For National Olive Day on June 1 we’re not really mixing anything new. You see, the olive has been largely relegated to use in Martinis despite widespread use as a cocktail garnish before about 1910. Nonetheless, the humble yet mighty olive has served the Martini world well. So today we’re giving you a bit of an olive TED talk and advising on how to up your game when it comes to olives in cocktails.
The History of Olives in Cocktails
Olives go way back in history, starting in the Eastern Mediterranean basin where they were first cultivated. We’re talking something like 5,000 to 6,000 years ago and the early Bronze Age, but distillation was still a few millennia away and cocktails hadn’t been invented. Instead they were used in cuisine and as skin lotion.
The noble usage of olives really took a step up in the 1890s. Prior to then cocktails were nothing but booze, sugar and bitters. That was, literally, the definition. But you’ll recall from various entries like the Stinger cocktail and the Gibson that bartenders started to break out of those limits at that time.
The first mixed drinks employing more than the original formula were awfully sweet. The original Martini, for example, was equal parts Gin and Sweet Vermouth. Cocktail cherries, seasonal fruits and mint ruled the roost when it came to garnishes. But tastes soon swung toward a drier palate and the olive made its entrance. By 1898 olives in cocktails were advertised and a basic rule was formulated: cherries for sweet drinks, olives for dry.
Olives soon made it to the “American” bars in Europe and hit the heights of popularity in the first decade or so of the 20th century. Fox’s Bartenders Guide from 1902 uses olives in nearly a third of its cocktails.
By the 1930s, though, the olive had been largely relegated to the Martini and Dirty Martini. This wasn’t a horrible fate, as the humble fruit became a prominent part of the Martini’s image and was soon featured in various bits of comedy, such as:
“I drink too much. The last time I gave a urine sample it had an olive in it.” – Rodney Dangerfield
“Happiness is finding two olives in your Martini when you’re hungry.” – Johnny Carson
Upping Your Olive Game
Let’s face it, you’ve seen a variety of jarred olives being sold with any number of stuffings and specifically labeled as intended for Martinis. But you also know this: they don’t taste very good. So you’ve got to prepare your own.
Whether you like them unstuffed or with a filling prepare your own. The late Sacha Petraske, the founder of Milk & Honey and developer of the Gold Rush cocktail favored Cerignola olives from Italy. You should be able to find a good green pitted olive at your local grocery, whether in jars or bulk. Castelvetrano olives are commonly available and bring a nice buttery flavor to contrast with the sharpness of the drink.
Stuffings are fair game. Anchovies add umami and salt, which especially with the Castelvetrano olives works well as a combination garnish and snack. Blue cheese is also great, but you need to use something real, not the Styrofoam-like putty found in pre-stuffed olives. Whatever Martini you prefer, whether the Freezer Door Martini, Fitty-Fitty Martini or Dirty Martini, your taste buds will thank you.
Another matter concerns proper use. It’s an unspoken superstition, but an even number of olives in cocktails is considered an omen of bad luck. You can skewer one or three for your drink, but never two. A pair of olives is really a faux pas. We’re not entirely sure where this convention emerged, but Italy seems likely. There are always three coffee beans floated atop a glass of Sambuca, so we’d advise proceeding in like fashion with your Martini.
Finally, we all know a Martini should be ice cold when served. So keep your olives in the refrigerator. Dropping a set of warm olives into your freshly prepared Martini is a very bad idea.