A few weeks ago, I ordered a $35 Vodka Martini. A server delivered it in an engraved V-shaped glass set on a silver tray and filled with Chopin Family reserve vodka and vermouth, garnished with a pickled dwarf peach, and accompanied by a tiny-as-advertised potato topped with sour cream and osetra caviar. Say what you will about elitism or inflation, I will order it again, this Reserve Martini Tray at Veronika in New York City.
“There’s been a reset personally and economically, in this need of wanting to go out and, oh my God, to treat myself with things like expensive vodka, Champagne, and caviar,” says Eric Alperin, a cocktail veteran who’s now the director of beverage at Veronika and its parent company, CultureWorks.
Inspired by a long night of sipping vodkas in Warsaw, Alperin paired the ultra-premium Polish Chopin (made with young potatoes and rested in used Polish oak barrels) with Polish caviar. “Vodka is a beautiful accompaniment with salty foods,” he says. “It refreshes the palate; it’s not a cleanse, but a refresh.”
Two Favorites, Reunited
I’ve been a Martini drinker for more than a decade and an opportunistic caviar eater for just as long, but in the last year something marvelous, if not rather obvious, has happened. Martinis and caviar have gone from occasional bedfellows to Page Six-style lovers. They’re everywhere together.
It’s the reunion for the boom-and-bust pair—and I’m not talking about straight vodka, an enduring caviar sidekick. Newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries detailed dinners that commenced with Martini cocktails and caviar. Revelers in Passaic, New Jersey; Lima, Ohio; Davenport, Iowa; and Sumter, South Carolina were all washing down the briny delicacy with the bracing ambrosia that is a Martini. Eventually, however, Prohibition ruined the fun (or at least ran it underground), and the Great Depression was a further blow to the relationship.
Starting in the 1960s, the James Bond franchise helped revive the caviar-and-Martini lifestyle, but the fictional Mr. Bond rarely mixed the two, preferring Champagne with his beluga caviar. Caviar had a moment in the early 1980s and again in mid-’90s, the latter coinciding with the rise of the Martini bar. And here we are in 2022, emerging from a global pandemic in need of a stiff drink and thirsty for great fun. Add in a Martini renaissance and the global reshaping of the caviar industry, and the duo’s reemergence feels inevitable.
“A lot of guests are looking for experiences when they visit bars and restaurants,” says Sondré Kasin, the principal bartender at New York’s Undercote, the cocktail bar beneath the Michelin-starred Korean barbecue Cote. “During the pandemic, a lot of people were sitting home, and they now want to go back out to have fun and experience something new.”
Bartenders tipped me off to the particularly generous size of Undercote’s caviar bumps, $30 a pop for 8 to 10 grams of Regiis Ova Royal hybrid kaluga, ideally paired with one of the bar’s four Martinis. Undercote added bumps to the menu last summer as a way to make caviar more accessible, according to Kasin: Have a taste without buying a full tin.
Bumps are not new, of course. “It’s a historical way of tasting caviar,” says Sarah McKinney, the beverage and service director at The Caviar Co. “It’s how fishmongers graded it. They would take samples from big tins, and as the caviar heated up, they would taste it off their hands. The warmth of the body releases oils in the caviar.”
Almost overnight, though, bumps have started appearing on cocktail menus. In New York, you can add a $20 bump to any Martini order at Temple Bar (may I recommend the Salt & Pepper Martini) and an $18 bump to the Martini Moment at PS, the "hidden" bar within the newly minted Pine & Polk. At Martiny’s, bumps are served not on human flesh, but on a wooden hand curled around a Martini glass.
There are bump haters, those who prefer spoons and blinis and chips to deliver their caviar, but I am not among them. In a fraught world, bumps are a moment of salty-creamy bliss. They’re also an ingenious way for bars and restaurants to, ahem, bump up check averages without added labor. Who’s to begrudge the industry for trying to capture easy revenue after the last two years?
“It’s a low lift for bars, the ability to get a bump on your hand, and it’s a good way to get some money,” says Alperin. “Even if I know they’re making a good margin, I’m happy to pay.”
