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Bar Talk: The New Martini

The New Martini isn’t Just Dirty or Wet — It’s Spiked with Seaweed, Brine, Pickle, or Sage

By: Kate DingwallDate: 2023-10-11

There are already dozens of ways to order a martini. Dirty or wet? Stirred over an iceberg of rocks or shaken hard and served up? A twist or a spear of olives?

Or would you prefer your martini dosed with sage brine? Speckled with celery bitters? Shaken up with chartreuse? How do you feel about a hint of za'atar?

While the martini is one of the world's most well-known cocktails, the country's best bartenders are turning the martini on its head, crafting quirky, creative iterations of the classic drink. This new breed of recipes leverages both local ingredients and far-off flavors to make salty, savoury, vegetal, and deliciously oddball martinis.

"Martinis are definitely of the moment," says Lexi Wolkowski, the maitre d' and sommelier of Parquet, a modern French spot on Harbord Street in Toronto. "Lots of my friends are drinking martinis, and I've definitely seen an uptick in dirty and savory martini orders at Parquet," says Wolkowski. To answer the call, Parquet serves up the vegetal Paris Syndrome, highlighting sake and mezcal alongside celery bitters and maraschino instead of gin or vodka.

In Vancouver, The Keefer Bar's martini—a menu staple—combines Botanist Gin (made with hand-foraged botanicals from Islay), a custom blend of dry vermouths, a hydrosol tincture made with rotating foraged ingredients, and a topping of house-pickled vegetables, olives, and a lemon twist. To finish, the blend is served at an icy 20 degrees below zero.

At Mimi's Chinese—Toronto's award-winning hotspot for hyper-regional Chinese—martinis also veer savoury. The Silk Road is an umami-driven, vesper-ish martini made with Baijiu washed with Caiziyou (rapeseed oil) instead of gin, Lillet, yellow Chartreuse, Cocchi Americano, Sichuan peppercorn tincture, and lemon oil. Instead of water to dilute the martini, bar manager Aleksandr Russell uses tea made from Osmanthus, a flower originating in Southeast China.

"The biggest martini variation I've seen ordered recently is in the dirty martini—containing shades of different brines and styles of pickles, from the ever-popular pickled ramp martini to MSG martinis [like Bonnie's in Brooklyn]," says Russell. "Familiar in flavor, but still unique––the martini is definitely making a comeback, and I couldn't be happier," he continues.

Another reason for the martini's return? Robin Goodfellow, the beverage director at Vela in Toronto, finds that bars are better stocked than they used to be. If you slid up to a bar a decade ago for a martini, you were likely to get "rotten vermouth and an under-diluted cocktail," says Goodfellow. "That's why people tend towards a dirty martini—cold olive brine is an easy fix for a warm and vinegary martini."

Or, you'd end up drinking something sickly sweet or brightly colored—like the porn star and lychee martinis that haunted the '80s and '90s. "People still confuse any drink in a V-shaped glass as a martini," he continues. "More people are learning that the classic style is just gin and vermouth. It's also nice to see people properly storing vermouth and using it in large amounts in their martinis. Good vermouth is crucial to a good martini."

Mimi's uses their martinis to reflect what the food program offers—the food features hyper-regional Chinese ingredients, so why shouldn't the martinis?

"Many menus now feature a unique take on the drink, often incorporating ingredients significant to the cultural identity of the restaurant, whether that's a philosophical, national, or regional identity," says Mimi Chinese's Russell. (Not to bash the classic steakhouse martini, but it isn't always the best pairing, physically or philosophically—"though it will forever have a place on menus, it's brash and powerful without vermouth as a softening factor," says Russell.)

"As drinkers become more informed and pay more attention to the quality of ingredients, the martini has had a chance to both return to its original palate and evolve beyond that," says Russell. "We really are right in the middle of the martini revolution."

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