Article

Herbal Recall

Crucial to so many classic cocktails, vermouth is on the up, with a raft of newcomers adding interest to established classics. Clinton Cawood joins a team of bartenders to take a look at what the category has to offer


TASTING PANEL
Simone Caporale, Artesian at The Langham  Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
Boris Ivan, Le Méridien Piccadilly  
Fabio La Pietra, Montgomery Place
Antonino Lo Iacono, Dukes  
Andy Loudon, 69 Colebrooke Row
Nastassia Martin, The Hide Bar  
David T Smith, summerfruitcup.com

There is no shortage of reasons to be into vermouth right now. Apart from a resurgence in classic drinks, many of which feature these fortified wines, there’s that rumour of a trend towards lower-alcohol and aperitif-style drinks. Even more importantly, the products are downright excellent, with real diversity in terms of flavour. And there are more available in the UK than ever, with the choice of newcomers even including an English producer. Bartenders are also getting involved, with several bars now producing their own vermouth.  This diversity means that it’s critical to know what’s out there, and to know which one is right for the job. So we called in a number of the vermouths and related products that are currently available in the UK, and evaluated them all blind, before putting some of these through their paces in some mixed drinks.

HOW IT WORKS
The observant among you will notice that a few of the products listed aren’t strictly vermouths, but nonetheless, commonly associated with the category or used like vermouths – so we included them. Panellists tasted each one blind, rating various attributes of each product, and provided tasting notes, but not overall scores. Given the diversity of the category, the panel was more concerned with how best to use these products, rather than ranking them against each other. Once the products were revealed, panellists then put some of their favourites to the test in a series of cocktail recipes. Prices given are RRPs, for 70cl, unless otherwise stated. All products are available in the UK. 

EXTRA DRY, DRY, BIANCO AND BLANC
Cinzano Extra Dry, Italy

Cinzano botanicals include coriander, juniper and nutmeg. Tasters were struck by the mix of wine character and spice. Quite different in taste and aroma, the nose is dominated by heavy spice and violet, with a far gentler palate, showing light sweetness and citrus acidity.
15% abv. £6.50/75cl. Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

Cinzano Bianco, Italy
The Bianco in the Cinzano range is a big, bold offering, with generous herbal notes mingling with this vermouth’s sweet, creamy character. This sweetness on the palate evolved into some citrus bitterness – sweet orange and orange pith – making for a long, clean finish.
15% abv. £6.50/75cl. Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

Cocchi Americano, Italy
Touted as a substitute for Kina Lillet, this isn’t technically a vermouth, but close enough to warrant inclusion. Tasters identified initial candied notes of citrus peel and apricots, giving way to spicier elements: cinnamon, ginger, sage and cloves. Bitterness rounds it off.
16.5% abv. £15.75. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Dolin Dry, France
Dolin is produced using botanicals such as wormwood and was judged a good all-rounder, at a great price. There’s a gentle sweetness, with tropical, almost lychee, flavours. This gives way to drier, herbal notes, and a bitter clove finish.
17.5% abv. £11.50. McKinley Vintners, 020 7928 7300

Dolin Blanc, France
This has rich orange citrus fruit aromas, as well as some sugary, toffee character. Other botanicals that include cinchona bark and hyssop, but tasters identified nutmeg, cinnamon and custard. There
is a distinct creamy texture, too.
16% abv. £11.50. McKinley Vintners, 020 7928 7300

Gancia Dry, Italy
This was thought to be a good example of a traditional vermouth. A number of tasters imagined this in a dry Martini. The vermouth itself exhibits some restraint, with no overpowering characteristics, a good balance of fruit character and a dry finish.
18% abv. £13.75/1l. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Gancia Bianco, Italy
This is distinctly sweet, with ripe orange flavours, and some dried fruit. One taster spotted lemon curd and vanilla, while another found coconut and sweet almond. A good call for a Martinez, said one, while another was envisioning something with a little more rum in it.
14.8% abv. £12.25/1l. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Lillet Blanc, France
More aperitif wine than vermouth, Lillet Blanc is produced in Bordeaux using a base of local wines. This showed great complexity, fine balance and tasters considered a multitude of serves, including neat. Spice dominates the nose, and the palate has initial fruity sweetness accompanied by nutmeg
and cardamom. The finish is clean, dry and herbal, with balanced bitterness.
17% abv. £17.50. Marblehead, 0141 955 9091

Martini Extra Dry, Italy
The ubiquitous Martini Extra Dry proved quite subtle and restrained, with some depth of flavour. Notes ranged from green apple, lemon and orange peel, to clove, almonds and camomile. One taster thought it would do well in a perfect Manhattan, and more than
one commented on the good value.
15% abv. £10.99/1l. Bacardi Martini, 01962 762100

Martini Bianco, Italy
‘A proper Italian bianco’ was one summation. The nose showed a lot
of spice and a cream-soda note as
well. Herbal notes lift quite a sweet palate. Other flavours identified included ginger, vanilla, cloves and nutmeg.
15% abv. £10.99/1l. Bacardi Martini, 01962 762100

