Concerning the Olive

Don’t let it spoil your drink.

Nothing grosses me out more than seeing a bartender whip out one of those giant, mayonnaise-sized containers of olives to refill the garnish tray. Don't you people realize those olives go through a host of mistreatments, such as sitting out all night among the airborne molecules and cigarette stench, then being sealed back into the brine for another day? Just as you may have traded up from cheap bottles of grenadine, maraschino cherries, or sweet and sour pre-mix, I wondered if a better bar olive existed outside of this bulk behemoth. Can any of those deli-displayed Mediterranean goodies build a better martini? An olive's flavor is determined by whether it has gone through oil, brine, or dry curing. Green olives are the unripe variety, and are inedible at the time of picking. Most green olives soak in a lye solution before sitting in brine for as long as a year. A brine usually contains water, various strengths of salt and vinegar, and optional spices. Black olives are green ones that have either ripened or been allowed to oxidize until they changed color. The martini's standard olive garnish is no accident. The neutral, green Spanish queen olives stuffed with pimiento are traditionally used to help moderate the astringent flavors of the alcohol in the drink. These olives come from weak brine very low in vinegar, so there is nothing to compete with the spirit. Bartenders used to rinse olives of the brine altogether before using them, and these neutral olives often pop up at wine tastings, brine-free, as palate cleansers. Nowadays, martini olives take a bigger roll in the drink and come stuffed with all sorts of pungent flavors, like blue cheese or jalapeño. While these make for an excellent unwitting appetizer with the martini, they will distract from its flavor and, more important, make waste of your favorite expensive gin or vodka. All of my attempts to build a better martini through the use of fancier olives failed. They tasted like tapenade had fallen into my drink, especially when I used olives with flavored brines. The "gourmet" olives just plain violated the unwritten garnish covenant: They overpowered. But that doesn't mean you can't upgrade at all. Mellow green olives taste best in a martini, and I especially like the flavor of plump Puglian Cerignolas, though they usually come unpitted and are therefore harder to stick. The snap and zip of Sicilian green olives rank highest; these olives usually come pitted and unstuffed (waiting for almonds, I'd say). Most deli counters with an olive bar carry these varieties. Their brine also mixes pleasantly with the drink, allowing you to still taste the alcohol. I'm now convinced that a person's penchant for dirty martinis (ones with olive brine added) has to do with either a lifetime of smoking or a lower concentration of taste buds. Some people go positively ape for a slosh of brine in their vodka martinis, while others can barely stand a few drops before the drink is too salty. It's a reminder that taste is more than just subjective, it's physically different for everyone. You can tone down the briny influence of some green olives by exchanging the brine in the jar for a mixture of half saltwater and half vermouth, or go full tilt and cover them with gin. If you like a little more flavor to your olives, but don't have the patience to stuff them with goodies, try tossing in a few strips of lemon rind, peppercorns, or coriander. Add a few dashes of hot pepper flake or hot sauce if you like spice. I once had a gin martini whose olives had sat in a mix of vermouth with a little cider vinegar, and they really went well with the main spirit's botanical flavors. You'll find your home mix will be far more interesting than a jarred variety, and won't you just be so swank? And you'll never fancy the bar's garnish tray for an appetizer again.

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