What do French fries, oysters, and dirty martinis all have in common? Aside from being timelessly delicious, they strike the perfect balance of salinity. The latter, of course, is a mainstay at cocktail bars, stirred with aplomb with vodka or gin, vermouth, and briny olive juice. But there’s a brazen new riff coming in hot for 2023: the pickle martini.
Pickle juice has been biding its time at your local dive, enjoying notoriety as a fun weekend classic that’s a bit less deserving of a pinkie waggle. Enter the pickleback shot, a boozy, salty pairing of whiskey and pickle juice. Sticking to picklebacks is (so they say) one of the best methods for avoiding a next-day hangover, due to the pickle brine’s high-electrolyte content. That’s all the more reason to give its classier cousin, the pickle martini, a chance.
Rise of the Pickle Martini
Looking at cocktail trends over the past couple years, it’s not difficult to see why the pickle martini would become a hit—as the wave of ‘90s and ‘00s nostalgia has reigned supreme. Martinis, in particular, have been thrust back into the spotlight with the re-popularization of favorites such as the espresso martini and the passion fruit-packed pornstar martini.
Pickles, too, have been on an upward trajectory, finding themselves infused into everything from ice cream and potato chips to Mountain Dew. Yelp has even projected pickle-flavored products to be among the top trends of 2023. With all that hype, the briny pickle martini can now be found on a growing number of cocktail menus, particularly in cities like New York.
Taste it in spritz form at New York’s Chez Zou by way of a pickle spritz, consisting of a house-made pickle brine, verjus, Dolin Vermouth de Chambry, and Moet and Chandon. Manhattan-based bar The Belfry offers a classic pickle martini with vodka and a spicy, sour brine. At San Francisco’s ABV, you can find it combined with smoky mezcal, orange juice, lime, and beer in the restaurant’s La Botana cocktail.
“The application of pickles has been trending in many forms, and it’s about time it became a part of cocktail menus outside of the classic pickleback shot,” says Selina Ardan, beverage director at the aptly named Maison Pickle in Manhattan. “We’ve used a variety of different house-made brines in different cocktails, from margaritas to martinis to frozen painkillers. I’m sure the trend will continue as the pickle category expands with new brines and items that can be pickled.”
Choosing Your Brine
Maison Pickle’s signature Maison Martini* calls upon Fords Gin and a house-made Hot Sour Brine. Ardan encourages those trying a pickle cocktail, whether at home or at the bar, to pay attention to how a brine can completely change the flavor profile of your cocktail. That means if you tried a pickled beverage that wasn’t to your liking, that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t for you.
“It’s all about personal taste preferences and matching the characters of a pickle brine with the botanicals in the gin and other ingredients,” says Ardan. “I always recommend a 50/50 style base—equal parts gin and vermouth—so the brine can shine through and isn’t overpowered by the gin.”
Depending on your taste preference, you can go for a tangy, slightly sweet option like canned cocktail brine by Gordy’s, the original pickle-licious Van Holten’s (crafted over a century ago), or go new age and sip on a probiotic-infused LiveBrine.
Some Like It Hot
For Mark Gibson, the owner of The Wren and Bua in New York City, a spicy brine is the key to a great pickle martini. Trends be damned, Gibson has had a pickle martini on his cocktail menu at Bua for over a decade now, which calls upon a house-made spicy pickle brine to add a kick of flavor in each sip.
Gibson also encourages those attempting to pickle their martinis at home to avoid skimping on the good stuff. “Like anything, the results are a product of the quality of your ingredients,” he says. Use the best-tasting pickle juice you can get.
“Personally, I don’t think the standard store-brand pickle juice has enough punch,” he says. “We use tons of McClure’s Spicy Dill pickles for grilled cheeses and the brine is perfect for martinis.” Of course you can always make your own, too.
Another hot tip? Gibson suggests adding pickle brine into other savory cocktails like bloody Marys.
Try Different Types of Pickles
Setting aside your standard pickle, there are endless ways to incorporate brine into your cocktails at home that invite even more use of the imagination. Cocktail bars have already begun to pick up on this, creating inventive new cocktails with anything from pickled pearl onions to pickled mushrooms. At Little Donkey in Cambridge, MA, just across the river from Boston, chef Ken Oringer has created multiple iterations of a pickled martini—the latest of which features pickled red cabbage.
Oringer pickles his own red cabbage in-house with coriander, juniper, and clove, which can easily be done at home with nearly any vegetable. All you need is vinegar for pickling liquid, your vegetable of choice, and botanicals. The end result is a vibrant red martini with bright acidity that cuts through the high-alcohol content.
*Recipe: How to Make the Maison Pickle Martini
- 2 oz Fords Gin
- 2 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
- ¼ oz hot sour brine (house-made)
- 3 dashes Bittermen’s Orange Citrate
- Add all your ingredients to a cocktail glass full of ice.
- Stir thoroughly, for at least 30 seconds.
- Strain into a chilled martini glass.
- Garnish with a pickled pepper, or whatever pickles you’re loving at the moment.
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