Put simply you can’t have a Martini without Vermouth.
Bringing together these diverse ingredients was genius and I’m sure there is a place in bar heaven for the person responsible.
But poor Dry Vermouth is like the plain sister who gets overlooked all the time by her stunning elder sister when it comes to Martinis, its always about the Gin or Vodka, never the one ingredient that transforms Gin into something mythic.
So in the spirit of Jane Austin I want to bring this unappreciated personality, indeed unsung heroine, into the foreground for a change.
As a naive Australian abroad many years ago I had my first encounter of dry vermouth more or less by accident. I was in Paris and asked the waiter for a martini. What I received was indeed martini, but the brand in the form of Vermouth on ice- not the cocktail.
Of course I should have requested a ‘Martini cocktail’. Lesson learnt. Anyways I drank it, enjoyed it, and I discovered the common aperitif style many Europeans (and civilised New Worlders) enjoy.
You may recall George Clooney made a nice earner promoting Martini in the 90’s in a series of ads.
Vermouth is a wide subject and there are many different types, but I’m confining the scope of this post to the Dry Vermouth style.
Vermouth is based on white wine (usually), and is an aperitif wine is one that’s been fortified with a neutral spirit and you end up with a wine around the 13% alcohol range.
Apparently it started to appear as a commercial product in the C18th and of course it really took off in the in the late C19th and early C20th modern cocktail era in classics like the Martini, Manhattan and Negroni (its in Rouge form). It’s also long had a role in cooking too let’s not forget.
There are several styles, with a differing approach with each depending where its from. There is a Torino (Cinzano Extra Dry), Chambéry ( Dolin being the only example), Marseilles (Noilly Prat), New World and Modern (Maidenii and Regal Rouge). There are several styles within those: sweet, white, dry and other variations.
Storage + Handling
One thing to remember is that Vermouth goes off after a while once its opened. You can extend its life by keeping it chilled in the fridge.
Ball park shelf life is about 3 months or less. So don’t reach for that bottle that’s been your bar since the New Year’s before last!
To give you an idea of how its produced, this is a description of how the venerable Noilly Prat is made (from Wikipedia).
The process used today is virtually unchanged since the 1850s. Noilly Prat is made exclusively from white grape varieties grown in the Marseillan area, principally Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette.
These produce light, fruity wines which are matured in massive Canadian oak casks inside the original storerooms. The wine stays in these casks for 8 months, maturing and absorbing the flavour of the wood, before being transferred to smaller oak barrels which are taken outside and left for a year. Here they are exposed to the sun, wind, and low winter temperatures, while the wine is slowly changing.
The result is a wine that is dry, full-bodied and amber coloured, similar to Madeira or Sherry. During the year outside, 6 to 8% of the volume is lost to evaporation, the “angels’ share”.
Brought back inside and left to rest for a few months, the wines are then blended together into oak casks. A small quantity of Mistelle (grape juice and alcohol) is added to the wines in order to soften them, along with a dash of fruit essence to accentuate their flavour.
In the oak casks, a process of maceration, supposedly unique to Noilly Prat, takes place over a period of three weeks. A blend of some twenty herbs and spices is added by hand every day. The exact mix of herbs and spices that goes into Noilly Prat is a closely guarded secret, but includes camomile, bitter orange peel, nutmeg, centaury (Yellow Gentian), coriander, and cloves. After a further six weeks, the finished product is bottled by Martini & Rossi.
In the case of Maidenii which has it own fuller, flavoursome style, easily much more drinkable solo than the old world version, they use “Amongst the mix is locally sourced and hand picked wormwood, along with strawberry gum, river mint, sea parsley and wattleseed. In total Maidenii’s recipes harness 34 botanicals, 12 native to Australia. The wild diversity of the vast landscape that so scared the colonisers has been used to create a Vermouth with a distinctly Australian flavour.”
In a Martini
Now things get really interesting, for me, there are three aspects to this:
- Taste and style in Martini mixing
- Chemistry between Vermouth and Gin
Over time the proportion of Vermouth to Gin has evolved from what we’d see as a super wet (and amber in colour) version to the austere zen-like purity of an whiff or two from an atomiser on the glass.
There are several versions, but the one I fancy is that originally, Vermouth was much more dominant -even 50/50- (perhaps the quality of Gin just wasn’t there at the time).