The caviar-and-Martini landscape is broader than bumps. Undercote serves caviar-topped beef tartare as well as full caviar tins if you have $500 or so to throw down. You should definitely order the N°9 Martini (gin, manzanilla sherry, and vermouth) with a caviar-topped potato at The Nines.
The Vesper Club, set inside The Continental in the Grand Hyatt Nashville, serves a $100 five-course Martini-and-caviar experience. Developed by bar director Jon Howard, the tasting has some of the trappings of formal caviar service—the silver trays, crystal bowls, and mother of pearl spoons—but instead of blini and crème fraîche, bartenders serve Martinis designed to pair with each bite of caviar.
“With a nine-seat bar, we can provide this special amenity for guests, this extra thing and experience within the same walls of The Continental,” says Howard. “It’s just caviar and drinks and letting people be happy.”
It’s also the wedding Martinis and caviar have always deserved. Among the Martinis (all of thich are served in delicate vintage glassware) is a combination of Ford’s Gin, Carpano dry and Dubonnet rouge vermouths, and plum vinegar, whose red berry and fruit notes, Howard says, that showcases the “creamy, buttery, fatty” qualities of California white sturgeon caviar. A citrusy Israeli caviar gets paired with Chopin vodka, Lo-Fi dry vermouth, Italicus, Suze, and lemon oil.
Howard sources caviar from The Caviar Co., and his selections are a window into the massive changes the industry has undergone since 2005, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the importation of caviar from wild, endangered beluga sturgeon from the Caspian and Black Seas.
In the following years, increasingly sophisticated aquaculture filled the void, and there are now caviar farms in countries, including America, Madagascar, Uruguay, Poland, Israel, Thailand, Italy, France, and Malaysia. China produces more than a third of the world’s caviar, much of it exceptional Kaluga Hybrid. With all that supply, caviar prices fell by half between 2012 and 2019, which is perhaps the biggest reason why bumps and caviar garnishes have proliferated in cocktail bars.
All Fads Are Fickle
But will it last?
I walked into The Russian Tea Room in New York city’s Midtown neighborhood on a recent Friday night with no reservation. There couldn’t have been more than 10 parties in the whole restaurant, and instead of sitting at the bar as planned, the host seated me (party of one) in one of the restaurant’s lipstick-red booths. It was a grand seat from which I ordered caviar service and an ice-cold Vodka Martini, appreciating, maybe for the first time, how lovely vermouth’s sweetness played against salty caviar.
With its history and over-the-top dining room, The Russian Tea Room should have been filled with young things eating caviar and drinking Martinis, much in the same way Gen Z’ers now gravitate to Bemelmans Bar. But Russia’s war with Ukraine has stifled business (no matter that The Russian Tea Room was founded by immigrants fleeing communism and has expressed solidarity with Ukraine). Likewise, McKinney says that caviar’s association with Russian culture—despite the fact that there’s zero Russian caviar imported into America—has impacted sales of The Caviar Co.’s Russian-osetra-style tins.
It’s a fickle business. The success of caviar, in particular, is subject to the national mood, which was buoyant coming out of the pandemic but could easily sour with war, inflation, political division, and (not to manifest it but) an impending recession. In 1996, as the dot-com bubble grew, The Wall Street Journal reported on a surge in the caviar market, positing that “a booming economy is making ordinary people feel rich again and splurge on luxuries.” We all know how that ended.
For his part, Alperin believes our post-pandemic urges have not yet been sated and that guests are more than willing to spend a little more for that “wow factor.” “It’s important,” he says. “It brings back that sparkly, titillating feeling and energy of being surprised when you go out.”
I want to hold onto that energy, too, for as long as I can. So I’ll keep ordering Reserve Martinis with cute little caviar-topped snacks. I’ll take fat bumps with friends and sit to ponder tins of Siberian sturgeon with a Martini in hand. Perhaps, with lower prices and its repositioning as an everyday luxury, our caviar moment will last—maybe.
But if caviar does evaporate from the bar scene, I’ll also be OK eating a few extra Castelvetranos, consoled by knowing caviar and Martinis will eventually get back together again.