I have been somewhat remiss in the cocktail blogging aspect of Coyote Tracks, for which I apologize—it’s been a busy last couple of weeks.
So I’d like to talk to you about vermouth.
People don’t think about vermouth as anything but a mixer, and one to be used sparingly at that. And a lot of vermouth is—well—nasty. It’s like “cooking wine”—that cheap wine that’s sold along with the vinegars and oils at the grocery store. Crap that you’d never drink straight. But any good cook will tell you that you should never cook with wine that you wouldn’t be willing to actually drink. I’m here to tell you that the same should be true for any cocktail ingredient: if you wouldn’t be willing to take a sip of it straight, you probably don’t want to sip it, period.
While the sad state of the martini today is usually blamed on Sean Connery’s refusal to drink gin in the Bond movies—thus starting the trend toward vodka—I think crappy vermouth is in part to blame as well. Cocktails are about balance, and the original martini is about the balance of gin and vermouth. It became fashionable in the early 1900s to keep backing off on the vermouth—making the “martini” closer and closer to straight gin. A lot of people, it turns out, don’t like straight gin. Yet rather than restore the martini to its original balance, we replaced the gin with vodka, that most character-free of distillations. It’s hardly a wonder we’ve ended up with “dirty martinis” and any vodka-based drinks that have nothing to do with the martini other than being served in a cocktail glass: we’ve been trying to add back flavor.
The wonders of gin are a whole separate topic—most people have only been exposed to the London Dry style, and not to the best examples—but here are good recipes for the two most canonical vermouth cocktails, the martini and the Manhattan. The brands I mention aren’t requirements but they work well. Since the whole point of this exercise is to have good vermouth, though: get good vermouth. I really like Vya, but another terrific sweet (red) vermouth is Carpano Antica. You’ll notice that both Vya vermouths are different from the cheap stuff immediately: the dry “white” is straw-colored (and actually somewhat sweet), and the sweet “red” is more mahogany, the color of sherry.
Note that while the bitters are helpful in the martini, they’re essential in the Manhattan. If you don’t have the barrel-aged bitters you can use another “aromatic” bitters (like Angostura), and you can leave out either that or the orange bitters if you’re stuck—but a few dashes of bitters are a must.
A few years back Jim Coudal wrote a charming treatise on how to make a perfect martini, whose only flaw is that it’s completely wrong. I don’t blame Coudal—it’s a product of our anti-vermouth, anti-gin times. But the record must be corrected. You don’t use vodka. You don’t just rinse the glass with vermouth. You never shake a martini. This has nothing to do with “bruising the gin.” Liquids don’t bruise. Martinis are a clear drink, and you want them to stay clear: shaking splinters the ice and clouds them up.
Also, Jim: “Noilly Prat.” One T. And don’t put your booze in the freezer; yes, the ice will melt a little when you mix, but the water is part of the recipe. Really. The only alcohol you should ever store in the freezer is Jägermeister, because seriously, it’s Jäger, and you can’t even remember why you have it, do you? You don’t even remember that night. Because it’s fucking Jäger.
But I digress.
- 2 oz. Beefeater 24 gin
- ½ oz. Vya dry vermouth
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- Jalapeño-stuffed olive for garnish
Combine all the ingredients (no, not the olive, smart guy) in a mixing glass with plenty of ice cubes—enough that the ice is well over the top of the liquid in the glass—and stir for at least thirty seconds. Strain into the glass and garnish with the olive.
- 2 oz. rye whiskey (Rittenhouse Bonded or Wild Turkey)
- 1 oz. Vya sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
- 1 dash Fee’s barrel-aged bitters
- Brandied cherry for garnish
Make as above. You can use a maraschino cherry for the garnish, but a brandied cherry—even an ugly one on a toothpick—blows its doors off.
Ugly Brandied Cherries: Take a bag of dried cherries, put them in a mason jar, add about a cup of brandy, then add a couple tablespoons of sugar syrup. Shake it all up and leave it in the refrigerator for a few days. (You can probably make pretty brandied cherries by using fresh ones, but I haven’t tried that, yet.)