Why is the Mexican martini—essentially a tequila-heavy margarita in a martini glass, with a splash of olive brine to make it “dirty”—so revered in Austin, Texas, but virtually nowhere else?
Neither Mexican nor a martini, the difficult-to-pinpoint cocktail is certainly worthy of a wider audience. But, like Ranch Water, another Texas favorite, the Mexican martini is particularly well-suited to Bat City’s unique culture and climate.
“Salty, tart, boozy, with a little kick of olive at the end? Tell me you want something else at the end of 45 days of 100-plus degree weather,” says Austin’s Tacy Rowland, a longtime bar manager and owner of Slow Luck NA Spirits. “Really, give it a chance—it’s hard to describe, but it’s one of those cocktails that if you’re craving [it], there’s no replacement.”
Here’s everything to know about this iconic, but underrated cocktail.
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What Is a Mexican Martini?
A mix of tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice and olive brine, a good Mexican martini bounces between tart, sweet, savory, boozy and briny without ever landing on any one flavor profile. In other words: It’s perfectly balanced. Anyone hankering for a “not too sweet” marg, this is your drink—as long as you like olives.
In Austin, common additions include orange juice and Sprite, but these are more just a way to add bulk on the cheap (maybe because many places traditionally went big, serving glassfuls alongside an extra shaker-full of drink as a sidecar) and are no more welcome here than in a margarita. Depending on who is making it, a splash of fresh-squeezed O.J. may be used, especially to complement limes that are particularly sour. And many mixologists play with different olive brines to impart different flavor profiles into the drink.
“For our Mexican martini, we use a Castelvetrano olive brine for its affinity with the other ingredients,” says Howard Franklin Holthoff, bar manager at Austin’s Veracruz Fonda & Bar. “It’s salty, buttery and has a touch of orange that plays well with the earthy agave and lets the orange liqueur pop a little more. It also gives a mouthfeel that carries all the flavors through the beginning, middle and end of each sip.”
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How the Mexican Martini Became an ATX Icon
The Cedar Door brought the Mexican martini to Austin fame in the early 80s, and it still serves five varieties of the cocktail today. Trudy’s, another institution that dates back to the late 70s, further popularized it with their 44-ounce “Grande Mex-Mart” served with the shaker on the side. Newer institutions are helping move the Mexican martini tradition forward, like Veracruz Fonda & Bar’s, which offers an upscale, off menu take on the classic.
Why has this drink taken such a hold of Austin? For one, it has a famously festive drinking culture, and a margarita-martini hybrid holds obvious appeal. But there’s science to it as well: The drink’s characteristic brininess speaks to salt’s ability to amplify the flavors of both citrus and agave spirits.
“Salt is a flavor enhancer in cocktails, just like in cooking or baking,” says Holthoff. “It has a wonderful way of taming bitterness while heightening both acidity and sweetness. Through my career I’ve used salt and saline in just about every style of cocktail, from Old Fashioneds and Negronis to sours and daisies and everything in between.”
Rowland suggests its appeal lies not just in the salty, well-balanced flavor. A big part of the appeal is Austin itself. “There’s one thing Austin loves more than anything else, and that is, well, Austin,” she says. “Our traditions and memories are something we hold very near and dear, and we love to share those with new people.”
As for why the drink isn’t more popular outside Austin? We can only imagine it’s because not enough folks have tried it yet. “Not everyone may understand it, but it takes us back to times we remember fondly,” Rowland says. “We’re not fancy people down here, but we like to have a good time.”
The Best Mexican Martini
Recipe by Nils Bernstein
A great Mexican martini should read like a martini in the sense that it’s a spirit-forward cocktail, rather than just a dirty margarita. Use good tequila and a heavy hand, but also make sure the orange liqueur is good quality (Grand Marnier or Combier are good substitutes for Cointreau), and, obviously, squeeze the lime juice fresh. If your olive brine isn’t ultra-salty, you might want to add an extra dash of it.
- 2.5 oz. blanco tequila
- 1 oz. Cointreau
- 1 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1/2 oz. (1 tablespoon) olive brine
- Lime zest, to garnish
- 2 pitted olives, to garnish
Add all ingredients to a shaker filled halfway with ice. Shake very well and strain into a martini glass.
For garnish, use a vegetable peeler to cut a wide strip of lime zest, wrap around two pitted olives, and secure with a toothpick.
Published: November 21, 2023