors but still tastes great. The result is that you've dirtied the martini, thus the name, dirty martini. You can do the same to a vodka martini.

FDR and the Dirty Martini

Franklin Roosevelt is credited with popularizing this cocktail. Supposedly, during World War II, he met with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill and served them dirty martinis.

Garnishes

A dirty martini is garnished similarly to a traditional martini, but since the focus is on the olives, some recipes call for gourmet versions such as blue cheese, garlic, or jalapeno stuffed olives. A classic martini uses an unstuffed Spanish olive as garnish.

Dirty Martini Mix

While the tastiest tactic is to use fresh olive brine, you may end up with many jars of dry olives if you make this cocktail very often at home. One option is to purchase a large jar of gourmet olives and mix dry vermouth with the juice to make it last longer. However, many manufacturers sell pre-made dirty martini mix.

Tips for Making a Good Dirty Martini

When this cocktail is made well, it can be delicious and earthy. However, it can be salty and rather disgusting when made wrong. Here are a few strategies to get it right:

  • Use gin instead of vodka. The subtle flavor of vodka is no match for the strong flavor of olive brine, while gin's herbal overtones provide a better balance.
  • Determine whether you prefer your dirty martini "slightly dirty" or "filthy". Start with half an ounce of brine to three ounces of gin or vodka, and proceed with caution.
  • Skip the vermouth. The sourness of vermouth can be an odd mix with olive brine. Also, some brines already contain vermouth, so adding more would be overkill.
  • Shake, don't stir. Traditional martinis are stirred; however, when you add juices such as olive brine, you need to shake to integrate the brine into the alcohol.
  • Don't skimp on the olives. Spend the extra money to get high quality, gourmet olives, and don't use them after they've been sitting in your fridge for too long.

Substitutes for Olive Juice in a Dirty Martini

While olive juice is the classic ingredient to make a martini dirty, you can try the following as well for a slightly different drink.

  • Dill pickle or spicy pickle brine adds dill and garlic flavors.
  • Pepperoncini brine adds a little heat.
  • Caper brine adds a saltiness and distinctive flavor.
  • Jalapeño brine brings the heat.

Meaning of Other Dirty Drinks

You can make other drinks "dirty" as well. To make a drink dirty, you don't need to add olive brine as you would in a dirty martini, however. Instead, you add an ingredient that somehow changes the color or character of the original drink. For example, a dirty mojito uses raw sugar instead of white sugar or sugar syrup, which changes the drink's color to a murkier shade.

Enjoy a Dirty Martini

Next time you're out on the town or you host a party, try serving dirty martinis. You're sure to enjoy the difference in flavor the olive brine adds to a classic cocktail.

Why Is It Called a Dirty Martini?