August 16th, 2007

Vermouth is it

Noilly Prat vermouthAs 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.

Permalink | Filed under Cocktails, Vermouth |

9 Responses to “Vermouth is it”

  1. erik_flannestad

    Nice article! Even better, get them to try a “Martinez” with sweet vermouth and orange bitters. Yummy!

  2. ljclark

    Oooh, yes, Erik. I hesitated giving an advanced lesson right away.

  3. Stephen

    my favorite introduction to the dry is the cuban alto cucina…. from a socialist culinary school’s cocktail contest…. i wonder if castro voted for or against it? oh wait an election would be democratic…. so how did it win? that is almost as enigmatic as the flavors….

    1 oz. aged cuban rum (bacardi ocho anos)
    1 oz. dry vermouth (make sure its fresh)
    1 spoonful of coffee liqueur (tia maria)
    make sure you stir….

    right now at the restaurant my own sweet vermouth is available…. i’ve surprisingly gotten many people to drink it on the rocks…. its in the style of punt y mes and i advocate drinking it in a marconi wireless. the drink creates this after midnight late summer flavor profile…. very sexy.

    2 oz. apple brandy (laird’s apple jack)
    1 oz. bittered vermouth (my own)
    2 dashes reagan’s orange bitters

    the highly regaurded vya vermouths are available at brix in the south end for anyone that catches the addiction….

  4. Adam

    Hmmm, I had no idea this stuff went bad. And I will admit that I do have 3/4 of a bottle of M&R dry vermouth from around 2001 sitting here… And I used it in a drink not long ago. Not a bad drink, either, but I’ll take your word for it and get a new bottle 🙂

  5. KenLac

    I saw the Rolls-Royce mentioned in an article about Bourbon and Branch, and from the first sip it became my favorite before-dinner cocktail — truly a throwback, completely unexpected by the modern drinker because of its edge, yet it quickly becomes easy to like. Add those qualites to the fact that it contains both sweet and dry vermouth and this is a drink that fully supports the proposition.

    Mr. Boston lists it as .5 dry, .5 sweet, 1.5 gin and 1/4 teaspoon benedictine, stirred with ice. I would suggest it is a drink one can turn to when asked for an example of a “classic”

  6. Walt

    Indeed, wetter is better. Unless a Martini is ordered dry to bone dry, my customers get a good half ounce of dry vermouth. Making wetter Martinis, in turn, helps take care of the freshness issue. Also, I tell my customers that the secret to a better Martini lies not in less vermouth but in good vermouth. Several months ago I switched to Vya extra dry and sweet vermouths. These are pricier, to be sure, but I won’t use anything else, although I am curious to try Carpano Antica Formula (sweet).

  7. Gin & Vermouth — Two Tickets to Paradise « Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails - Boston

    […] cocktails, as LUPEC Boston member and Drinkboston founder Barbara West explains beautifully here. To coax these classics back from beyond the grave you will need to cozy up to […]

  8. jacqueline church

    All roads lead to Drinkboston! I’m researching carrots, if you can believe it, okay, I’ll admit carrot cocktails (Swear I just saw one somewhere!) and Ifind this. I have to say my favorite vermouth is Vya. It’s the only vermouth I’ve been able to enjoy as an apertif half and half sweet and dry. Quite nice.
    I have a bottle with a speed pour on the door of my fridge, always makes for lovely deglazing in sauces, soups, stews…

    okay back to work, maybe this would go easier with a drink. yes, we’re done with tea…

  9. ljclark

    Wow, carrots brought you to my vermouth post? That’s a first! You know, I feel lame to admit I have not tried Vya yet. I know everyone loves it. I’m still working my way through a bottle of Carpano Antica. And now there’s Dolin. Vermouth continues to be it.

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