What’s Old is New Again: Classic Martinis Are Trending

Orders for the nostalgic, no-nonsense cocktail are strong — especially at dinnertime
Classic Martinis at Union venues

The Martini has been a classic for more than a century, evoking Mad Men-esque business lunches, glamorous piano bars, and sultry speakeasies of a bygone era. New data from Union reveals that the iconic drink is once again back in style. While the timeless Martini never entirely went away, the old standby is being ordered more frequently by guests at high-volume Union bars and restaurants across the United States.

Guests Continue to Embrace the Classic Martini

“From Union data, we know that more modern expressions like the Espresso Martini are wildly popular, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that the classic Gin- and Vodka-based Martinis are also selling well with on-premise guests,” says Layne Cox, Union’s chief marketing officer.

Classic Martinis account for 2.9 percent of cocktail sales in the 12-month period ending July 31, 2023. And that share is up from 2.7 percent in the prior 12-month period, representing a healthy 9.7 percent growth rate for this standby cocktail, placing the Martini as the No. 10 drink in Union’s list of top-selling cocktails.  For perspective, the trending Spritz cocktail, seemingly everywhere these days, ranks as the. No. 13 cocktail at Union during this period.

Pre-Covid, Martinis were already growing in popularity. Then pandemic shutdowns boosted the at-home Martini trend, when people were exploring cocktail-making at home. Cox says: “The data shows that the interest in Martinis has continued on into post-pandemic life, fully taking root on-premise. It’s exciting to see that it’s not just the crazy ‘tinis’ that are getting attention — the uncomplicated, iconic Gin or Vodka Martini is trending, as well, selling at a slightly elevated price point compared to the average cocktail.”

Martini prices at Union venues in 2022-23
Source: OnPrem Insights, 12-months ending July 31, 2023.

Gin is Top Spirit in Classic Martinis

What’s a real Martini, anyways? 

“A true Martini, of course, is Gin or Vodka with Vermouth,” explains Kathy Casey, president and CEO of Kathy Casey Food Studios-Liquid Kitchen, a menu development agency specializing in beverage programs. “And sometimes a blend of the two, a split-spirit cocktail.”

“The serving glass is the only thing classic Martinis and other Martinis (like the coffee or passion fruit varieties) have in common,” she says. “The ‘other’ Martinis are basically just cocktails served in an up glass.” 

2 out of 3 Martinis sold at Union venues are Gin-based
Source: OnPrem Insights, 12-months ending July 31, 2023.

In the 12 months ending July 2023, roughly two-thirds of classic Martinis served were Gin-based, and one-third were Vodka-based at Union’s high-volume venues. Gin is the aromatic, botanical, and more traditional choice by purist standards, while Vodka offers more neutrality that lets the other ingredient flavors shine. Casey says the slow but consistent rise of Gin has contributed to the classic Martini’s recent success. 

Cox adds: “A big part of the Martini’s resurgence is that guests are switching up the traditional recipe with higher quality ingredients, like local Gins and artisanal Vermouths, and even house-blended Martini bases of Gin and/or Vodka that are infused with botanicals.” 

From the Three Martini Lunch to the Dirty Martini Dinner

“When people first started drinking Martinis, they were smaller,” says Casey, which explains how the legendary three-Martini business lunch of the 1960s and 1970s was possible. By the 1990s, Martinis started growing in portion size, from about three ounces to upwards of six, which aligned with a focus on bigger, sweeter drinks. 

These days, the focus is back on quality over quantity, to a degree. One bar may serve a Martini in a specialty coupe glass with about 3 ounces of spirits — approximately two standard drinks — while another may serve the cocktail in a larger V-shaped Martini glass that holds substantially more. In short: The spirit-forward cocktail makes a stiff drink no matter the glass size.

Over the years, the Martini daypart has shifted away from its lunchtime reputation. In the 12-months ending July 31, 2023, Martinis were primarily ordered during the dinner daypart, between 7 to 10 p.m. Meanwhile, the lunch daypart now sees the lowest sales for classic Martinis. 

Sales of the cocktail are proving to be slightly more female-driven, as well. Looking at data for men and women who order cocktails, women are 14 percent more likely than men to order a classic Martini.

Martini sales at Union venues by depart
Source: OnPrem Insights, 12-months ending July 31, 2023.

“Dirty Martinis are very popular right now,” says Casey, remarking that savory flavors can compliment a meal. People are tending toward less sweet cocktails, she says, so the salty flavors that come from a splash of olive brine added to an otherwise “clean” Martini are on-trend. With a garnish of olives, onions, or a lemon twist, the drink gets a food-friendly profile.

Classic Martinis by dollar sales each month at Union venues
Source: OnPrem Insights, 12-months ending July 31, 2023.

At Union’s high-volume venues, Cox notes: “December is the biggest month for Martini sales.” While the timeless sophistication of a Martini is a good match for the end-of-year holiday celebrations, overall Union data shows that this cocktail has year-round popularity. “June represents the second highest Martini sales month of the year, so guests aren’t necessarily tying this drink to a particular time of year,” she adds.

Making Classic Martinis for the Modern Guest

Earlier this year, the New York Times declared that the Martini “has lost its mind,” and Bustle said the creative trend is appearing on TikTok as a “Martini multiverse” of wild variations, like a chicken soup-flavored cocktail. And Vinepair said personalization of the Dirty Martini has gone to the next level, with guest orders specifying brine levels and type (onion brine is trending), and a wide variety of garnish modifiers.

It’s possibly the most recognizable cocktail there is, and it can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. When it comes to Martinis, Cox notes, people really want to personalize the drink.  “They’re the Starbucks latte of the cocktail world,” she says. “Endlessly customizable.” There’s the spirit of choice, the style (classic, wet, dry, extra-dry, or dirty), and whether it’s prepared shaken or stirred. 

Casey agrees that there’s an inherent drama to the drink that operators can amp up. Tableside Martinis served with an assortment of choose-your-own garnishes, like different types of olives or herbs, can play up the air of drama and sophistication, for example.

Operators can also make ordering a Martini more approachable by putting crowd-pleasing options on their cocktail menus. 

Traditional doesn’t have to mean boring when it comes to on-premise Martinis. “They’re a blank canvas,” says Casey. If your venue has a kitchen, even a small one, you can get creative. If it’s unique enough, she says, it can go on the menu. “You might have something in-house that you have a lot of, like an olive or pickle,” she says, which could be repurposed as a unique cocktail garnish.

Whatever variation your venue serves, everything must be well chilled: The glass, the Vermouth, the olives, and the brine. Casey reiterates: “Serve this cocktail ice cold.” 

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