A lounger pal of mine recently coined the term “qualifying round” to rationalize why going out for just one cocktail never happens. Who could just order one drink and leave their favorite cocktail bar? It is akin to ducking out mid conversation! To address this issue, his policy is to order one drink to set the stage and then order a second to truly experience the drink. In other words, he has a two-drink minimum. I offer an addendum to the “qualifying round” – a lower alcohol palette primer that should work whether you are out for just “one drink” or starting an evening long cocktail crawl.
May I introduce you to the quintessential qualifying round: The Vermouth Cocktail.
I know what you are thinking, vermouth? You mean that dusty bottle sitting on my shelf that I occasionally break out for Martinis? First of all, if that vermouth bottle has been sitting in your liquor cabinets for over a month just dump it. The reason most people dislike vermouth is because the product has spoiled sitting on that shelf. Vermouth is a fortified wine and as we know wine has a short shelf-life. So please purchase a fresh bottle and refrigerate after opening. It should last you a month or so.
Most of us think of vermouth as a modifying spirit, a compliment for iconic heavyweights like the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni, and other classics. The reason I advocate using this spirit as your aperitif, or qualifying round is because it warms up the palette in anticipation of stronger alcohol and food. The French and Italian have a great culinary tradition that begins with an appetite inducer, the same should apply when drinking cocktails.
WHAT IS VERMOUTH?
Vermouth is a fortified wine whose base is infused with spirits and herbs. Typical ingredients include quinine, bark, cloves, citrus peel, and herbs such as chamomile, juniper, cinnamon, and cardamom. Sweet vermouths have more alcohol with 10-15% sugar content, while dry vermouth is lighter with fewer than 10%. Most vermouths, even the sweet (which has a red color), begin life as a white wine. The spirits used in the infusion are generally neutral grain but fruit brandies are also employed in some brands.
THE MAIN PLAYERS
Carpano Antica Formula is the granddaddy of modern vermouth, tracing its roots to the home of modern vermouth Turin, Italy. In 1786, Antonio Carpano, the creator of commercial vermouth, developed a fortified wine by infusing over 30 types of plants and herbs (including wormwood) and then sweetened it with grain spirit. According to drinks historians, Teutonic aromatic wines and Goethe poetry influenced Carpano during the marketing of his new product, naming is vermouth after the German word for wormwood, wermut.
Today, Branca Distilleries, famous for Fernet Branca amaro produces Carpano Antica based upon the original 1786 recipe. Carpano deploys complex flavors with notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and bitter herbs that stands up to the strongest of whiskeys, tequilas, and amari. It is especially prized amongst cocktail bartenders who revel in its depth of robust flavors but can be overwhelming in certain cocktails. However, when added to the Vermouth Cocktail recipe, Carpano steals the show.
Another outstanding vermouth for use in the Vermouth Cocktail is Dolin Blanc. Maison Dolin et Cie produces a premium brand of vermouths from the alpine Chambéry region of southeast France. Vermouth de Chambéry has also received the appellation d’origine controlée (a.o.c) certification due to the unique characteristics of the soil of the area. Though Dolin is famous for its rouge, dry, and even strawberry vermouths, their vermouth Blanc is by far my favorite. Blanc is produced like an un-aged sweet vermouth that is infused with 54 plants and herbs that includes rose petals but none of the ingredients that create the red color. It is a more thoughtful variation of the mass produced bianco vermouth but with the unique aromatic vegetation of Chambéry.
In addition to Carpano Antica and Dolin Blanc, some excellent vermouths that can be used in a Vermouth Cocktail are Punt a Mes (also made by Carpano), and the newest entries into the field from California: Vya (made from orange Muscat wine) and Sutton Cellars.
A typical Vermouth Cocktail is very simple, comprising of equal parts of two types of vermouth plus a dash of orange bitters with a lemon or orange twist. The key is to get the right vermouths in the mix. Enter a superb update of the traditional recipe called The Old Hickory, which uses both Carpano and Dolin Blanc. The Old Hickory, which appears in Stanley Clisby Arthur's Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em (1937) has been adapted by bar man Maxwell Britten for the inaugural menu at Brooklyn cocktail den, Maison Premiere. The drink is a modified Vermouth Cocktail with a New Orleans twist due to the addition of Peychaud’s bitters.
"Old Hickory" was the the nickname of Andrew Jackson, the 7th President of the United States, due to his somewhat bitter and prickly demeanor. Jackson rose to national prominence during the War of 1812, becoming a bonafide war hero when his forces, despite being out numbered and outgunned, repelled a superior British army in the Battle of New Orleans. Like its’ namesake, the Old Hickory cocktail could be a nineteenth century original. Britten updates the specs by using artisinal vermouths that are true to their original recipes and does not skimp on the Peychauds. The result is battle between bitter and sweet that brings forth waves of complex earthy flavors with hints of chocolate that entice the palette. The orange twist whose oils are extracted above the cocktail during preparation delivers an air bust of citrus. Simply put, The Old Hickory is a vermouth lover’s dream and stellar example of the potential of the Vermouth Cocktail.
The Old Hickory
Adapted by Maxwell Britten of Maison Premiere
1 ½ oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
1 ½ oz Dolin Blanc or Dry (we prefer the Blanc)
2 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
2 dashes Orange Bitters
Tools: 10 oz Old Fashioned glass, Swiss peeler, bar spoon
Method: Combine bitters and vermouth in an Old Fashioned glass, add 3-4 Kold Draft or equivalent 1” square ice cubes, and stir with bar spoon for 15 seconds. Extract oils orange twist above drink and garnish.
Insider’s Tip: Maison Premiere orange bitters house mix is equal parts Regan’s No. 5 and Fee Brothers West Indian orange bitters.
*Got a cocktail question? Reach Fredo on twitter @loungerati, email me at fredo(at)loungerati(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!
**Fredo Ceraso is the editor-at-large of the lounge lifestyle blog Loungerati.com. He is head cocktailian and a co-producer of The Salon parties. Fredo is a member of the USBG New York chapter and rolls drinks at many Lounge, Swing, Jazz Age, & Burlesque events in New York City.