Number Ten, where I tend bar, hosted TalkTails Symposium Number One: Essential Cocktails and Essential Vermouths, on Monday, December 10, 2018. Helping others enjoy vermouth is a topic that is near and dear. One of my life ambitions is to be called “Johnny Vermouth Seed” at least once before I shuffle off this mortal coil.
There are challenges. The fact is that most people believe that they don’t like vermouth, and when they order one of the best-known cocktails—the Martini—they probably ask for “just a touch,” or “a capful,” or “dry,” or “extra dry,” or “no vermouth.” Or as Churchill would ask when ordering a Martini, about the amount of vermouth, just “nod toward the continent.”
It is as if vermouth is something we expect to taste bad, and so yearn to minimize its involvement in the drink.
Unfortunately, such drinkers are not wrong much of the time, but they are not wrong not because vermouth intrinsically tastes bad, but because the vermouth has likely been treated abysmally, or is low quality, or both.
First, what is vermouth? From VinePair:
Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine. Basically: wine spiked with brandy, infused with herbs and spices, and sweetened. There are two main varieties: red (sweet) vermouth, which originally hails from Italy, and white (dry) vermouth, which first appeared in France. Wormwood, of absinthe fame, is dry vermouth’s hallmark ingredient.
Vermouth, like amaro, was originally marketed for medicinal purposes. It then went on to become a celebrated aperitif, served on its own, or on ice, and typically with a twist of citrus and often with club soda, as a highball. Eventually, vermouth found its permanent home at the world’s bar when it became associated with some of history’s most iconic cocktails, namely Martini and Manhattan.
Aromatized wines cocktails, which is quite a mouthful (literally, too), is what most of us think of as a traditional cocktail, of which the most widely known are the aforementioned Martini and Manhattan, but there are many, many variants. Starting in the mid-late nineteenth century, vermouths and similar products started making their way to America, after being developed in various European countries, but mainly France and Italy. These products were based in wines fortified with added grain alcohol or brandy that had been infused or further distilled with aromatic herbs, roots, bark, and who knows what else.
The Keeping and Caring of Vermouth
There is actually a pretty simple reason for today’s unpopularity of vermouth, and that is the substance in the bottle is most often gone bad, as in “oxidized” or “spoiled.”
Fortified wines such as vermouth tend not to be all that much higher in alcohol content than the source wines, despite the “fortified” aspects. As light alcohol ingredients, it should be surprising to few that these might be added to liquor to soften the drink and add flavor and help balance the other ingredients. Vermouth to gin (and bitters) and whiskey (and bitters) made for the Martini and Manhattan, respectively, and “classic” cocktails were born. And classic cocktails still live.
But fortified wines, once opened, are going to be just slightly more long-lasting than regular wines. Vermouth’s alcohol by volume (ABV) is higher than non-fortified (i.e., “regular”) wines, but it is only by a couple or four percentage points, where, a Chardonnay might be 13% alcohol, and a vermouth typically falls somewhere between 15% and 18%. (Most liqueurs are typically 24-30% ABV, and liquor 40%-50%, and both have high enough ABV for long-term shelf stability after opening).
After the American Golden Age of Cocktails, which more or less ended during Prohibition, many of the aromatized wine products more or less passed from common American memory, as did many once-well-regarded cocktails.
Fortunately, Europe kept many aromatized wine products and liqueurs in production during our Prohibition and beyond, and praise be, but the damage was done here. The use of such products declined in the States, but even with the relatively still-common vermouth, the volume consumed dropped, as did the institutional memory of the need to use opened bottles expeditiously or to otherwise protect such from oxidation, which can be achieved by several means, including drinking bottles up in a timely way, and/or keeping such bottles sensibly capped and in the refrigerator.
Over even a relatively short time, vermouth starts to oxidize, darkening in color and taking on a woody taste. Sweet vermouth is a bit more resistant to oxidizing (or, more likely, better at masking the oxidation), but sweet vermouth, too, turns darker, brownish, tastes flatter and woodier, and will quickly enough become hard to love. Alas for the downward cycle that ensued: less vermouth was used, the bottles sat around too long and so spoiled, and even fewer people were interested in using these often-spoiled ingredients.
Part of the cocktail revival that’s been underway for two decades has been due to the kind treatment of vermouth, as well as the resurrection of other similar products now more easily available. Nonetheless, it remains far too likely that a bar hasn’t a clue about vermouth spoilage or how other similar products can be used in the making of terrific drinks. And chances are quite good, in still far too many bars, that the vermouth itself is pretty cheap, more likely the equivalent of Two-Buck-Chuck, then, say, a $15 bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.
There are top shelf vermouths that aren’t much more expensive than a lot of the well-known brands. I go with Dolin, instead of Martini & Rossi or Noilly Pratt, at least when I’m not springing for really premium vermouth such as Quady Vya Extra Dry. And while Cinzano Rosso is good, Carpano Antica is far better sweet vermouth.
These days, there are many versions and styles of vermouth and like-products within the more general category of aperitif/digestif, which sound a lot like appetizer and digester, because, well, that is how this category was and still is used, although not particularly in the U.S. Examples of aperitif and digestif include Lillet, Dubonnet, Bigallet China China, Bhyr, Campari and Aperol, Punt e Mas, Frenet Braca, and Cynar, and there are literally hundreds of others, especially considering that amari, which are Italian digestifs, have the tradition of every village having its own. And then there are liqueurs, which are used as aperitif and digestif, too, but let’s keep things simple.
