A classic Gibson at Billy Reed’s. Credit: Kevin Carlow

“The holidays” are here—or perhaps they have already passed for your observances—and a new year is nearly upon us! This one has to be better, amirite, people? I’m sure you’re focused on making that happen for yourself and those around you—and perhaps getting into better health is one of your goals.

Well … I happen to have a few cocktails right here that will make you healthier and fitter! Yup, just drink these magical cocktails, and you’ll be on the path to better health, or my name isn’t Santos L. Halper!

OK, sorry for trolling you there. I’m sure you’re well aware that drinking isn’t healthy—but if you want to cut some sugar and excess calories from your regular tipples, there indeed are some fine options!

All right, let’s get this one out of the way. It’s probably the most-ordered cocktail in the Coachella Valley, just ahead of vodka-sodas, margaritas and (if you count them as cocktails, as I do) chavelas: It’s the dreaded dirty vodka martini. The favorite of Palm Springs bachelorette parties and east valley cougars alike, this drink “ain’t going nowhere,” as they say. Luckily, (mostly) gone are the days of getting the brine straight from the garnish tray, with a side of dead fruit flies, little pimento pieces and dirty bartender fingers. Trust me: You don’t want to know where my hands were back then, much less the drunks who treat the garnishes as a self-serve snack tray. Hopefully that was disgusting enough to make you consider a more-classic martini, but if not … I can’t believe I am doing this …

  • 2 1/2 ounces of vodka
  • 1 ounce of olive brine

Shake hard; fine strain into a chilled martini glass; add an olive or three.

Before you e-mail me, yes, I know the “real” dirty martini is a fine drink. Actually, the olive and the brine came as a package deal back in 1901 when New York bartender John O’Connor—a bartending name if I’ve ever heard one—was trying to snazzy up the dry martini. The martini itself was still in its formative years, and O’Connor, as the widely told story goes, got the inspiration to muddle an olive in the mixing glass with the gin and vermouth. Later, he added a little olive brine. This marriage of olive and martini lasts to this day, and they’ve become a thrupple with blue cheese—much to the chagrin of bartenders who loathe adding cheese to their well-crafted martinis. Resistance is futile.

Unlike his counterpart, Winston Churchill, who preferred that the bartender simply look at the vermouth bottle and never touch it, Franklin D. Roosevelt liked his gin with a little more going on. He even turned Churchill and Joseph Stalin onto the recipe; I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that party!

  • 2 ounces of London dry gin
  • 1 ounce of dry vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce of olive brine

Stir with lots of ice; strain into a martini glass or a “Nick and Nora”; add an olive.

Plymouth or London dry gin are the classic choices, but any juniper-forward “New World” gin will do just fine. The dry vermouth is, well, dry—meaning low in sugar. If you replace half of the vermouth with gin, you get a dryer martini, conveniently called a “dry martini.”

As for the vodka version, far be it from me to preach on the subject, but my vodka preference is a Polish or other Eastern European style. Many of the vodkas from that part of the world are rye-based, and that gives them a low glycerine content. While glycerine can make vodka more luscious—and I really enjoy some wheat vodkas (especially Russian ones)—wheat is my second choice to the sharp, racy rye varieties. Corn and potato vodka come in third and fourth, respectively. The mouthfeel and sweetness of corn is all wrong for a dirty martini. As for potato vodka, it’s a mixed bag; don’t roll the dice.

Luckily, (mostly) gone are the days of getting the brine straight from the garnish tray, with a side of dead fruit flies, little pimento pieces and dirty bartender fingers.

Now, what about all that salt?! Yes, these drinks are high in sodium, but alcohol is a diuretic, so you’ll probably expel most of it anyway. Just don’t have too many, I guess. You can leave the brine out of these for the standard martini model. If making a dirty Gibson—my preference—make sure to still use the olive brine instead of the onion brine, or go really light on the onion brine … three dashes at the most. (A Gibson, for the uninitiated, is simply a martini with cocktail onions instead of olives—easy peasy!)

How about something more refreshing? That’s when I turn to “Colonel Joe” Rickey. Rickey was a politician and all-around colorful character who was a regular at a bar called Shoomaker’s in Washington, D.C. According to this article at Imbibe.com, the bartender made this really simple mix of rye whiskey, seltzer water and lime juice for Rickey, who had a second one—and also got the cocktail named after him. It’s now much better known as a gin drink, but try the whiskey version, too. I kind of like it better, to be honest.

  • 1 1/2 ounces of gin
  • 3/4 ounce of fresh lime juice

Build over ice in a highball glass; top with seltzer; add a lime twist as a garnish.

It’s so easy that anyone can make it! Sometimes I build the drink first with the seltzer, gin and ice before adding the lime. Fresh lime is critical. Ideally, squeeze it over the glass to get the oils expressed; that does the same thing as a twist and saves you a step.

Aside from trying it with rye, tequila is an obvious choice, and you can also muddle a few raspberries into the glass for a killer variation. I grew up on sugary, nonalcoholic “raspberry lime Rickey” concoctions; you don’t see them much outside of the Northeast, but they are mighty tasty. If you’re doing the “low carb” thing, raspberries, lime, soda and gin won’t mess up your program … if you stop at one or two. (I’m not a doctor; this is from personal experience, and your mileage will vary.)

If you want to keep going with the creamy, sugary holiday cocktails for a little bit longer, go ahead; your bartender loves you just the way you are, especially if you’re patient and a good tipper! Happy New Year!

Kevin Carlow can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant, oyster shucker...