Red Vermouth

No, I will not be making sweet red vermouth at Westwood. But I have been thinking a lot about red vermouth lately. You see, I aspire to cultivate an understanding of classic cocktails. I like 'em. Some folks say "it takes a lot of beer to make a little wine" and this is undeniably true, but my favorite beer is the one I had five minutes ago. Ask me about my favorite cocktail and you will get a definitive answer.

This came up recently because a friend on Facebook asked me one of those "five favorite things" questions (note I'm not big on these 5Q things BTW) – "what are your favorite five beers?" Seriously, I couldn't answer.

Years ago, when I was working towards a doctorate at UC Davis, I frequented a bar called Mansion Cellars. The owner had stolen a march on Spike's in San Luis Obispo, by promoting turnover in his bottle beer case by doing an "Around The World In 80 Beers" contest for regulars. I was one of the few who went around the world five times. A couple of things you discover after trying 380 different beers: one is IDIC, the other is its rhetorical opposite – "beer is beer." I could tell you five beers I don't like a helluva lot easier than five I like. Same thing with wines – so sue me.

Cocktails are another matter. They matter. They have seriously different profiles. Just like I don't care for most Zinfandels (sorry! friends who make it!) there are a bunch of cocktails I won't drink. But I absolutely can tell you my five favorites – and I am particular about how I want these made:

Negroni: measure each vodka (is vodka), Campari and red vermouth, shaken, served up in a bucket with a twist of orange zest.
Sazerac: muddled sugar (or simple) in a chilled bucket, rinse with absinthe (pref, St. George), 3-4 rocks, several dashes Peychaud's bitters, a measure of Michter's rye whiskey, stir, serve with twist of orange or lemon zest.
Manhattan: for me, again, Michter's rye (though Maker's Mark bourbon is also nice), red vermouth, Angostura bitters, shaken, in a bucket, and garnished with a maraschino cherry – make it special with a light rinse of Gran Marnier in the glass and a spash of maraschino liqueur in the shaker.
Martini: so many ways! for me always stirred, and served with a couple of olives (no other garnish appreciated), sometimes ultra dry, sometimes with a splash of dry vermouth, and sometimes "dirty."
Margarita: my preference is always blanco (never reposado or anejo), never blended, never salt, always a double with a single measure of sweet & sour. Touch up with Gran Marnier or Cointreau.

Yeah, I know – picky. The bartender hates me.

So back to red vermouth: at least two of my favorites above need this wine to be complete. And the character of the cocktail is deeply dependent on the quality of the vermouth. I've found that there are some brands of red vermouth that should never be used in a cocktail – IMO they are barely suitable for cooking.

I'm looking for the "best" red vermouth: yeah it all starts out as a neutral white wine with 14% sugar, and fortified to 18% alcohol, colored with caramel, and infused with some huge number of herbs and spices. So, what's the bomb?

What vermouth does all the stuff that a guy needs who is in pursuit of bitter complexity? I been working with Cinzano, but it's boring. I'm not into Lillet or Cynar. So what's the good stuff - Punt e Mes? Vya? I'm going to try both. Bartenders and hedonists – what other brands should I be looking for?


At 9:24 AM, Blogger Bob G said...

I'm far from a major mixologist like yourself, John, but a friend turned me on to Vya and I'm loving it in my martinis.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger John M. Kelly said...

Hey Bob: I'm hardly a mixologist. I just know what I like through trial and error - sometimes horrible-tasting error. Thanks for the advice on the Vya. I will be shopping for it today. - John


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