Dirty martinis: Why the dirtiest players in Slate’s Martini Madness tournament owe a debt to FDR.

Martini Madness

The Dirtiest Players in Slate’s Martini Madness Tournament Owe a Debt to FDR

Martini Madness

The Dirtiest Players in Slate’s Martini Madness Tournament Owe a Debt to FDR
Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
March 14 2013 5:34 AM

Martini Madness


An introduction to the dirty martini, with a tip of the hat to FDR.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

If the President made an especially good cocktail—sometimes he lost count of the gin he put in the silver shaker because he was telling a story as he mixed—he would take a sip and say, "Yummy, that's good."

After the second cocktail, he would look around at the empty glasses and say, "How about a little dividend?" or "How about another sippy?"


—Grace Tully, FDR: My Boss

The first First Martini Drinker was Herbert Hoover, a man who had demonstrated great commitment to the drink while serving as Calvin Coolidge's secretary of commerce during Prohibition: His regular route home from the office took him down Garfield Street, where he would pop into the Embassy of Belgium to wet his whistle on foreign soil. Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “Belgian relief,” Hoover developed a keen appreciation for cocktail hour as “the pause between the errors and trials of the day and the hopes of the night.”

His successor, FDR, likewise honored martini time as a sacred space and, further, demonstrated a passion for bartending unlikely to be seen again in a commander-in-chief. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has described the Franklin Roosevelt cocktail hour as an “institution”: “No more was said of politics and war; instead the conversation turned to subjects of lighter weight—to gossip, funny stories, and reminiscences.” Roosevelt mixed martini variations with great zeal and poor sense, slopping booze about unmethodically and even sometimes decorating the drink with not one or three but two olives, a garniture generally considered to be at least poor form—and possibly even a warning from the barman that a mobster is about to break your kneecaps. According to Conrad Black's Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Roosevelt “was proud of his proficiency with a cocktail shaker, but his drinks were almost universally unappreciated.” Elsewhere, Jon Meacham relays the story of Winston Churchill—not exactly a picky drinker—excusing himself to the men's room with a horrible Roosevelt special in hand, extracting the olive, flushing the drink, and returning the olive to a glass refilled with tap water. And some of those weekends at Hyde Park got very long indeed. Modern Drunkard Magazine cuts to the chase: "At the risk of being distasteful, I must say that, although FDR was hobbled by polio, his disease wasn’t the sole reason he used his wheelchair."

This is all to acknowledge Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s formula for the bracing briny solution known as the dirty martini as the original recipe—and to give the man his due for occasionally showing mixological discipline. Indeed, with but a teaspoon of olive brine clouding its form, the FDR Martini is tame by the standards of a gastronomical culture in which pickling is chic enough to rate as a subject of mockery for Portlandia, and the pickleback shot is sufficiently hip to rate as an object of consumption among the sort of urbanites mocked on Portlandia. The other dirty-martini recipes we present to you will be more pungent—dirtier, filthier, sluttier, to use common descriptors, it being that bar talk about the dirty martini tends toward innuendo. Naturally, confronted with a food item advertised as soiled, the prototypical bargoer instinctively makes a mental hop to the alternate definition of “lewd,” thus rendering the dirty martini something of an understated dry-drink analogue to the Sex on the Beach.

I went around asking bartenders about the dirty martini and recorded two memorable responses. One offered that she appreciates how its brackishness, which discourages pounding, works as a moderation mechanism, a check against going out too hard too fast: “It's kind of my wedding drink.” One realized that she intuitively determines how much olive muck to add based on how the customer stresses the operative phrase when ordering. Which type are you? Curt dirty? Growling dirrrty? Mischievous dir-tay? Tell us how you like it by upvoting and downvoting the recipes below; the most popular will enter into Slate’s Martini Madness tournament. (Voting ends Sunday, March 17 at 6 p.m. EDT; tipoff is Tuesday, March 19.)