In its cool factor and mass appeal, the Martini has stood the test of time. These days, every craft cocktail bar has a house spec, if not its very own Martini riff, sometimes tweaked to the point where it no longer resembles the cocktail in its classical guise. Take the “Green Mango Martini” at NYC’s Superbueno or the kitschy, canonical Pornstar Martini — both are delicious, but a far cry from the quintessential spec.
Beyond the drink’s undeniable current popularity, if there’s one thing that’s true in 2024, it’s that in Martini-ville, anything goes. But in this era of hair-down, laissez-faire attitudes toward the Martini, one thing remains surprisingly rigid: the garnishes — and more specifically, the olives we allow into our coupes and Nick & Nora glasses. We’re happy to adorn our Martinis with blue cheese, pimento, and tinned-fish-stuffed olives — but only if the olives are green.
What about the beloved black olive, though? Cocktail culture is no stranger to defying the laws of tradition, so what is it about Kalamatas et al. that’s made them the black sheep of the garnish game all these years?
The Snack Factor
Black olives predominantly live in salads and on charcuterie boards. But when alcohol enters the equation, green olives remain king. For Martinis, Spanish Queen olives have been the industry go-to since the drink’s inception. They hail from Sevilla, where they’re known as “gordal” or “the fat one” for their size, and these olives are briny, nutty, and make for great eye candy. They’re crowd pleasing, for sure, but bartenders have recently acknowledged that there’s room for improvement, which is where the Italian Castelvetrano olive comes in. Known for their complex flavor and subdued salinity, the variety has now cemented itself as the bartender’s darling Martini garnish.
“They have a lower sodium content,” says Nino Asaro, business development manager at Partanna Specialty Foods. “They’re not as salty — more buttery, sweet, and texturally more appealing.”
Most olives, like Kalamatas, are preserved in a salt water brine, but since Castelvetranos are shocked in a brine of citric acid and salt, they contain 50 to 60 percent less sodium. They’re also picked before peak ripeness, maintaining a more firm, snappy texture and attractive green pigmentation. All the elements of a Castelvetrano make for a more nuanced garnish. It’s less of a brine bomb, and instead adds layers of sweetness and umami that pair brilliantly with a gin’s botanicals.
Kalamatas, on the other hand, are brined in salt water and ripened until they turn purplish black, resulting in a softer texture and higher salinity. “Depending on how they’re packed, Kalamatas can get a little misshapen in the jar,” says Eric Tecosky, owner of olive juice and cocktail garnish brand Dirty Sue. We drink with our eyes, so a crooked black olive may not pop as much as a bright green Castelvetrano or Spanish Queen. But considering black olives’ versatility in many cuisines, as well as cocktail culture’s tendency to draw inspiration from the culinary world, perhaps the black olive itself isn’t the issue, but rather finding a suitable base spirit to complement its profile.
“Gin is a little less forgiving than vodka,” Tecosky says. The spirit’s floral, botanical, and citrusy notes generally don’t provide enough sweetness to counteract a Kalamata’s bitterness. On the other hand, vodka presents a “blank-er” canvas for experimentation. It essentially picks up whatever flavors you throw at it.
Even then, the Kalamata’s potential with vodka has yet to be fully embraced. Tecosky worked as a bartender in Los Angeles for about 20 years before founding Dirty Sue, and he hadn’t come across a Kalamata Martini until he actually began selling olives. He says that, these days, he has a handful of clients that religiously buy his Kalamatas to put in their vodka Martinis.
The key to a successful black olive Martini could very well be using an ingredient that’s so distant from a classic Martini build that it inversely makes it approachable.
Dirty Sue makes feta-stuffed Kalamata olives, which Tecosky claims “are mostly sold to Greek restaurants” — so maybe feta is the key ingredient that weaves Kalamatas and vodka to make for a balanced Martini. “With vodka, you’ll want to temper it with something else. That’s why feta is a nice balance,” Tecosky says. “It gets more creaminess and a bit of sweetness in there.”
As scrumptious as this riff sounds, it hasn’t caught on with cocktail culture at large, let alone earn an official moniker.
The Oh So Dirty Future
Cultural nostalgia aside, this black olive Martini concept has the potential to be a hit on paper, but it won’t be as straightforward as swapping green olives for Kalamatas.
According to Asaro from Partanna Specialty Foods, among the 1,000-plus olive varieties out there, Taggiasca olives could be a great addition to a Martini. “They have a more violet hue, and are sweeter than a Kalamata,” he says. Indeed, considering Kalamatas as the only potential black Martini olive is a probably too limiting. However, given that the U.S. imports over 30,000 tons of Kalamata olives on average annually, it’s evident that the variety’s domestic popularity is well established — all the more reason why its absence in the cocktail realm feels like a missed opportunity, at least for now.
“I’ve seen a lot of reimagined Dirty Martinis lately,” says Claire Mallett, beverage director of Catch One in Los Angeles. “There’s a pop-up that serves one with fish oil, and at The Wolves, they do one with salmon skin and black garlic.” Fellow Cali resident Tecosky has also mixed up “spicy Martinis” with Kalamata and pepperoncini brine. The key to a successful black olive Martini could very well be using an ingredient that’s so distant from a classic Martini build that it inversely makes it approachable.
While chatting about olives, Tecosky got to thinking about what other spirits black olives could accompany. “Salt is a natural pairing with tequila,” he says. “If I was gonna go a little off script and do something different, I think I’d go with an aged tequila.” As unorthodox as Tecosky’s theoretical tequila cocktail sounds, it’s the sort of idea that could easily snowball and become a modern classic.
For all we know, the finalized black olive Martini may include a jigger’s worth of salmon skin and not even look remotely like any Martini we’ve seen before. But honestly, that would only make it more noteworthy — if not gifting it staying power.
Either way, if any bartender out there finds a way to slide those Kalamatas off the charcuterie board and into our cocktail glasses — tastefully, that is — we’re here for it.
Photo via Александр Захаров – stock.adobe.com