August 16th, 2007
Vermouth is it
As a proselytizer for “classic cocktails,” I am often at a loss when I try to explain to people what I mean by that term. My mind gropes futilely, trying to single out that obscure recipe that represents the vast treasury of pre-Prohibition drinks. Then, one day, I was flipping through the Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book and noticed something that would astonish most modern drinkers: over one-third of the recipes in that book contain vermouth — either sweet (red/Italian) or dry (white/French), or both together. Ha, now there was a fact that would both grab the attention of the uninitiated and give them an example of what makes classic cocktails classic.
In the present day, vermouth is viewed as a relic from an era when people apparently enjoyed drinking poison. At least, that’s what you’d think vermouth was given the way modern Martini drinkers shudder at the notion of more than a drop of the stuff mucking up their chilled vodka with olives. That’s how we’ve all been conditioned for decades: the drier the Martini the better, so lose the vermouth. And while you’re at it, strip the drink of all remaining flavor by replacing gin with vodka.
When you think about it, that’s just weird. I mean, why did the Martini ever become popular in the first place? Because it used to be a great drink. Try this: two-thirds London dry gin and one-third dry vermouth stirred for a good minute over cracked ice and served straight up with a lemon twist. (Add a dash of orange bitters and an olive if you want to.) It’ll make you understand why vermouth is worthy of respect. Without a liberal dose of it, the Martini would never have achieved fame.
Not just in the Martini, but in many classic cocktails, vermouth adds roundness to the strong taste of spirits. It can also knit together other flavors. It’s kind of like the standard onion-celery-carrot base of many soups — you don’t taste those flavors up front, but without them the soup lacks savoriness and dimension.
Take, for instance, the El Presidente and the Scoff Law. Without dry vermouth, the former would be a forgettable, sweet drink, and the latter would be a disjointed combination of flavors. The Independent has a slight variation of the El Presidente on its current menu; it contains a little fresh lime juice, and it’s delicious and refreshing. The Scoff Law is a drink that’ll probably wind up on the menu for drinkboston’s upcoming Chartreuse Cocktails event at Green Street. The flavors balance each other out and create an entirely new taste. (There’s a Scoff Law variation, also delicious, with rye, dry vermouth, lemon juice and grenadine.)
Now that you realize vermouth is not poison, but instead an indispensible cocktail ingredient, here are the rules for stocking it in your home bar: buy small bottles, which take less time to finish; keep vermouth refrigerated after you open it; and choose decent brands like Noilly Prat or Martini & Rossi. The good brands are still cheap — a 375ml bottle of Martini & Rossi will set you back $4. Simply keep in mind that vermouth is essentially red or white wine that’s flavored with herbs and lightly fortified to an alcohol content of 16 percent (compared to 12-14 percent for regular wine), so it should be treated similarly to wine. That means throw away those bottles you last opened for a party in 1995 and start fresh. Then mix up a batch of old-school Martinis, invite your friends over, and change their lives.