'It really gets quite filthy': the dirty martini is Sydney's new favourite drink

Bar Planet makes martinis "a little weird, a little twisted" in its beautiful, Parisienne space.
Bar Planet makes martinis "a little weird, a little twisted" in its beautiful, Parisienne space.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

The classic martini is undergoing a renaissance in Sydney, where the once-civilised cocktail is getting down and dirty. 

"Right now it's all about dirty gin martinis," says Harrison Kenney, the general manager of Sydney's first concept martini bar, Bar Planet. "It really gets quite filthy.

"The most popular dirty martini starts with three olives and a nice glug of brine, and then depending on how the customer feels we make it saltier and filthier from there."

Dirty martinis are the drink of choice across Sydney.
Dirty martinis are the drink of choice across Sydney. Photo: Edwina Pickles

The team behind Cantina OK!, the CBD mezcal bar ranked number 23 on the World's 50 Best Bars list, opened Bar Planet on Enmore Road in April.

The "psychedelic, Parisienne" space, with its starry resin counter tops, melting wax candles and curved iron entryway, has fast become a favourite in the inner-west.

"We wanted to look at the martini with a fresh set of eyes," says Kenney. "The drink usually comes along with a whole set of connotations. It's connected to this weird sense of elitism.

"It's important not to take yourself too seriously, in life but in drinking culture, too."

"But it's important not to take yourself too seriously, in life but in drinking culture, too."

There are no secret service agents donning tuxedos at Bar Planet, which "democratises" the cocktail by using a yum-cha style selection menu that clearly explains the key tenets of a martini order.

The drink traditionally contains two parts gin to one part dry vermouth, but can be personalised in a number of ways. A wet martini features a greater ratio of vermouth, while a dry martini contains less. It can be garnished with olives and brine (dirty), with a lemon peel (a twist) or a cocktail onion (a Gibson).

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Some people prefer a vodka martini as it can yield a cleaner flavour. Famous martini drinker and English playwright Noel Coward preferred his without any vermouth at all, asserting "a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy". 

"People can be scared to order a martini," says Kenney. "No one ever really tells you what any of those things mean, so it's nice to have a tool to teach people and break it all down." 

At Menzies Bar in the CBD, office workers are ordering dirty martinis en masse. The dimly-lit European-style bar offers a daily "golden hour", pairing mini martinis with lobster rolls for just $10 each. 

Bar Planet is working to "democratise" the martini by providing an easy ordering process and using locally-sourced ...
Bar Planet is working to "democratise" the martini by providing an easy ordering process and using locally-sourced ingredients.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

"There's a real excitement about it. At 4pm in the afternoon people just start rushing in," says Shell House food and beverage manager Alex Kirkwood.

"People like the personalised element of the martini. You can see they get a little smile on their face when they go through the ritual of ordering one at the bar.

"Dirty is definitely the focus. That's what we're selling the most of."

Maybe Sammy considers the martini to be an essential part of their award-winning offering.
Maybe Sammy considers the martini to be an essential part of their award-winning offering.  Photo: Anna Kucera

The martini takes centre stage at Maybe Sammy, The Rocks cocktail bar crowned Best Bar in Australasia by The World's 50 Best Bars in 2021. 

For special occasions, patrons can treat themselves to "the ultimate martini experience" with the martini trolley. The trolley brings the bartenders' famous showmanship to your table, where four iterations of the martini are concocted and served.

"It's the most iconic drink in history. It should be the first drink you order when walking into a cocktail bar," says Maybe Sammy co-founder Stefano Catino. 

Office workers are "rushing in" to Menzies Bar at 4pm to take advantage of their martini hour.
Office workers are "rushing in" to Menzies Bar at 4pm to take advantage of their martini hour.  Photo: Christopher Pearce

"That's like our signature. When people come in we serve them a very, very cold gin or vodka martini in a beautiful mini Georg Jensen glass.

"Most people like their martinis extra dirty."

Locally-distilled spirits are stars of the next generation of martinis. At Maybe Sammy, Catino likes to use gin from Marrickville-based distillers Poor Toms and Botany's Archie Rose alongside the bigger-name brands. 

The dirty martini is the order of choice for Maybe Sammy patrons making martini orders.
The dirty martini is the order of choice for Maybe Sammy patrons making martini orders.  Photo: James Brickwood

"What could be better than being in Sydney and drinking a martini using Sydney gin?" he says.

Championing Australian distillers is also at the heart of Bar Planet's ethos. After COVID lockdown, Kenney says the team was eager to bring the focus back to their own backyard by using domestic brands such as Tilde raw vodka and Applewood gin. 

Bar Planet collaborated with Poor Toms to create the "infinite spirit", a gin flavoured with heritage apples picked from the Orange orchard of the late Harold "Borry" Gattrell, of Borrodell Winery. 

Bar Planey, Sydney's first concept martini bar which opened in April.
Bar Planey, Sydney's first concept martini bar which opened in April.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

The spirit forms the basis of the bar's signature martini, which is poured from great heights from a spectacular, frozen porron wine pitcher. 

"The response has been unreal," says Kenney. "It's insane to see 60 people in a bar drinking from freezing cold martini glasses."

How to make the perfect martini at home

In its simplest form, a single martini contains 60 millilitres of gin or vodka and 10 to 30 millilitres of dry vermouth to taste. The ingredients are stirred with ice for 30 to 45 seconds, strained into a glass, and finished with a lemon twist, cocktail onion or olive (plus some brine if you making it "dirty"). 

Temperature control is key to making a good martini, says Shell House's Alex Kirkwood.

"You have to try to keep everything as cold as possible in order to control the dilution," he says.

"There's nothing worse than an ugly, diluted, warm martini."

Maybe Sammy co-founder Stefano Catino recommends putting both your spirit of choice and your glasses in the freezer ahead of time.

"Leave the vermouth in the fridge," says Catino. "It's a type of wine, so that's where it will keep best."

Both experts recommend using "quality ice" when stirring your martini. Big, clean cubes of new ice have a higher resistance to melting and will keep martinis chilled without diluting them, enabling you to easily strain and pour at the perfect temperature.