All Hail the 'Mexican Martini,' a Tex-Mex Institution

Dirty martini lovers and margarita fans can't get enough of this cocktail.

<p>Beliphotos / Shutterstock</p>

Beliphotos / Shutterstock

There are a lot of foods that are pretty purely Texan, like the heart-shaped roast H-E-B (a local Texas grocery chain) stocks every Valentine’s Day, as well as usual suspects like chicken-fried steak, kolaches, and anything Tex-Mex. The Mexican Martini is, without question, purely Texan, and certainly the most Tex-Mex drink of them all. It also happens to be the only drink the city of Austin can — and proudly does — call its own. But as for its origin story, well, like most of Texas history, that’s a contentious topic.

The Mexican Martini was invented in the 1980s, but it’s hard to say exactly where; local lore suggests it originated at Cedar Door, an old-school Austin Tex-Mex spot, while others argue that Trudy’s, another stalwart of Tex-Mex in the city, came up with and popularized the concoction. (The latter is home to the largest Mexican Martini in the city. It serves four, the shaker is only slightly smaller than my French bulldog, and it costs just $30.)

The drink’s skyrocketing popularity might have something to do with why the debate over who created the drink has resurfaced. But it’s a tale almost as old as Tex-Mex, and most spots have laid claim on the drink in one form or another.

At Matt’s El Rancho, it's called Matt’s Knockout Martini; at El Alma, the drink goes by the name Almatini. At Chuy’s, it’s simply the Perfect Texas ‘Tini. As for what the Mexican Martini actually consists of, it’s more or less a margarita served up in a martini glass. It is always shaken, never stirred, and the only difference in the actual classic margarita recipe is the addition of about half an ounce of olive brine. The best spots serve it with a full sidecar shaker alongside.

<p>Erin Ashford</p>

Erin Ashford

It is a briny, umami-packed, savory margarita, and altogether a combination that makes it challenging to have just one. Even still, most spots will clearly state on the menu, “limit two per customer.” After all, with that full shaker, the one drink is really closer to two, or even three cocktails.

Importantly, the Mexican Martini is not, as the name suggests, a martini. “I think it was just a play on the fact that it was served in the martini glass,” says Erin Ashford, Bar Director of Holiday on 7th. “That’s it. It’s a tequila-based drink, and they wanted to serve it in a martini glass because that was popular then, so they were like, we obviously have to call it the Mexican Martini.”

For Ashford, adapting the drink for her own menu, an airy cocktail bar serving tinned fish and whimsical cocktails — in many ways, the antithesis to Tex-Mex — was a challenge between changing the drink entirely and keeping it true to its form.

Ashford’s version is frozen, which might lead to a whole new debate surrounding Texas Martinis: Whether they are best up or frozen (still waiting on an on the rocks version). But this choice wasn’t just to start a new fight over the drink. Ashford says she “honestly thinks freezing it helps balance the olive brine better with the alcohol, anyway.”

Olive brine can be polarizing to dry martini fans in particular, but the amount used in a Mexican Martini depends on where you order one. At some spots, the brine is barely noticeable, whereas at others, it's more pronounced — and most bartenders are willing to adjust the ratio based on your taste.

Laura Maddox, the bar manager at Small Victory, which specializes in martinis, says she personally doesn’t love the olive brine in this cocktail despite typically being a fan of savory flavors. “Olive brine is in a class of its own as a cocktail ingredient, and I think certain bartender’s might stick their nose up and say it’s impossible to balance,” she says. “But the guests who like it, love it — the guests who don’t like it can’t even imagine swallowing a single sip without gagging.”

And yet, while the olive brine aspect of the drink is a heavily contested topic among bartenders and drinkers alike, savory cocktails like the Mexican Martini are everywhere these days, as bars across the country fill their menus with briney, umami-packed drinks.

In fact, Leanne Favre, head bartender at Leyenda in Brooklyn says she encountered a strange offshoot of the Mexican Martini at her own bar.

“It was weird,” Favre says. “People would just come in and order this thing they were calling a dirty tequila.” Upon asking, Favre and her team learned that the order involved straight tequila with some added olive brine, a close cousin to the Mexican Martini.

“It was getting to the point where I had to ask my server if he was recommending it to people,” she laughs. But he wasn’t.

Savory flavors are in high demand, and the Mexican Martini is a savory cocktail at its finest. While it’s no martini, it’s the perfect way to sip a margarita without your hand warming it up. And nothing, and I mean nothing goes better with a side of queso, other than a sizzling tray of fajitas.

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