Of all the bottles in the 12 Bottle Bar, the vermouths are undoubtedly the most maligned and under-used. My theory on this is a direct extension of the “Red Pill or the Blue?” post — namely, that when Americans order a drink, they want alcohol (high proof stuff), not herbal wine. “What do you mean half my martini is 18% ABV dry white wine?” complained Churchill. “Get it out, and replace it with gin.” Whether or not that episode actually happened, I can’t say, but it captures the fate of vermouth in a nutshell.
Alright, maybe we should back up a bit. Not long after its commercial introduction in Italy (1786 or thereabouts), vermouth began finding its way to America. It was, and remains, a curious drink. Wine is flavored with a myriad of botanicals and fortified with brandy. The latter part is nothing new; fortified wines include port, sherry and Madeira. Vermouth, however, was something different. In Europe, it claimed a place as an aperitif. In American, well, we didn’t know what to do with it.
By the late 1800’s, however, bartenders were beginning to figure it out. The drink of the day was the Cocktail, and where the Cocktail differed from its punch-borne cousins was its spirit-forward disposition. Whereas the Fix, the Daisy, and the Collins all strived for a blending of parts, the Cocktail was pure spirit with a little garnish to smooth out the rough edges. Now, while the Cocktail was — and is — an incredible creation, it simply wasn’t for everyone. If only someone would cut it with something.
Around 1880, someone did. Take a Whiskey Cocktail and add sweet vermouth. Not only do you have a larger, easier-to-imbibe tipple, you have, for all intents and purposes, a Manhattan. It wasn’t long after that the Martini followed suit. Even though many loath vermouth today, the fact is undeniable: the two most important mixed drinks of the past century (or so) wouldn’t have been possible without it.
Among the collection of any proper bar will be at least two vermouths: the dry/white/French kind and the sweet/red/Italian kind. Other varieties exist, but for the 12 Bottle Bar, these will cover all of our needs. Without getting too hung up on sweet vs. dry or red vs. white, let’s just agree that they live up to their respective monikers. Picking the right brands is more challenging than picking types, however. If you don’t have a fancy liquor store nearby, go with the ones shown here — Noilly Prat Dry and Martini & Rossi Sweet. Both Noilly Prat and Martini & Rossi were pioneers in the vermouth space, so use them both with pride. If you do live near a merchant with a more esoteric stock, treat yourself (and your drinks) to Carpano Formula Antica sweet, the dry and sweet varieties from Dolin, or Vya from California.
If you’ve ever tasted wine that’s gone bad, you won’t appreciate spoiled vermouth. Prevailing wisdom says to use up a bottle within a month of opening (I buy the smallest bottles I can find). Storing in the refrigerator will help prolong an open bottle’s life as well.
So, while vermouth may not be as exciting as our other bottles, the truth is that a quality bar — your bar — can’t live without it. Learning to use it in your drinks will open up a whole new realm of mixology.
Esoterica: The dry Martini is dead. I’m not kidding. It is, literally, impossible to make a real dry Martini any more. “Noilly Prat is a necessary component of a dry martini,” wrote novelist and Martini connoisseur Somerset Maugham. But, wait — don’t we have that exact bottle as part of the 12 Bottle Bar? No.
Here’s the issue: In 2009, Noilly Prat decided to pull a New Coke. In truth, it was more along the lines of an Old Coke; they were replacing their US-specific formula with the original formula that Europe had been enjoying for centuries. The problem is: Europe doesn’t drink dry Martinis, and the new/old Noilly isn’t as dry as the outgoing US version. According to Noilly Prat, the change provides US consumers with a taste of “the elegant and relaxed French lifestyle”. The Martini may be many things, but it sure isn’t French. Not only is the new vermouth sweeter, it’s yellow in hue — making the crystal clear dry Martini of old near impossible to achieve.
For all 12 Bottle Bar recipes containing dry vermouth, we’ll be using Noilly Prat and adjusting the proportions appropriately. Don’t worry, we’re looking out for you.