I expected to see plenty of olives in V-shaped glasses when I recently walked into Bemelmans Bar, the elegant cocktail lounge tucked inside of New York City’s iconic Carlyle Hotel. After all, an older, Upper East Side crowd has flocked there for generously poured Martinis and live piano since the 1940s. But ever since reopening after pandemic-era shutdowns, there’s been some changes, like an on-site team of bouncers to manage lines, and over 18,000 Instagram followers. A new generation has arrived — and they’re here for the Martinis.
“Martinis always seemed like a “snobby” drink but I was determined to try it before I knocked it,” says 25-year-old New Yorker Bianca Cruz, who says she fell in love with the cocktail just last year. “After trying it, I could see what all the hype was about. I’ve also been seeing a lot of Martini recipes pop up on TikTok as Gen Z is growing into the drinking age.”
Cruz is right: Martinis have infiltrated the internet. Indie brands are embracing the motif with perpetually sold-out graphic tees and Miss Eatwell sweatsuits that sport a silver cocktail shaker pouring ribbons down the front into a waiting glass right above the knee. Tiny hand-painted olives rack up likes on manicure Instagram. And on TikTok, tutorials for mixing up Appletinis, Espresso Martinis, and virtually any cocktail with “tini” in the name abound.
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“Martinis stopped looking like an uncreative boomer drink and began to feel timelessly chic,” says Hannah Chamberlain, who runs the popular cocktail TikTok account SpiritedLA. “Many people in the industry who I think looked down a bit on Martinis and Martini drinkers two years ago thinking, ‘They just want a glass full of vodka,’ now seem to have enthusiastically fallen in love with the classic.”
In addition to teaching viewers how to properly shake or (stir up) a perfect drink, some of Chamberlin’s most popular videos have focused on demystifying Martini terminology: “Why do you add less vermouth to make a dry drink?” “Is shaken better than stirred?” (Not really). Chamberlain says she didn’t expect her terminology video to perform as well as it did — currently 2.8 million views and counting — but clearly, there’s interest in learning to order and customize the classics.
“I think knowing how to order a Martini the way you like it feels very grown up — if you’re not going to learn to speak 401(k), maybe you can at least learn to speak Martini,” she says.
While the younger generation of drinkers is certainly flocking to steakhouses and other old-school institutions for a taste of the classics, plenty of bartenders are responding to enthusiasm for the classic drink’s potential as a blueprint for decidedly less traditional drinks. At La Devozione in Chelsea Market, Dolin blanc vermouth is infused with sun-dried tomatoes for Di Martini, a savory, vegetal spin on the classic served with a side of brined cherry tomatoes to double down on the peak summer flavor. And at Bonnie’s, a deliciously raucous new Cantonese-American restaurant that currently holds the title of one of Brooklyn’s toughest-to-get reservations, Martinis come spiked with MSG.
“We wanted to recognize [that] this is a moment where MSG is not being seen as a dirty ingredient anymore,” says bar director Channing Centeno. He pairs gin or vodka with Bonnie’s homemade MSG olive brine, plus Shaoxing wine instead of the typical vermouth. “To me, it tastes kind of like wonton broth,” he says. “MSG brings out the savory notes of olive brine and Shaoxing wine, similar to how a pinch of salt sharpens flavors, and it’s especially great with gin.”
Other Martini riffs are happening across the country at spots like Genever, a gin-focused bar in Los Angeles’s Historic Filipinotown. Its Datu Datu Martini doubles down on acidity with bittersweet Datu Puti sugar cane vinegar, plus gin, Noilly Prat extra dry vermouth, and a few dashes of fish sauce. Bar director Kelso Norris was inspired to use the bittersweet Filipino sugar cane vinegar in a cocktail while pregnant — it was one of her biggest cravings. For maximum briny flavor, she serves it with house-pickled garlic, olives, and onions.
Core to the Martini’s modern-day hype is the Espresso Martini which, in true 2022 form, is now available canned. Kyle Cooke and Amanda Batula, who found love and fame on the Bravo TV show “Summer House,” sell canned Espresso Martinis “kissed with vanilla” that mysteriously include orange wine and MCT oil under the brand Loverboy. One can is the equivalent of two drinks, providing an ultra- portable cocktail (and potential hangover) at just over $6 a pop. Classic Martinis are also making their way into the canned market, thanks to brands like Whitebox. And last April, Bemelmans even began selling gift-wrapped Martini sets for a cool $395 (plus tax and shipping), complete with Sidecar glasses and pitted Castelvetrano olives. (You still have to email the hotel to purchase.)
Studying the wealth of Martini variations available today, it’s easy to veer into existential territory: Can a Martini have a mezcal base? Must it be served in a V-shaped glass? Where does the Martini end and another drink begin?
“If I order something called a Martini, I would assume it’s gin or vodka,” says Norris. “But in these Wild West times, who knows? Let’s have fun with it.” One thing is certain: Martinis, like jeans, are timeless, meaning they never really go out of style. Low- and no-ABV cocktails may be on the rise, but it seems that plenty of us still want a good stiff drink.