Before Bar Moruno opened this past March in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Dave Kupchinsky felt like his cocktail list was missing something. “I asked Chef for some outside-the-box ideas,” recalls Kupchinsky, referring to Moruno’s executive chef and partner Chris Feldmeier. “Chef told me the best Martini he ever had was a salmon Martini at Dr. Stravinsky in Barcelona. I told him, ‘Get the fuck out of here, that sounds terrible.’”
After workshopping several different salmon infusions, however, Kupchinsky realized it wasn’t so bad after all. For the base of Bar Moruno’s Salmon Martini, he submerges cold-smoked salmon in Tanqueray Gin for three weeks before filtering out the fish. Rather than the typical dry variety found in most classic Martinis, he uses an off-dry blanco vermouth from the Basque region of Spain to offer a counterpoint to the salinity of the infusion, then garnishes the drink with a caperberry.
With the popularity of the dirty Martini on the rise, the drink has become a template for savory experimentation. But there’s a contingent of these dirtier dirty Martinis that have taken a particularly fishy turn. At bars and restaurants across the country, the mineral character of tinned fish, oysters and fish sauce is standing in as a natural proxy for the requisite olive brine.
At Ernesto’s on New York City’s Lower East Side, the menu features an array of pintxos, or small bites, that are as important as the principal plates. The Pintxotini, created by Sarah Morrissey, comes crowned with a Gilda—a skewer of layered anchovies, olives and pickled guindilla peppers drizzled with olive oil and txakoli vinegar—compressed across the rim of the glass like a bandoneón. Each garnish delivers a unique punch of acidity to complement the base mixture of Spanish gin, dry vermouth and olive brine.
Leanne Favre, the beverage director of Clover Club in Brooklyn, meanwhile, credits her Florida roots as inspiration for her Shuck N’ Jive, which has become one of the bar’s signature drinks. Vodka that’s been infused with leftover oyster shells lays down an oceanic baseline, to which Favre adds Edinburgh Seaside gin, manzanilla sherry and dry vermouth. The vermouth and sherry are in equal measure to the vodka and gin, making a 50/50 Martini that has the subtle, salty tang of the sea. To round out the maritime flavors, Favre adds eight dashes of seaweed shrub made by combining kombu and rice vinegar. The cocktail is best enjoyed when ordered with an oyster sidecar (for a slight upcharge).
Down in New Orleans, the Mississippi River Delta inspired Abigail Gullo to create a drink that celebrates the unique flavors of the bayou. Her Sanctity of The Gods at Loa Bar draws upon the many unique cultural influences that converge in her home city. It leans on the herbaceous character of Hendrick’s limited-edition Neptunia gin and the salted caramel notes of a manzanilla sherry, balanced with a tincture made from Sicilian olive oil and Vietnamese fish sauce.
“It’s a drink that uses coastal ingredients in every element, so you get this very unique taste of place,” says Gullo. “I wanted a hint of umami, and I thought of the Red River Delta gods of Vietnam and the fish sauces that we use in a lot of our cuisine at Loa,” she adds. “There are a lot of similarities in the deltas of Vietnam and the Mississippi.”
Gullo has always been fascinated with how fruits of the sea pair with various wines and spirits behind the bar. She’s known to visit guests at the bar who have ordered oysters with a bottle of sherry in hand to offer a lagniappe, a Creole term for an unexpected little gift. Before pouring, she’ll ask her guests to find their deepest oyster shell among their spent ones, then she fills it to the brim with dry fino sherry.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the juice inside an oyster is called the liquor. “I always love how the little bit of oyster juice left in the shell mixes so well with the sherry,” says Gullo. Throwing it in a Martini is the logical next step.