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Best Midwestern gins for dirty martinis

Our favorite cocktail is too often maligned by bartenders, but there's nothing wrong with adding a little olive juice to our gin martinis. Here's why.
Photograph: Nick Murway Weegee's Lounge
By Anthony Todd |

I have a confession. My drink of choice, my weeknight indulgence, my favorite libation is the dirty gin martini. Why is this a confession, you might ask? Well, because among snobby drink geeks, admitting that you like dirty martinis is like admitting that you pop open Coors Light on the weekends—an instant mark of clueless rube-hood.

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Bartenders, especially those wearing vests, regularly refuse to make me the drink, turning their nose up at my disgusting indulgence. At one popular Chicago bar/restaurant, I order the drink only if I’m hiding in the dining room, just so the bar staff won’t give me a look over their handlebar mustachios.  At another, I once had a bartender refuse to use the gin that I had ordered, insisting that he wouldn’t waste such a good spirit in such a bad drink.

From me to you, mixers: Get over it. 

I’ve heard several explanations for why bartenders hate this drink, some plausible and some absurd. Among the plausible: Olive juice, a primary ingredient in the drink, isn’t a standardized ingredient, so it’s difficult to make the drink reliably every time. Among the absurd: It’s a drink for those who want to cover up the taste of gin.

It’s true—a true dirty devotee has to pick a consistent brand of olives and do some experimentation if they want the same drink every time. In case you care, my favorite variety is the pimento-stuffed from Santa Barbara Olive Company, and I use about half an ounce of brine. Sometimes bartenders just randomly splash juice from an olive tray into the shaker. This is a big no-no, and a clue that they aren’t paying much attention.

As for the absurb claim, I love spirits and wouldn’t dream of covering them up (as evidenced by the fact that I just tasted 22 kinds of gin for this story). Imagine a bartender saying you must hate whiskey because you ordered a Manhattan, or you must hate tequila because you ordered a margarita. You can’t imagine it. Why? Because it would never happen. It’s obvious that some ingredients and combinations make spirits taste even better. A dry martini, made with a splash of olive, tastes like a salty, savory potion, a pine tree sitting next to the ocean. It cleanses the palate, chills down your anxiety and opens you up to the world.

Some bartenders have told me that the dirty martini is a modern bastardization, a drink without heritage. Leaving aside the fact that most cocktails these days aren’t perfectly authentic, they’re factually incorrect. Franklin Roosevelt loved a dirty martini (though he didn’t call them that) and he carried his own martini kit around with him to make them. Even then, there were doubters—Winston Churchill would excuse himself to pour them out. But if that’s not cocktail heritage, what is?

The best dirty martinis are made with some of the same gins we love for regular martinis. Knickerbocker, North Shore #11 and Letherbee all make wonderful dirty martinis. Add to the list Journeyman Bilberry Black Hearts gin, which has strong floral notes that cut through the salt.

But the best, the prince among gins, is North Shore Mighty Gin. An over-proof version of their No. 6 gin, the strong flavor of the Mighty Gin cuts right through the olive brine, guaranteeing that you know you are drinking a real gin cocktail. I use the same amount of gin that I would in a regular recipe, but I usually only have one.

So the next time a bartender gives you that look, stare right back at him. Feel free to tell him about Roosevelt, or lecture him on how he needs to measure out his olive juice. Or, if you like, just head home and enjoy your ambrosia in peace. 

Where to buy the gin: All the gins are available at Binny’s locations.

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