NEW YORK – In this age of the aspirational cocktail, when bar menus can read like manifestoes or museum catalogs, certain drink orders are guaranteed to ignite the spleen of the serious bartender. Among them: the mojito (a lot of labor, particularly if customers ask for seven, which they often do); the Cosmopolitan (“Sex and the City” ended a while back); the vodka Red Bull (take your bad decisions outside); and the Bloody Mary, if ordered at night (seriously?).
And then there is the dirty martini, a salty invention that crowns the martini, a flawless drink, with a slop of random olive brine. It is the poison of choice of many a customer but, to some mixologists, just plain poison.
One New York bartender, Naren Young, decided to do something about it.
“It all started with the fact that I hate dirty martinis,” said Young, the beverage director for the Empellón Mexican restaurants. “I used that as a challenge. How can we turn this into something respectable?”
Simply ignoring the cocktail was not an option, since there is probably one being ordered in half the bars in Manhattan this very moment. That includes Saxon & Parole, the East Village restaurant and bar where Young was in charge of the cocktail program until August.
“It’s such an important drink in the New York scene,” he said. “Not important like the Manhattan is important, but they’re everywhere.”
So he tried taking the dirty martini a few steps up in class. The result, two years in the making, is Olives 7 Ways, a drink that this week joined the menu at Saxon & Parole.
To create the cocktail, which has as many working parts as a Swiss watch, Young marshaled forces from all over New York. He began by throwing out the olive brine that defines the dirty martini. He replaced it with an olive distillate, made (in collaboration with New York Distilling Co., in Brooklyn) by sending chopped Cerignola olives and neutral spirit through a small still. Just a touch of the spirit goes in the drink.
He then commissioned Zachary Feldman, the owner of Bitters, Old Men, a Manhattan maker of bitters, to create a custom olive bitters. Feldman used a mix of olive varietals from Greece, Italy, France and Spain, as well as oil-cured Moroccan olives and equal parts gentian root and wormwood.
The gin in the cocktail is a potent one: Perry’s Tot, a navy-strength version (57 percent alcohol) made by New York Distilling. The vermouth is Noilly Prat, infused with Cerignola olives. Also in the drink is a small amount of olive shrub, a traditional acidic beverage made with olives, sugar and vinegar. Finally, the concoction is topped with an additional spray of the olive bitters and a few dots of olive oil, which rest on the surface. A small dish of olives, as well as botanicals found in the gin, accompany the drink. (If you’re counting, it does indeed involve olives seven different ways.)
The cocktail is full-bodied and rich, owing to the shrub, the infused vermouth and a fairly wet, 50-50 ratio between the vermouth and gin. It is also more elegant than any offspring of the dirty martini deserves to be.
“You’d think it would be an olive bomb,” Young said, “but it’s really subtle.”
And fairly complicated. For the home bartender, Young has devised the simplified recipe provided here. It requires infusing your own vermouth with olives, but the process requires little more than some planning, and it leaves you with a nice mixer for future drinks.
The Improved Dirty Martini
From Naren Young, beverage director, Empellón restaurants, New York
Time: 5 minutes, plus 3 days to infuse vermouth
Yield: 1 drink
375 ml dry vermouth, preferably Noilly Prat
a cup chopped Cerignola olives
1a ounces navy-strength gin, preferably Perry’s Tot
A few drops of extra-virgin olive oil
Mixed olives, for serving
1. Combine vermouth and chopped olives in a sealed glass container and let sit for 3 days. Shake periodically.
2. Chill a cocktail glass by filling it with ice or putting it in the freezer for about 5 minutes.
3. In a mixing glass filled three-quarters full with ice, pour the gin and 1½ ounces of the infused vermouth. Stir until chilled, about 30 seconds, and strain into the chilled glass. Carefully drip a few drops of olive oil (with an eye-dropper, if possible) onto the drink’s surface. Serve with a small dish of mixed olives.