Oh, and there are actually several more types of vermouth beyond the sweet and dry, including rosé and a French-style of semi-dry. But let’s continue to keep things simple!
The goal of this tasting was to overcome prejudice against vermouth and to highlight how fresh quality vermouth and related products work within cocktails. There were seven pours in the course of the tasting, with the portions figured for drinking safely.
And speaking of drinking, remember the wise words of Harry Craddock, author of the seminal cocktail book, from the Savoy Hotel: “Finish your drink while it is still laughing at you,” by which I’ve assumed he meant while the cocktail is cold (and fizzy, to, for drinks like highballs), and not to let the thing sit and warm up and flatten and… And, by the way, don’t get confused about “bruising,” which some conflate with any water present in the cocktail. “Bruising” means that too much water is in the drink, diluting it; but understand that the right amount of water is an essential part of the cocktail. Bruising occurs because of a too-long stir with short ice, or the cocktail sits for a long time in the shaker with ice before stir, or the bartender left the cocktail in the shaker with ice to go out to the street to put more money in the parking meter. A bruised cocktail is easy to identify by taste and should be returned to the bartender for a replacement, and if that doesn’t fix things, go find a different bar.
Here’s what we had:
- Quady Vya Extra Dry Vermouth, served on ice, with lemon twist.
- Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, served on ice, with orange twist.
- Fifty/Fifty Martini, served up, with lemon twist: 1½ oz. Plymouth Gin, 1½ oz. Quady Vya Extra Dry Vermouth, 1-2 dashes Number Ten Orange Bitters. Combine ingredients, stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist.
- Bordeaux (Gin), served up, with lemon twist: 2 oz. Beefeater London Dry Gin, 1 oz. Lillet Blanc, 1 dash Number Ten Orange Bitters. Combine ingredients, stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon twist. The ratio between the two main ingredients is flexible, to taste. Some prefer to substitute the Lillet Blanc with the more bitter Cocchi Americano aperitif.
- Martinez, served up, with orange twist: 2 oz. Old Tom Gin, ¾ oz. Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, 2 dashes Maraschino liqueur, 1 dash Angostura Bitters. Mix ingredients in shaker, add ice, stir, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish: orange twist. If one were to substitute Ruby or LBV Port for the sweet vermouth and serve on the rocks, this would be called “Ruby Martinez.”
- Number Ten Manhattan, served up, with a dropped Luxardo Maraschino cherry: 2 oz. Evan Williams BiB Bourbon, 1 oz. Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth, splash of Grand Marnier, 3 dash Angostura Bitters, 1 dash Number Ten Orange Bitters. Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Excellent using Rye whiskey, too.
- Brooklyn, served up, with Luxardo Maraschino cherry or lemon twist: 2 oz. Rittenhouse BiB Rye, 1½ oz. Dolin Dry Vermouth, ¼ oz. Cio Ciaro (or Nonnio, Montenegro, or other amaro). Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. The measure for a quarter-ounce is a barspoon; the amaro acts, in effect, as the bitters, but too much can unbalance this drink. Optional: add orange bitters. A high proof Rye should be used, to stand up to the addition of amaro.
I was thrilled to hear the excitement that the participants had for Martinez, since I’ve long liked this cocktail and think it is not only deliciously interesting in taste, but interesting in its place within cocktail history (or fable). The Martinez hearkens back to a much earlier version of the Martini that is supposed—the records are lost on the mists of time—to have been half-gin, half-sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.
I’ve long been intrigued by Maraschino liqueur, too, in part because it shows up in a lot of old cocktails and because it can be a difficult ingredient to use, where even slightly too great a measure can overpower a drink’s balance. In the Martinez cocktail, this liqueur is used more like a bitters, adding only a trace of its taste. And, by the way, what is this liqueur? Ask Wikipedia:
Maraschino is a liqueur obtained from the distillation of Marasca cherries. The small, slightly sour fruit of the Tapiwa cherry tree (Prunus cerasus var. marasca), which grows wild along parts of the Dalmatian coast, lends the liqueur its unique aroma… In 1759, Francesco Drioli, a Venetian merchant, began industrial-scale production of maraschino in Zadar, which was then part of the Republic of Venice. Drioli displayed that Venetian entrepreneurial spirit that had transformed the popular tradition of home distillation of grappa in the Veneto into a refined and renowned industry, following clear and distinct rules and restrictions, as set down by the Arte dell’acqua di vita.
Maraschino liqueur is considered a “dry” liqueur and is less sweet than many other liqueurs. Its relation to grappa is in its production technique, in that all parts of the fruit, including the pits (not to mention whatever twigs that get thrown in), and this helps explains its “drier” qualities. While the flavor characteristics of Maraschino liqueur is hard to define: “smooth but strong; a sweet liqueur with herbal, nutty and funky flavors… not much of a cherry taste… a rounded taste and persistent aroma… intense, flavorful finish.”
The Martinez would also serve nicely on the rocks, or, likely, as the base for a highball, using club soda as the mixer, with, perhaps, a slice of orange crushed into the tall glass.
As for the Brooklyn, the last sample of this tasting, I’m still not entirely happy with this Perfect Manhattan variant, and I have to wonder if that’s due to the lack of availability of an original ingredient. The original amaro was Amer Picon, now lost in the mists of time, and there is little confidence regarding this amaro’s taste profile, although there is a consensus that Cio Ciaro is the closest to Amer Picon. David Wondrich, cocktail historian, identified eight Brooklyn cocktail variants, and this one dates back to 1914. Drier and more complex, this variant remains open to some experimentation to conform various available Amari to get the best balance.