Noilly Prat Original Dry, France
This range is made in southern France, where the Picpoul and Clairette in the base wine are grown. The botanical mix includes gentian, nutmeg, camomile and orange. These are discernible (orange and nutmeg in particular) alongside dried apricot and root spice notes.
18% abv. £11.99. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762450

Sacred Extra Dry, UK
Sacred vermouths are made using English wine from Chapel Down or Three Choirs. Common botanicals include organic thyme and wormwood. Both are dominant on the palate and gentian shows too, with earthy, smoky notes, and bitterness. One panellist advised
a powerful gin if using this in a Martini.
18% abv. Exclusive to Dukes. Sacred Spirits Company, 020 8340 0992

VYA Extra Dry, US
The VYA range is produced in Madera, California, with a base of Colombard and Orange Muscat. These are no doubt the source of the honey, dried fruit and apricot notes identified here. Tasters also commented on a bitter dryness. One panellist recommended this for a very dry Martini, and another felt it would be best chilled as an aperitif.
17% abv. £19.99. Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722538

ROSSO, ROUGE AND OTHERS
Carpano Antica Formula, Italy
Big in every way – price, flavour and reputation – Antica is almost universally loved by bartenders. A complex nose of clove and other spices, along with vanilla and smoke. Dark chocolate bitterness adds further interest to a rich, full mouthfeel. More than one taster suggested that this was too weighty to mix, and it was probably better off neat.
16.5% abv. £30.95/1l. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Cinzano Rosso, Italy
This is characterised by some toffee and caramel notes on the nose, accompanied by citrus fruit, pear and sultana. The palate is even more of a fruit bomb – dried red fruit, plum and port, in particular – supported by big, sweet spice. This might originate from, as one taster speculated, some oak ageing. Well-balanced, and with some good bitterness, this was thought to be a good choice for rum drinks.
15% abv. £6.50/75cl. Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Italy
Production only resumed of Giulio Cocchi’s original recipe last year. A Moscato wine base, lends subtle, grape sweetness. A huge hit, with tasters praising its overall balance, as well as its potential in cocktails. Sarsaparilla was identified by more than one taster, as was a chipotle-esque smokiness. Christmas cake fruits also dominate, alongside rhubarb and dark chocolate.
16% abv. £17.75. Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Dolin Rouge, France
The recipe remains a secret, but this is said to be made with white wine, its colour coming from other ingredients instead. If our panel is to be believed, this would be great in Negronis. There’s an abundance of herb and spice notes, like ginger and clove, supported by candied fruit and jam. The bitter finish reminded one panellist of dark chocolate, another praised its value.
16% abv. £11.50. McKinley Vintners, 020 7928 7300

Dubonnet, France
A rather neglected classic, Dubonnet is technically a French aperitif wine rather than a vermouth. Its jammy cherry and plum flavours led one taster to describe this as ‘fresh and fruity, but not too sweet.’ Some spice notes supported the fruit, making for an interesting product that one taster thought would do good service in a twist on the Martinez.
14.8% abv. £9.49. Pernod Ricard, 020 8250 1801

Lacuesta Reserva, Spain
The only Spanish representative in this tasting. A white Rioja base wine is used, and the result is aged in new oak for seven months – hence ‘reserva’. Red fruit and tobacco notes interact, alongside raisin flavours and earthy spice notes. That oak really shows,
with drying tannins coming through.
15% abv. £15.45/70cl. Master of Malt, masterofmalt.com

Noilly Prat Ambré, France
A relatively recent addition to the Noilly Prat range, this was a favourite. Praise was lavished on its bittersweet balance, and rich fruit flavours, from apricot and plum to marmalade and nectarines. Perhaps its highest praise came in the form of the number of recommendations for serving this neat.
16% abv. £19.99. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762450

Noilly Prat Rouge, France
Tasters commended great balance, as well as an attractive, floral nose. These are followed by richer liquorice and coffee notes, as well as distinct spice, and one taster identified thyme, rosemary and oregano. Fruit, and according to one a ‘rich and syrupy’ body, follows. This vermouth had tasters thinking about the classics – Manhattans and Negronis in particular.
16% abv. £19.99. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762450

Sacred Amber, UK
Sacred’s Amber variant includes the signature wormwood and thyme, and a number of other organic roots, herbs, barks, peels and spices. Like the Extra Dry, Amber has been developed with and is exclusive to the team at Dukes. A fascinating vermouth, with complexity and a good, round but balanced mouthfeel. One suggestion was to combine with apricot brandy and calvados for a twist on an Angel Face.
18% abv. Exclusive to Dukes. Sacred Spirits Company, 020 8340 0992

Sacred Spiced English, UK
The only one of Sacred’s vermouths with any general availability, this is made using a combination of 24 botanicals, which are either distilled or macerated, including clove, gentian and wormwood. Macerated orange peel adds both colour and sweetness. More than one taster identified bitter coffee and dark chocolate, alongside rich spice and red berry notes. More fruit follows on the palate – toffee apple, red cherries, raisins and dates – with sweetness balanced by bitterness.
18% abv. £31.95. Sacred Spirits Company, 020 8340 0992

