Due to circumstances in my life I have evolved into a vermouth drinker. Some how this stuff called vermouth went from totally being in vogue to being completely ignored and barely written about where nearly all real knowledge of it has been lost generations ago and the producers seem to be as quiet as moonshiners. No one is exactly interviewing vermouth producers for wine spectator which I’d pay to read. Luckily with all this decline of things the price, for the most part, has stayed down in two buck chuck territory as well. One reason I think all this persists in modern times anyhow, is because true connoisseurship and afficion is really challenging. Vermouth is sort of alienating because its flavors are so adult, and apparently for many people its alcohol levels are too low for most people (the lushes) to bother with which I think is really significant to its decline.
Cocktails also are a problem for vermouth. The worst vermouth cocktail ever created was the dry martini. I’m not talking about a 1/8 dry vermouth cocktail or a wave of the bottle. I’m speaking of dry vermouth and gin in any ratio with bitters or not. For some reason variations with little deviation had such a profound impact that so few people moved in other directions after its popularity began. Erosion of taste slowly stripped away all the wine and an impatient culture that needed their buzz from one glass took over.
You don’t have a real vermouth drink until you mix up some flavor contrast. And most importantly, you cannot be afraid of having two or three if a buzz is your goal. A couple evenings ago I was looking for a drink for the Cocktail Chronicle’s MxMo event. In browsing the always inspirational cocktailDB, I came across Stephen’s cocktail. I was really impressed by this forgotten Stephen’s good taste. It totally read as my style.
1 oz. sherry (I interpreted this as dry sherry to get a good balance so I used La Cigarrera’s Manzanilla)
.75 oz. dry vermouth (European Noilly Prat)
.75 oz. Benedictine
The drink has a serious flavor to alcohol ratio and a really elegant acidity to sweetness ratio. I wish I could have a good bar experience somewhere drinking maybe five or six of these and pay beer prices because it has close to a craft beer cost basis. Another big problem for vermouth is the nature of our gouge restaurant economies. To sum it up quickly, distributors and marketers push super expensive products on the market leaving generations not even knowing that $12 liters of rye whiskey and rum are stunningly delicious, and to add insult to injury, restaurants in so many cities rather be half full all night long, gouging guests with super expensive drinks than actually work hard, understand spirits, and use products that don’t have pharmaceutical style promotional expenses.
Is there any room in the market for this class of fortified and aromatized wine drink? In matters of taste, sherry with its intense barrel treatment is like whiskey flavored wine (I group sherry drinks with vermouth drinks). I feel like people should be able to relate to it more than they think. Vermouth and sherry are also damn cheap relative to distilled spirits. Tapas places often sell small glasses of them for $5. Additionally, restaurants are trying to get people less drunk these days in the world of liability and conservatism and many people have to work increasing hours but still need time to unwind with some adult tasting stimulus. If in Milan, the vermouth drinkers happy hour is extended well into the evening by the perfect alcohol content and affordability of aromatized wine, couldn’t this new style of drink help revive many lagging urban bar cultures?
So now you’re curious and want to mix up some vermouth? The king of these drinks is the Half Sinner, Half Saint:
1.5 oz. sweet vermouth
1.5 oz. dry vermouth
.5 oz. absinthe (floated)
twist of something
I still have yet to find someone that doesn’t like this drink. the sweetness to dryness ratio is perfect. This drink also makes a dramatic mockery of absinthe. The cloying versus the relief. You can’t know pleasure until you know pain. I need to give No. 9 park credit for introducing it to me. Now one or two is a daily ritual. The two mentioned cocktails illustrate some of the really simple formats but just a few of the many players. When you know their simple properties like whats sweet and whats dry, things can easily be substituted to your wildest imagination.
Sherry: sweet or dry. Oxidized to elegance with flor yeast, in love with oak like whiskey flavored wine. Fresh styles like Manzanilla are very chamomily while 30 year old sweet sherries, as made by Matuselem, are like liquid bread pudding.
Vermouth: sweet, dry, or bianco. With so many different brands having styles that are hard to nail down, but with little exception all being good. some drys have more fruit than others. Some sweets are sweeter and some are more intense. Some biancos are more bitter than others.
Played out iconic: Brand names Lillet and Dubbonet are usually sweet, usually really orangey and more or less other stuff is more fun.
Forgotten savoy: The Savoy which covers parts of southern France and northern Italy in and around the Alps is aromatized wine country. There are so many forgotten specialties like Chamberyzette which is vermouth heavy handedly aromatized with Alpine strawberries. Chocolate’s best friend is the epic Barolo Chinato which is elegantly bitter aromatized Barolo wine. This region makes aromatized wines that would remind you of a more handsome Campari or a more complex Lillet. (great ones are made by Vergano)
Americano: More intensely bitter aromatized wines that kind of overlap with the Savoy specialities. Great producers are Vergano, Gancia, and I would say Vya of California. I’ve even made my own with good success.
Aromatized cheaters: Bitter and low alcohol but do not have a wine base (to my knowledge anyhow) Cynar, Campari, Aperol, Picon Bier.
Monastic contrast: Incredibly masterful aromatized high alcohol liqueurs. Masochistic flavor contrast, the Chartreuses which are an artistic synthesis of the flavor “rocket fuel” via booze and botanicals, and Benedictine which is liquid cigar concentrate.
The wines: Passito, Botrytised, Ice Wine. Sauternes, Port, :Madeira (cercial, bual, malmsey, rainwater!) Fresh or oxidized styles, honeyed, mysterious, and made under rare circumstances.
What can be surprising is how well certain brands perform in the randomness of it all. Cribari sweet vermouth anyone? Try it with some dry sherry like La Cigarrera Manzanilla and a finger of Saint James Royal Ambre rhum. There are a million ways to mix this style of drink and a million of them are already on the books. Check it out and see how much less whiskey you end up drinking.