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Food & Drink

Olive Twist: Six of Toronto’s best dirty martinis, ranked

Including one that comes with a caviar-stuffed pretzel bite

By Meredith Hardie

There is perhaps no martini as polarizing as the dirty martini. The name itself suggests that something isn’t quite right. Some olive haters have even described the classic cocktail as tasting like the inside of an aquarium. But those who love the salty rush of the briny yet balanced drink are in luck, because it’s having quite the moment. Olives are now rivalling espresso beans on Instagram and TikTok, and Toronto bartenders are taking note, putting their own spin on the savoury sip. Here are six of the city’s best.

The dirty martini at Bar Bowie, a cocktail lounge in Toronto's west end
Photo by Meredith Hardie
The one in a basement

1 Stroll past One Stop Global Coin Laundry and Lotto on Ossington and you just might miss Bar Bowie, one of the city’s sweetest little basement bars. Don’t call it a speakeasy—it’s not exactly easy to find. (Look for the neon mouse; he’ll show you the way.) Downstairs, expert bartenders mix up most excellent martinis, Bar Bowie’s specialty. While drinking in a basement may conjure up college-era memories, things are much classier inside this checkered-floor, mirrored-ceiling den, and their dirty martini is next-level. It’s made with two ounces of vodka or gin plus equal parts vermouth and olive brine. Then, a little something special brings it all together: a pinch of salt. It’s briny yet unbelievably balanced. Bonus: precious leftover martini from the mixing glass comes in a cute little sidecar of a carafe on ice. Just when it seems like the fun is over, there’s an ice-cold top up. $20. 180R Ossington Ave., 416-663-7867, @barbowie

The Ace Martini at Ace Hotel Toronto
Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
The one with aquavit

2 The city’s first Ace Hotel may have taken seven years to build, but the Camden Street stunner, which finally opened its doors last summer, was worth the wait. A place this attractive, with magnificent poured-in-place concrete arches and custom oak furnishings, deserves a drink that’s equally refined. Behold: the Ace Martini, a martini that skews dirty-lite. Guests can enjoy it in the Lobby, the hotel’s lobby bar (duh); at Alder, Patrick Kriss’s Mediterranean restaurant; or at Evangeline, the all-season rooftop bar. The hotel’s signature sip is a botanical and boozy punch made with London dry gin, aquavit and a vermouth blend as the base. The addition of chamomile brings subtle floral notes, and a squeeze of preserved lemon adds a tangy and bright salinity that differs from what olive brine delivers. But it’s not without olives: each Ace Martini comes with a plump Cerignola from Puglia. $21. 51 Camden St., 416-637-1200, acehotel.com/toronto

The dirty martini at Maple Leaf Tavern, a restaurant in the east end of Toronto
Photo courtesy of Maple Leaf Tavern
The pre-batched one

3 Anyone wishing for life to be served to them on a silver platter should look no further than Maple Leaf Tavern for its bespoke martini service. The east-end institution oozes cozy, old-school hospitality and turns out a top-notch dirty martini. Pre-batched gin and vodka martinis are always chilling behind the bar, just waiting to be stirred and served to order. For their dirty martini, they add olive brine as they build the cocktail in a chilled Yarai mixing glass. Then they up the dry vermouth ratio for a luscious herbal note and add in two dashes of orange bitters. The experience is enhanced with a trio of garnishes (citrus, pickled pearl onions, olives) that arrives on a silver tray. And, as at Bar Bowie, it comes with a sidecar containing the other half, making it an almost-four-ounce pour that stays ice cold. $18. 955 Gerrard St. E., 416-465-0955, mapleleaftavern.ca

The Birdbath Martini at the Royal York Hotel's Library Bar
Photo by Rick O’Brien
The one with caviar

4 Sipping a martini in the reference section would surely get anyone kicked out of an actual library. Thankfully, it’s perfectly acceptable behaviour at the Library Bar, the Royal York’s recently redesigned cocktail lounge. Here, the Birdbath Martini is the thing to get. The savoury sipper is made with either Quill Vodka or Quill Gin, spirits distilled exclusively for the hotel bar. The classic version consists of a house vermouth blend, house orange bitters infused with sweetgrass and cardamom, and a touch of lemon oil. Instead of olive brine, a boatload of olives and pickled onions comes on the side. For those looking to splurge, there’s the luxe version, which replaces the orange bitters with a silky house olive oil and butter spirit. It comes with olives on the side, but they’re joined by a soft pretzel topped with—wait for it—sturgeon caviar for an extra-savoury slap (and to justify the hefty price tag). Tableside pouring ups the fancy factor a notch. $28 and $75. 100 Front St. W., 416-368-2511, librarybartoronto.com

A classic dirty martini at Goods and Provisions, a restaurant and cocktail bar in Toronto's east end
Photo courtesy of Goods and Provisions
The classic one

5 When it comes to the classic dirty martini, Goods and Provisions stirs up a dang good one. We’d expect nothing less from the Leslieville local known for its natural wine and expertly made cocktails. While bar manager Olivia Haller recommends gin as the spirit of choice for a dirty martini, asking for vodka is totally kosher. Other than your clear liquor of choice, it’s got all the standard ingredients: dry vermouth, a good glug of olive brine and Turkish green olives for garnish. It’s served in a chilled vintage coupe—a find from an antique market—which gives the salty tipple a little extra oomph. $18. 1124 Queen St. E., 647-340-1738, goodsandprovisionsrestaurant.com

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The Accountant is Bitter Melon’s take on a dirty martini that swaps out vermouth for Dewanosato Junmai sake, and, instead of one focal spirit there’s two: a mix of Roku gin and shochu. Salinity comes from ponzu, and rather than an olive, the drink’s garnished with a Chinese tea quail egg
Photo by Daniel Neuhaus
The one with an East Asian twist

6 The Accountant at Bitter Melon encapsulates the spirit of the Chinatown cocktail bar. It’s made using a blend of several Japanese and Chinese ingredients, which makes for an unreal combination more delicious than the sum of its parts: a traditional dirty martini reverse-engineered into a simple yet intricate briny beauty. It’s got Roku Gin, a dry, bitter spirit made with six Japanese botanicals, as its base. And instead of olive brine, there are equal parts punchy ponzu and saline. A hit of shōchū, which bar manager Daniel Desir describes as “if scotch and tequila had a baby,” brings a roasted element, and a hit of sake gives the drink a slightly earthy note. To top it all off, salty Chinese black tea quail eggs cosplay as more-interesting olives. $20.88. 431 Spadina Ave., 647-368-8380, bittermelonrestaurant.com

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