On solo drinking and the best dirty martini in London
Sitting at a bar counter on your own is a time-honoured tradition, and when it's with that most salacious and saline of cocktails, all the better, says Molly
Justin De Souza
I think I was 18 years old when I ordered my first dirty martini. I can’t remember exactly why I was ordering it – I think I’d watched a movie where the main character ordered one and I had obviously decided it was an irresistibly sexy thing to do. I’m sure I also quite liked the concept of your cocktail coming with a built-in snack (and very much still do). I sidled up to the bar at this sophisticated, subterranean cocktail bar in Auckland, New Zealand that doesn’t exist anymore. It was suspiciously empty for 10pm on a Saturday night, and my friends and I were the youngest people there by a country mile, most other tables taken up by forty-something men.
My heels tottered a bit as I ordered it. "How do you like it?" He asked. “Erm, really dirty?” I replied, keen for as much olive juice as possible to mask the yet-acquired taste of straight gin, but internally cringing at the sexual connotations that came with the phrase (being tickled by sexual innuendos: also something that comes with age, I suppose). “No, I mean, what alcohol? Vodka or gin?” he responded, vaguely amused. “Oh, gin, I’m not fussy about which one.” My inexperience on show in full high definition, he laughed and busied himself making the drink and, with a look that showed he obviously expected me to spit it back up in disgust, placed it in front of me. I took one sip, then a few more, and proclaimed it to be my new favourite drink. Thus began a precocious love affair that is yet to abate, even seven years on.
I had never been too bothered with the saccharine RTDs that had defined my early drinking years. My parents had, from a young age, introduced my siblings and me to the 'adult's table' and all the wonderful things that came with it, thinking that giving us an education on good alcohol and how to drink it would help avoid any binge-related disasters down the road. (With one or two exceptions, they were largely right.) And so I was ruined before I really began, suffering through the treacle fizz of a Smirnoff Double Black at high-school parties and promptly refusing to touch anything overly sugary as soon as I was old enough to buy my own drinks.
"How do you like it?" He asked. "Erm, really dirty?" I replied. "No," he said. "Vodka or gin?"
A dirty martini, with all its moreish salinity, represented the exact antithesis to those chemical, highly flavoured drinks of my youth. It whets the appetite beautifully and is supremely boozy but, I have to admit, part of the joy is still that it comes with something to nibble on as part of the deal. Far too much of my brain space over the years has been dedicated to trying to figure how soon is too soon in the martini level to have polished off all your olives. But as time goes on, I’ve stopped giving too much of a shit, instead hoeing into the little buggers after just one or two sips.
I’m very specific about how I like my martini. I don’t mind it slightly heavier on the vermouth side; I want an ice-cold glass; I prefer Four Pillars Olive Leaf gin but will settle for Tanqueray as many bars don’t have the former; and, crucially, I want three really good-quality olives – ideally the juicy, buttery, vividly green nocellara olives that are unctuous and moreish and perfectly subtle in flavour profile. There are a lot of places in London that proclaim to make a perfect dirty martini. A lot of them are lying.
Let's start with the obvious. The Connaught, best bar in the world in 2021, is famed for its martinis, and will make one dirty if you ask for it. They are gargantuan, fishbowl-sized things that are suitably boozy and really quite good. I’m not too partial to the in-house bitters because I’m a purist, but they shake things up if you like a bit of variety. My issue here is the trolley – it’s fun for a bit of theatre but, I don’t really need my drink made right in front of me and prioritise speed over theatre. It’s all good fun though, and worth the experience.
Dukes is the other venue often spoken about when people opine on the city’s best martini. Its serving size is so large that the bartenders quite literally cut you off after two – and it’s a good thing, as that is more than enough to have me walking zig-zags down Piccadilly. It is a good martini, but given the bar’s popularity, it can sometimes be impossible to get a table (and one of the key facets of the perfect martini is that it should be easily accessible, as you never know when the craving may strike).
I am a particularly big fan of the dirty martini at Quo Vadis , I think partly because something about being squirrelled away upstairs in a space with so much history calls for a drink that makes you feel a little special, but also because there is something in the air up there that means stepping through those doors is basically a portal to having a good time. The gin:vermouth ratio is just right, the glass is chilled and they give you two olives – which isn’t quite enough, but is almost there.
Le Magritte is always buzzing but never overwhelmingly busy, but you can usually stroll in and find a space
So, where is my favourite? After much deliberating and backwards and forwards I have to say it’s probably the dirty martini at Le Magritte in The Beaumont Hotel. First of all, the bar is always buzzing but never overwhelmingly busy. It doesn’t tend to take reservations, so you can usually stroll in and find a space. The team are friendly and capable and quick, and while the martinis only come with one olive this shortcoming is made up for by the saucer of them that accompany any drink you order (alongside some of the best snacking nuts on the planet). It is the quintessential hotel bar: slightly sexy, seemingly timeless and the kind of place you can sit alone and no one will bother you. Perfection.
If we were to go a little off-piste, there are a few martinis that didn’t make the cut for this list but that still fit the bill: the Cucumber and Pine Martini at KOL Mezcaleria, the Gibson (a riff on the dirty martini with a picked onion) at The Lowback and the Verbena & Olive Oil at Silverleaf. For fairness purposes I kept this list to the simple dirty martini, but these drinks all personify what is so great about the olive-spiked classic: salty, savoury, mineral, unctuous – but take it to new and exciting levels. And yet, there are many occasions in which you simply cannot beat the basics.
In the four years that I have lived in London – and on many occasions before then, too – I took such joy in the simplicity of taking myself out for a martini, and a dirty one if possible. Writers may herald the drinks’ revival, but as far as I’m concerned, it never died in the first place.