Vya Sweet, US
This Californian sweet vermouth put more than one taster in a Christmassy frame of mind. Spice alongside sweet raisin flavours characterised this well-balanced vermouth, which succeeded in having its own distinct personality. One panellist noticed a cola-like flavour, while another thought this would be well suited to a peppery rye whisky.
16% abv. £19.99. Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722538

CONCLUSIONS

  • This tasting emphasised the importance of choosing the right vermouth for the job, with some products very clearly lending themselves to certain serves.
  • A number were singled out for their suitability for serving neat, but it was admitted that few consumers would order vermouth this way.
  • One way to encourage this would be to explore food pairing. Some tasters even added food-matching suggestions to their notes.
  • The large price range is another factor. Some were suited as house pours, while others for trading up.
  • The amber category was a revelation. The two here sparked the imagination of our panel.
  • Storage once opened is important. Extra dry styles in particular don’t last indefinitely.

IN THE MIX
Our panel test drives some of the products here in some classics

SMOKY MARTINI
Nastassia Martin, The Hide
‘I chose the Sacred vermouth for this as it has some dry, petrol-like notes, a bit like Riesling. I’m not sure I’d use it as a house pour, but more as something to offer to a customer who likes his Martinis, and wants something more.’
Glass: Coupe
Garnish: None
Method: Stir and strain.

50ml Tanqueray Export
15ml Sacred Extra Dry
10ml Ardbeg 10yo

TWO GRAPES COBBLER
Simone Caporale, Artesian Bar
‘This uses two different vermouths. You know, when you’re on your own, you can’t hug yourself. You need two. One vermouth gives bitterness, and the other keeps everything together.’
Glass: Wine glass
Garnish: Orange twist
Method: Muddle the fruit, shake ingredients and strain over ice.

30ml Cocchi Americano
30ml Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Float of Cherry Heering
1 lemon slice
1 orange slice

BLOOD & SAND
Fabio La Pietra, Montgomery Place
‘The Blood and Sand’s been a classic since the 20s, named after the Rudolph Valentino’s film of the same name.’
Glass: Coupe
Garnish: Orange twist or cherry
Method: Roll and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

25ml Johnnie Walker Black
25ml Cherry Heering
25ml Dolin Rouge
25ml orange juice

ROB ROY
Andy Loudon, 69 Colebrooke Row
‘The smokiness in La Cuesta Vermouth made me want to try a Rob Roy – it’s also one of my favourite cocktails.’
Glass: Coupe
Garnish: None
Method: Stir and strain into cocktail glass.

50ml Lagavulin
25ml Lacuesta Reserva
5ml Maraschino Liqueur
3 dashes Angostura Bitters

PANEL COMMENTS
Simone Caporale, Artesian at the langham
‘This tasting was a brilliant opportunity to discover every single personality in the vermouth category. There are stereotypical vermouth drinks – cocktails like the Manhattan – but the category
is so much more versatile than that.

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘It may only have looked like we tasted two or three different styles, but there was far more diversity than that. There are traditional producers making excellent products, and there’s room in the category for new producers to distinguish themselves too.’

Boris Ivan, Le Meridien Piccadilly
‘In bars, vermouth is mostly used in cocktails. In the past, vermouth was the dominant ingredient in cocktails, but now bartenders concentrate on spirits. It’s the right time to lift the category, though, as bartenders look to a classic style, and to twists on classics.’

Fabio La Pietra, Montgomery Place
‘We’re always pushing vermouth where I work, mainly in classic drinks. There’s more interest now though, with new products coming to the market. I was impressed with the good range we
had here, some really commercial, but others for vermouth lovers.’

Antonino Lo Iacono, Dukes
‘As a bartender, and an Italian, I consider vermouth one of the best human discoveries. Customers have started to appreciate vermouth again, we get people at the bar who ask for Antica Formula as a digestif, for example. There were a few products here that seemed unbalanced, but I think that is because they’re better in a cocktail.’

Andy Loudon, 69 Colebrooke Row
‘It’s all coming full circle. Martinis have been made with less and less vermouth, for example, but now people are going towards wetter Martinis again. Vermouth adds a lot, and I think people will pick up on other cocktails that use dry vermouth – like the Tuxedo.’

Nastassia Martin, The Hide Bar
‘For classics, and twists on classics, vermouth is an essential ingredient, and with the rise of “vintage” cocktails, consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with it. This nouvelle artisanal vermouth category is exciting, dynamic, and it’s been wonderful
to have the opportunity to taste a broad range.’

David T Smith, summerfruitcup.com
‘Vermouth’s popularity is rising and a big trend seems to be towards vermouth from countries that don’t traditionally produce it – products from outside France and Italy. People are also looking beyond traditional sweet and dry categories.’

Many thanks to the team at Lucky Pig for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – July/August 2012

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