When Olives Became a Thing in Martinis

When did the olive reach the iconic status as the signature garnish of sophistication and class, the perfect companion to its dirty patron, the Martini? We thought you'd never ask.

Dec. 12, 2016
By Courtney Slusser

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For over a cen­tury, the olive has main­tained its iconic sta­tus as the sig­na­ture gar­nish of sophis­ti­ca­tion and class, remain­ing the per­fect com­pan­ion to its dirty patron, the Martini. Some of the most well-known Martini lovers include John D. Rockefeller, Humphrey Bogart, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, and of course, James Bond.

A famed Frank Sinatra tale describes him offer­ing his date an olive from his Martini as a lit­mus test: If she was keen on them, it was a done deal.”
See Also:Is That Olive Oil in Your Cocktail?
Despite its fre­quent asso­ci­a­tion with New York City, the first men­tion of a Martinez” cock­tail was dis­cov­ered in a bar­tend­ing man­ual in San Francisco in 1887. Legend has it that a miner dur­ing the California Gold Rush walked into a bar in the city of Martinez after a suc­cess­ful gold strike and the bar­tender con­cocted the liba­tion, includ­ing what he had avail­able: a Mission olive.

In Paris, a Dr. Ammar Martini claims that his grand­fa­ther, after mov­ing from Syria to France where he ran a bar, used an olive, one of the most pop­u­lar items from his town of ori­gin, Idlib, pop­u­lar­iz­ing the gar­nish in the famed drink.

While the spe­cific ori­gin of the olive is a lit­tle blurry, as is the case with many drink gene­olo­gies, the olive stands the test of time. A sig­nif­i­cant addi­tion to the culi­nary canon, the olive in a Martini remains one of the most allur­ing embell­ish­ments of one of the most pop­u­lar drinks in high soci­ety.

The green olive has enjoyed its long­stand­ing pres­ence as the most rec­og­niz­able Martini acces­sory due to its immense pop­u­lar­ity among New York City’s elite.


Prohibition fueled the Martini’s promi­nence, as it was fairly easy to man­u­fac­ture gin in the 1920s. In the 1950s, Martini Lunches” became a pop­u­lar theme of the splashy Mad Men era. The cel­e­bra­tion of this image in pop cul­ture ele­vated the pic­ture of the olive in a Martini glass to its iconic sta­tus.

To this day, plump green Sicilian olives remain the pre­miere choice of olive used by most bar­tenders.

Some bar­tenders will skewer (typ­i­cally two or three) olives and lay them across the glass for pre­sen­ta­tional pur­poses. Another method used by bar­tenders is to squeeze the juice from the olives before drop­ping them into the glass to enhance its fla­vor. Always fresh, the brine adds an extra ele­ment of sharp­ness to the pop­u­lar liba­tion.

As a gas­tro­nom­i­cal accent, the olive com­pli­ments the dis­tinct fla­vors of ver­mouth and gin, as the salti­ness of the olive cre­ates a delight­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion of crisp and brawny fla­vors.

The top five types of green olives include: Cerignola from Italy’s Puglia region, with a crisp and but­tery fla­vor; Liguria from Italy’s Northwestern region, typ­i­cally cured with bay leaves, rose­mary and thyme; Picholine, a tor­pedo-shaped French olives with a tart and nutty fla­vor; Gordal, called The Fat One” in Spanish with a firm, meaty rich­ness; and Manzanilla, a Spanish olive often stuffed with pimien­tos and dressed with gar­lic.

And these days, even the oil from olives is mak­ing its way into Martinis at water­ing holes around the world to add a fruity aroma and hint of bit­ter­ness to the revered cock­tail (not to men­tion some healthy polyphe­nols).


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