Olive my love
I learned to like cocktail olives in my beer from my dad. Originally from Hamilton, Ohio, he told me my grandfather was addicted to olives for their salt-to-weight ratio. I share Dad’s taste for them and agree that they’re a natural complement to almost any light beer.
So, last month, when I ordered my Sierra Nevada with a fistful of olives from bartender Mike Wentz at Sierra Tap House, I was surprised to hear him refer to my drink as a “Sun Valley Martini.” I had thought mine was a specifically Midwestern tradition, and decided to investigate this local connection, not knowing that my search would bring me in contact with an ancient fraternal order, and the legacy of the Irish mafia (basically).
Mike told me to ask for the drink at Ryan’s Saloon and Broiler on Wells Avenue—where the traditional presentation is a 34-ounce glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon with half a dozen queen-sized olives in the mix. Sure enough, when I arrived I saw an industrial-sized barrel of olives resting conspicuously close to the tap handles.
I gladly paid the $6.50 for my Sun Valley Martini, and then sat down with soon-to-be-owner of Ryan’s, Ian Stafford, to ask about its origins. Our discussion turned to the original owner of the bar, John Ryan, who bought the place when it was the Wells Avenue Lounge 40 years ago and made it his namesake.
“He was from L.A.,” said Stafford. “The way that he got the money to buy the place and do some other stuff—it was rumored that he was involved in the Irish mob.” Ian stressed to me that this was never proven, and pointed to the framed and display-lit portrait of Ryan that has hung on the front wall since he passed about 25 years ago. Ian also told me that the Sun Valley Martini became a tradition thanks to Ryan’s efforts as well.
“I do know that he served them—I don’t know if he invented them,” Stafford said. “I’ve heard stories from old-timers where he’d always smoke a cigar while he was working, and if some of the ash fell in the drink he’d just stir it up and put olives in it.”
The drink’s also been around long enough to make it a favorite of the local chapter of “E Clampus Vitus”—or “Clampers”—a group that, according to members, “is not sure if it is a ’historical drinking society’ or a ’drinking historical society.’” The group also counted in Food Bank of Northern Nevada’s top 10 organizations for its monthly homeless feeds.
“It’s a historical preservation society,” said Stafford, who is also a member. “Like, when you see plaques around Nevada that mark a historical sight or event, over 90 percent of the time it will say E Clampus Vitus and the chapter number. It was Clampers who put up those plaques.”
I was impressed with the Sun Valley Martini’s pedigree at Ryan’s: served by the founder, endorsed by the Clampers and roundly enjoyed by the locals. But was there any significance to its name?
“My impression is that it’s called the Sun Valley Martini because the ingredients are cheap,” Stafford said. Indeed, I’ve since heard olives-and-beer called a “redneck martini,” which some may consider offensive. But I think such a generic name also fails to celebrate what the drink is really about: a simple pleasure that’s high in sodium and lacking in pretense.