Spirits such as whiskey or gin pack a flavorful punch in cocktails, but as I wrote yesterday, sometimes you’re looking for a drink that doesn’t have quite the boozy wallop, but still doesn’t skimp on flavor.
While low-alcohol cocktails are popping up on beverage menus around the country, the concept of a low-octane refresher is anything but new. Here’s a drink that’s among the earliest examples of lower-potency concoctions: the Vermouth Cocktail.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Italian vermouth (AKA rosso or sweet vermouth) was still a fairly new product in American bars, and bartenders were pouring it liberally into all types of cocktails, including ancestors of familiar drinks such as the Manhattan and the martini. Today we usually think of vermouth as a mixer (assuming we think about it at all), but 19th century bartenders were pretty generous with the dosage, and the Vermouth Cocktail had a good run of popularity, with good reason. A decent vermouth, properly stored, is absolutely delicious.
This drink is dead simple to prepare, but keep a few tips in mind:
- Use a decent vermouth: as with any drink, reaching for the bargain-shelf stuff is going to spoil the whole outcome. The Vermouth Cocktail puts the spotlight on the wine, so make sure it’s a good one; this drink is excellent with a bold vermouth such as Carpano Antica Formula or Vya Sweet, or with a classic Turin-style vermouth such as Martelletti. Bigger brands such as Martini & Rossi or Cinzano will get you there, but the drink may not have the same flavorful vavoom that you’ll find with these other brands.
- Keep it fresh: unlike spirits such as whiskey or gin, vermouth is an aromatized wine: once a bottle has been opened, keep it refrigerated and use it within a few weeks. You wouldn’t pour a glass of Pinot Noir from a bottle you opened last summer; take the same approach with your vermouth.
- Feel free to improvise: prefer the drink with something bolder and more bitter, such as Punt e Mes or a quinquina such as Cocchi Americano or Bonal? Go for it. Likewise, if you’d prefer dry vermouth, that works, too; good brands include Vya and a fresh bottle of Noilly Prat.
- Other variations that are worthwhile: substitute Grand Marnier for the maraschino, or use another bitters of choice in place of the Angostura (Boker’s are a good idea), or toss in a dash of absinthe – all tasty, and historically appropriate touches.
The Vermouth Cocktail illustrates the flavorful beauty of good vermouth, with just a little adornment. If you’re prone to dismiss this drink out of hand because it’s based on vermouth, then you’re denying yourself the opportunity to see what the original fuss from the nineteenth century was all about.