Green, black or stuffed, olives are a classic accompaniment to martinis. Choosing the correct type of olive is key to serving a traditional martini.

An olive’s brine and acidity give the vodka or gin a slight flavor pop – like adding a small amount of sea salt to a perfectly cooked dish.

The history of the martini is murky, but it is believed to have originated in the historic California town of Martinez during the gold rush era. Olives are an important component of 19th century Mexican-American cuisine, and could often be found served as a condiment in beverages as well. There are still saloons in California that serve an inch deep layer of stuffed green olives in every pitcher of tap-drawn beer.

A proper martini olive should be:

  • Pitted or stuffed.
  • Fresh or recently preserved. Olives from an old jar may have softened in the brine and become too salty or pickled.
  • Preserved in brine, not in oil, which will leave a greasy slick and will interfere with taste
  • Firm, but not too crunchy. Types of olives that may be too soft: Kalamata, Sevillano.
  • Green, traditionally – but some people prefer the sweet, smoky flavor of a black olive. Black olives tend to be softer, so be careful to choose fresh or recently preserved black olives.
  • On the small side. Some people like the larger olives, but traditionalists may object to large olives, like those served with vegetable-garnished bloody marys. The smaller olives are visually more pleasing in a standard cocktail stem; fit easily 3 to a toothpick; are generally both riper and firmer than larger olives; and are easier to munch on while still conducting polite conversation.

Olives stuffed with goat cheese or blue cheese may be well received, but the success of the combination may depend on how firm the cheese is – you don’t want to end up with gummy bits of cheese or a milky sediment in the drink. Cheese-stuffed olives should be kept chilled before serving.

Other olive stuffings that pair well with gin and vodka martinis include garlic, onion, anchovies, almonds, lemon rind or various sweet and hot peppers, including the traditional pimiento-stuffed olives. Each type gives the delicate liquor a distinctive spin and flavor.

  • Spear 1 to 3 olives crosswise on a decorative toothpick.
  • Rinse the olives briefly to remove excess brine and any loose bits of herbs or spices.
  • Serve either in the cocktail, or laid across the top of the glass.
  • To have a little fun with stuffed olives, serve 3 different kinds on 1 toothpick.

A dirty martini calls for the addition of a small amount of olive juice or brine. The best choice would be a bottle of actual pressed olive juice made specifically for cocktails.

Brine from a jar of pickled olives works too, but taste the brine first and become familiar with how sour or salty it is. Both gin and vodka have light, delicate flavors that can be easily overwhelmed with the addition of too much salt or vinegar. When in doubt, add half the amount recommended by your cocktail recipe, taste and then adjust.

Before adding olive juice from a jar, strain it briefly through a fine cocktail strainer or a small square of cheesecloth to catch any stray bits of spice and herbs.

Tips

If you don’t mind a little zip in your dirty martini, you might try using pepperoncini juice instead of olive juice.