Sunday, February 28, 2016

As the Verm Turns – A Look at Vermouth

"Do not allow children to mix drinks.
It is unseemly -- and they use too much vermouth."

-Steve Allen
Poor vermouth. A drop too much sends cocktail hipsters into an absolute uproar. Many martini drinkers take great pride in their disdain for this mixer and aperitif.
Winston Churchill, in a piece of famous apocrypha, would mix his martinis and “give a nod towards France” rather than add vermouth to his shaker. Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel stated that "Connoisseurs suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through the bottle” of vermouth into the gin for a proper martini.

What did vermouth do to anyone to deserve this sort of treatment? I’ve never understood the depth of dislike. I really enjoy a martini from time to time, and I like the flavor that adding a little vermouth brings to the table. And I’ll never turn down a Manhattan, which has sweet vermouth as a major building block next to the rye or bourbon.

I usually have a bottle each of sweet and dry vermouth in my fridge for mixing purposes (more on that in a bit), but I’ve never really thought about vermouth as an aperitif on its own. I’ve written before about Lillet, a favorite aperitif of mine which you can usually locate next to the Vermouth in most wine stores, but I’d not said, “Hey, I’m going to pour myself a nice, cold glass of vermouth” before.

From what I’m reading, though, vermouth on its own as an aperitif is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in this day and age of craft cocktails and niche drinking establishments. A fortuitous Wine Fairy delivery crossed the threshold at Vine HQ not long ago, carrying with it a couple of bottles of vermouth a little more high end than the Martini & Rossi which usually serves as my “house” selection. Before I dive in to how they are, let’s talk a little about what this stuff actually is.

First off, vermouth is wine. It’s a fortified wine, which means that its initially low alcohol content has been boosted via the addition of a neutral spirit, like a brandy or cognac. Vermouth runs generally between 16-22% ABV. It’s also an aromatized wine, so the wine is infused with a proprietary blend of botanicals – most importantly artimisia, better known as wormwood.

Did your ears prick up a bit at the mention of wormwood? The name “Vermouth” actually comes from the French pronounciation of the German word for wormwood, “Wermut.” Wormwood is the source of the psychoactive compounds in absinthe. (Alas, vermouth will not make your hallucinate, although too many martinis can make you believe you’re a secret agent.)

The fortifying and aromatizing of vermouth allow it to remain fresh after opening for much longer than an ordinary wine – but if you’ve got a bottle of vermouth in the back of your liquor cabinet that you bought two years ago for a cocktail party and never finished, pitch it or cook with it or something. Vermouth is still, after all, wine – and like all wines, it begins to oxidize after it’s opened. It’ll generally hold its flavor for a month or two if you keep it in the fridge, but you can only count on a week or two at room temperature.

Vermouth, like many alcohols, was initially a medicinal drink when created back in the 1600’s, but its popularity really began to pick up in the mid-1800’s when the Martini and the Manhattan were first concocted. (Cocktail aficionados should note that the original recipe for a Martini uses gin, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and simple syrup – rather than the splash of dry vermouth in a sea of gin more popular today.)

Vermouth can be an aperitif, drunk on its own with a citrus twist and a dash of bitters, but I admit to never taking it that way until this particular opportunity. I tried a pair of vermouths side by side – the La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Blanc and the La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Extra Dry.

Both vermouths are from the southwest of France. They are produced by mixing a fortified wine known as Pineau des Charentes with scads of botanicals (18 for the Royal, 27 for the Extra-Dry). I poured a little of each to do a side by side comparison first.

I started with the Royal, which struck me as a little sweet. It’s very pale straw-colored and has a very pretty orange blossom nose with flavors of pears and honey. These fruits gradually turn a little bitter towards the end as the botanicals bite in a bit. My notes say “honeyed absinthe!” and I’ll admit – I’d be a much bigger fan of absinthe if it tasted like this. I thought it was a nice, refreshing drink, and I could see myself drinking this before a meal as an aperitif – although I still would lean towards Lillet if I had a choice. Still, I was pleasantly surprised, and I still need to make a Vesper with it, since a Vesper uses Lillet next to its vodka and gin.

I wasn’t as much of a fan of the Extra-Dry as an aperitif. It’s slightly darker than the Royal and has flavors much more along the lines of a typical “dry vermouth” – very little sweetness and quite a heavy dose of botanicals, especially anise, which finished with a little bit of clove and cinnamon spice. On its own, I didn’t find it particularly pleasant, but I decided to use it in its more contemporary role – mixing a martini with it.

I’ve never run from vermouth in my martinis. I usually mix them 2.5 parts gin (usually Bombay Sapphire or Hendricks, but New Amsterdam is surprisingly workable for cheaper gin) to 1 part dry vermouth, with extra olives. I like the vermouth botanicals in a cocktail – as I feel they really round off the harder edges of the gin. Here’s where the Extra-Dry really shone. All of those herbal scents and flavors married beautifully with the flavors of the gin. One of the better ones I’d mixed in a long while. As a mixer, the Extra-Dry is top notch.

Both of these cost around $15 for a 375ml bottle, so they’re a little more pricey than typical vermouth, where you can usually get a 750ml for about $7-8, but the interesting flavors make it worth taking a flyer on if you’re trying to craft an impressive cocktail.

(Thanks to Sean at Colangelo PR for the samples.)

No comments: