What’s in a Martini? These Days, Just About Anything.

Consider the paradoxical thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus: If Athenians removed and replaced every plank of Theseus’s ship so that none of the original wood remained, would it still be Theseus’s ship? Or would it become a different ship entirely?

Alternatively, take a dirty martini: gin, vermouth, olive brine and a garnish. But swap the traditional dry gin for one washed with mirepoix. Use Manzanilla sherry in place of the vermouth, a solution of chicken bouillon and MSG instead of brine, and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil. Is it still a dirty martini?

Jazzton Rodriguez, the creator of what he calls the chicken soup martini, believes it is. “People are starting to explore what the dirty martini can be, as a template,” said Mr. Rodriguez, who co-writes the blog Very Good Drinks. His invention has drawn more than 600,000 views across Instagram and TikTok.

The cocktail has plenty of detractors. (“It’s not too late to delete this,” one wrote.) Then again, Mr. Rodriguez said, “there were people who were like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never wanted to drink a drink more than this.’”

Internet trends can be fleeting and merely virtual, but bizarre martinis are out in the real world, being served at real bars to real, paying customers. In New York City, drinkers can find a basil-infused, balsamic-dotted Caprese martini at Jac’s on Bond, an oyster mignonette martini at Mar’s, a radish-water martini at Naro and a squid ink martini at American Express’s new Centurion Lounge.

At Este in Austin, Texas, you can order a martini made with muscadet wine and kombu seaweed, and Dear Madison in Chicago serves a version with habanero mezcal and lime juice. One of the seven options on the martini menu at Dante Beverly Hills in Los Angeles includes tequila and crème de cacao.

“Martinis are so hot right now,” said Bryan Schneider, the creative director at the Manhattan restaurant Bad Roman. To capitalize on the current fascination with briny, savory cocktails, he developed one with an Italian American edge: the pepperoncini martini. When diners come to the restaurant, he said, “It’s one of the top things that people post about.”

Ryan Dolliver, the beverage director at Palmetto in Brooklyn, serves his take on the martini with pickled fennel and yuzu. “It’s essentially a savory, cold gin or vodka cocktail, but for the purpose of shorthand, we call it a dirty martini,” Mr. Dolliver said.

This isn’t a new phenomenon: Though the term is of recent coinage, the essence of the dirty martini — adding olive brine to the classic cocktail — dates back to the start of the 20th century. Only a few decades later, drinkers started swapping out gin for vodka — a practice still considered a faux pas by martini purists.

In the 1980s and ’90s, bars began slapping the “martini” label on any drink served straight-up (shaken or stirred with ice, but served without it) in a V-shaped glass: The espresso martini, perhaps the most famous example, was created in London in the early ’80s.

“We adapt our positions on what these things are to what customers believe they are,” Mr. Dolliver added.

Trevor Easton Langer, the bar manager who created the Caprese martini at Jac’s on Bond, agreed. “The word martini isn’t as much of a hard-and-fast rule as it is a descriptor of how you’re going to receive the drink. It’s much less about the contents and more about the glass.”

Not to mention the mystique. “There’s the suggestion of elegance, there’s the ceremony of ordering one,” said Alan Sytsma, the food editor of New York magazine and a martini classicist who sampled “too many” for the magazine’s “Absolute Best” series. “People want things that are understood to be classic.”

When creating something new, Mr. Sytsma said, “you can either play with the ingredients, or you can play with the form. But when you start to really veer into these wild flavor combinations, and whatever form you’re making doesn’t immediately make sense to people, you’ve lost the thread.”

Sheryl Heefner, the general manager of Superiority Burger in New York, whose cocktail menu she described as “staunchly classic,” suspects that the manic accessorizing of the martini is born not of creativity, but of competition.

In a city with more than 20,000 restaurants, “it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not only stay relevant, but to stay alive,” Ms. Heefner said. The drive to build edgy takes on classics, she believes, is “driven by pushing to be creative and come up with the next best thing to go on TikTok, or whatever it is.”

As a result, we’re left with martinis au poivre (at Le Rock, in Rockefeller Center), washed with sushi rice (Albert’s Bar, in Midtown) or garnished with a ball of mozzarella (Little Ned, in NoMad).

And just as there’s no right answer to the riddle of Theseus’s Ship, perhaps there’s none to the question of what qualifies as a martini.

But there is one thing most bartenders agree on: “Juice is maybe a little too far,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “If there’s juice in it, I’d be inclined to call it something else.”


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