If you drank a Martini in the 20’s or 30’s you’d be getting 1:4 or 1:5 ratio of Vermouth to Gin, compared to the 1:10 norm today.
It was the former approach i used when designing the Centenary Martini because I figured (correctly as it turned out) that many people would be drinking their first Martini with the Centini and I wanted to give them plenty of approachable flavour to work with, not an austere hit of booze that most people get in a Martini made in the wrong hands.
What you get is a softer and more rounded Martini- free of the austere kick you often get. The different Vermouth will make a big difference, see below, but once you’ve found the right combination for you it will be hard to go back to the glancing at the vermouth bottle days.
Besides, it seems a terrible waste of a good product to see a bar tender poor 15ml or less into a mixer, stir it around and poor it off (aiming for a dry Martini)…why not leave it in?
For an in-depth look at the mystique and history of the mix I refer you to page 58 of the wonderful “Martini: A Memoir” by Frank Moorhouse, a must-read for any Martini-phile
Personally my style varies on my mood, and the Gin I’m drinking. But usually it’s a 1:5 to kick off (using a robust Gin like West Winds, Beefeater or Plymouth), moving to a drier proportion.
I opt for a dry style if its a more refined style like Martin Millers in which case you want that spirit to sing solo as it were.
Mind you, I don’t pour my Vermouth off, I leave it in the mixer, simply reduce or increase the proportion to suit.
So why does this work? I think the effect of the two main ingredients (along with the softening effect of the ice and hint of the garnish) is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Vermouth takes the edge off the Gin, giving it some house manners, but you don’t want it to be so house trained as to say nothing at all in good company. You might say Vermouth is the finishing school for Gin and together they make beautiful music together.
For a deeper look at using it in your Martinis, please check out this episode on my YouTube channel.
For a list of all the makers in Australia, please see this article.
Here’s a quick look at a selection of some of the brands available here.
- A classic brand and a pioneer of the product. Its iconic labelling sits along side Campari and similar labels to give a feeling of la dolce vita.
- I find this similar to Dolin in style for some reason- it tastes the most of white and is a softer style of the big commercial vermouths.
Causes and Cures
- This was released in April 2014, there is a semi-dry version and to quote them “Small batch, craft vermouth, based on biodynamic viognier and infused with botanicals. Made in the Yarra Valley by winemakers with a curious sense of spirit.”
- Read my review here
- This is the other go-to bottle in the professional bar. Its usually the house Vermouth in respectable places, but I confess I struggled getting my mix right at home. My Martini always came out bitter or tart, and it where my usual style of leaving the Vermouth in came unstuck.
- But when I did the pour off, or reduced it to 5mls or so that it came together.
- It has delicate flavours, especially compared to Noilly Prat, its more at the Cinzano end of the spectrum.
- I suspect because its so refined in its style that it blends with many Gins and doesn’t get in the way of their flavours.
- They released this Dry Vermouth late in 2013 to compliment their Aperitif and Sweet versions which I used for the Centini versions. To quote their website” the Dry Vermouth is derived from fully fermented viognier grapes. The flavour is enhanced with kaffir lime leaf, nigella and Japanese gentian.”
- This product is quite distinct in style- a complex and fragrant nose, and I find the taste of it quite minerally and a bone dry finish, almost austere.
- For my part, I think these products are superb and may form a category of Vermouth of their own. Generous in flavour with finesse, they are perfectly happy to be drunk by themselves.
Read my review here (June 2014)
- You don’t get to be in business for a 150 years without some great product and they are entwined with the history of the cocktail from the beginning.
- i find this a lighter style, with an almost perfume note, very dry like Dolin and a good substitute perhaps if you can’t get that. It has a very neutral, clean style.
- Website plus their Heritage page is interesting also.
- Tasting Note: This is my house bottle and I keep it always in the fridge. It is also common in professional bars for good reason. I like its spicy notes, fuller body and amber tint as I like my Martini’s less dry than most. I use a 1:4 ratio mostly, sometimes less and it never lets me down, but of course we have our preference. Its more flavoursome than any of the Vermouths listed here.
- The first commercial Australian Vermouth, producers of Bianco, Rosso and soon a Dry, to be released mid 2014- so I look forward to tasting it then!
- Hailing from Melbourne, they also have a fun social media style that I enjoy, not taking themselves too seriously.
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