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In London, the Martini scene is getting shaken up

Forget espresso martinis. The most popular versions of the quintessential UK cocktail are clear, dry, strong and just a little bit dirty

A classic Martini.
A classic Martini. (Photo by Amy Shamblen, Unsplash)

That sound you hear around London is the clinking of cocktail glasses—martini glasses, to be specific. Bartenders all over town are revisiting the classic martini (clear, dry and strong) while adding twists. And we don’t mean strips of lemon zest.

The creators of these rogue martinis are taking dirtiness to a new level and in a different direction from the espresso and watermelon “martinis” that have been part of the London bar scene since the 1990s. They’re stripping the drink to its original, classic profile and then making some notable tweaks.  

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Take the one mixed at the new Three Sheets in Soho, an outpost of the award-winning Dalston bar. Co-owner Max Venning’s latest creation blends olive oil-washed vodka with house-made vermouth infused with kosoret, a minty Ethiopian herb. Served with three olives, “it’s a kind of twist on the dirty martini,” says Venning. It’s already the bestseller on the Dalston list and doing brisk business in Soho.

“It’s savory … crisp, clear and strong,” adds Venning. “The cocktail bar has been through a phase of martinis that aren't—the espresso martini, for instance—but there’s a new generation of drinkers who want something more subtle, more nuanced.”

At Portrait, Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s restaurant atop the National Portrait Gallery, the house martini is modeled on the flavor profile of Tayto salt-and-vinegar potato chips, “a national institution in Ireland,” he says. Made with Sapling gin and garnished, Gibson-style, with a pickled silverskin onion, the drink is punched up with dried vinegar, potato starch and salt.

Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka “Mr Lyan,” is the modernist cocktail virtuoso behind the Lyaness bar on London’s South Bank and the Seed Library in Shoreditch. He excels in lab-based wizardry—for example, making distillates of “terrifyingly expensive” perfumers’ ingredients such as ambergris, produced in the digestive systems of sperm whales. He, too, is using potatoes as inspiration for his Unfiltered Martini with is made with a fermented, artisanal variety of the spud. 

But Chetiyawardana firmly believes that martinis should only be so radical. His Bone Dry Martini, for instance, features vodka flavored with a tincture made from dissolving roasted chicken bones in phosphoric acid for two days. It is, naturally, bone dry. 

Chetiyawardana thinks the explosion of “new-wave” martinis in London partly results from bars’ efforts to keep pace with the experimentation that restaurant kitchens have pursued in recent years. “The bar was riding the wave that the kitchen had created,” he says, by using such culinary techniques as fat washing and fermentation. “But drinks were very ad hoc. There was an understandable lack of experience on the bar side. Now, bars are catching up.” 

Bartenders, he says, are considering such aspects as “the weight of the drink, the journey on the palate, the complexity.” Most important, Chetiyawardana maintains, “You don’t need to be hidebound by convention, but the martini should still perform its function: a cold, clear, powerful pick-me-up.”

Bartenders’ bids to tweak the martini have been helped by spirits producers. There are now more than 800 gin distilleries in the UK, a rise of 332% since 2015, with many using local, foraged aromatics to give their spirit (and the resulting martinis) distinctive edge. Instead of the relatively straightforward, juniper-rich flavor profile of a classic London dry gin, producers are using local ingredients to give their spirit a sense of place—what winemakers call terroir. The house gin at Holborn Dining Rooms’ Gin Bar, for instance, is now custom made by Cornish distiller Tarquin’s and features the seashore tang of rock samphire. Stirred with a dash of Cornish wildflower liqueur, it makes a terrific, not quite classic-tasting martini.

Clear, dry, strong, and just a little bit dirty and twisted: Here are six bars that show off London’s favorite new martini style. 

Three Sheets Bar

A fixture of the East London bar scene since 2016, Three Sheets now has an outpost in a newly developed patch of Soho, steps from the Tottenham Court Road tube station. Owners-brothers Max and Noel Venning and their team conjure up elegant, beautifully balanced, carefully crafted cocktails. The standout is the Dirty Martini at £13 ($16.50), made with olive oil-washed vodka (which adds luxurious smoothness), vermouth with fragrant Ethiopian kosoret and an indispensable pinch of sea salt to amplify the drink’s savory side.


Sea Containers House, with its sweeping views of the Thames, is home to Chetiyawardana’s Lyaness, a modernist cocktail bar that shows the fruits of his Willy Wonka-esque laboratory. Chetiyawardana’s new creation, the Unfiltered Martini, features a tincture made from Maris Piper potatoes. Steamed, injected with acidophilus microbes and briefly fermented, the humble spud takes on a remarkable flavor of vanilla ice cream. Mixed with wheat-based Boatyard vodka, it is given a short stir over ice and garnished not with an olive but with a citrusy, boba-like little globe—the semisolid, pop-in-the mouth spheres pioneered by chef Ferran Adrià—for a light, tropical finish.


This bar at the Japanese grill and sushi bar Niju is a chic Mayfair hideout whose bartenders are inspired by the seasons. The Ramson (wild garlic) Martini (£19), for instance, is a truffle-scented variant of the dirty martini that will be available until late June, when a dirty-style martini that’s more summer flavored will replace it. The off-menu classic Forest Martini (available year-round, at £21), is like a boozy gulp of woodland air; it takes Botanist gin from the whisky-obsessed island of Islay and spikes it with a distillate of pine and moss.

Gothic Bar

Located in the Harry Potter-esque St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, with the same soaring ceilings and riotously rococo décor as the adjacent Midland Grand Dining Room, Gothic’s velvet-draped room is the perfect backdrop for a bespoke cocktail or two. The “Grand Signatures” bar menu steers clear of classics. Instead, the signature Eau de Martini (£17) lets you customize your tipple with a choice of Hepple Gin from Northumberland or X Muse barley vodka from Scotland; a house-crafted blend of vermouths; and a dash of one of five eaux de vie —herb or stone fruit, perhaps —for an aromatic flourish inclined toward the fragrant side of dirty.

Whiskey & Seaweed

At the clubby, cozy space beside Clare Smyth's renowned Core restaurant in Notting Hill, bar manager Vincenzo Ciaccio’s bracingly sour Gin & Pickle (£21) is an especially aromatic version of a dirty martini. Ciaccio makes it with Sapling London Dry gin, tangy Champagne vinegar, a smoky, medicinal hint of black cardamom and pickle juice. Drinkers needing a little sustenance should ask for the bar menu, which features bite-sized snacks—mini-Caesar salad, fried chicken and caviar—from Smyth’s three Michelin-starred kitchen next door.

The Portrait

Located on the fourth floor of the newly renovated National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square, Irish chef-restaurateur Richard Corrigan’s Portrait restaurant and bar is an oasis for footsore culture hounds. The chef’s roots play out on the bar menu with such options as the Irish Apple and the Stout Old-Fashioned. But the star of the show, and a perfect partner for a platter of Irish oysters, is the Salt & Vinegar Martini (£14), a heady concoction of Sapling Gin, Noilly Prat vermouth, a little pickled onion and a dirty dash of pickle juice. It’s finished off with a savory, remnants of the chip bag-style coating on the glass’s rim that uncannily evokes the flavor of the eponymous snack.

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