Summer is a time for sitting about somewhere new. If you are sitting about on holidays you need two things: something to read (Driven to Write) and something to drink.
And a chair. Three things then. Driven to write has a host of articles for you to trawl through and there will be another one due in a few hours. As you are sitting about you are not driving so you can enjoy a tipple. We can recommend a few things.
First among the summer beverages is vermouth which has been rather overlooked in recent decades. This drink comes in three styles (mostly) which are, perhaps, suited to different times of the day.
Vermouth is essentially a flavoured and fortified wine. The product is the same year after year, unlike wine which supposedly changes from harvest to harvest and also as the bottle ages. So, if you want variety in your vermouth, you need to change brands or else mix the vermouth with other drinks.
To drink vermouth you can have it chilled and neat or with a splash of soda and some ice. White vermouth (sweet) and bianco (dry) are based on white wine with botanical flavourings that vary from brand to brand. This is best drunk chilled on its own, that is chilled without ice (with exceptions). Red vermouth is typically sweeter than either the white or dry and can tolerate mixing with soda water (not mineral water) and tonic water. It’s also based on white wine – the colour is probably some form of caramel.
The most well-known vermouth is probably Martini & Rossi which is available almost everywhere. I’ve tried the Martini Red which is a lighter style, lower in sugar and heavier on the cinnamon and rosemary. After Martini & Rossi the selection gets trickier as the other vermouths are not that well distributed.
The great vermouth collapse of the 80s led to Martini & Rossi dominating the supermarket shelves and most of the others being relegated to wine shops or almost vanishing (Dubonnet, St Raphael). And even then most wine shops will only carry one type. I’ve had to go to five places to find these drinks.
I’ve tried Antica made by Carpano, Belsazar, Ferdinands, Punt e Mes and Lillet white. One of our lucky correspondents here has had the pleasure of sampling Dolin. That brand (with its lovely labels) is not available anywhere within 350 km of my home address so I can’t comment on that.
Lillet white is refreshing, fruity and not too sweet. You can drink it like wine but make sure you drink a smaller volume as the alcohol content is higher than white wine. Carpano’s Antica Formula is allegedly the king of Vermouths, with production beginning in 1786. Mixologists swear by it for making cocktails like the Negroni. Whether neat or mixed with tonic, I found it sweet and rather flat, this despite it being made in small batches (the bottles are numbered)**. I expected more complexity. I also tried it with a low-sugar tonic and it worked rather better then. It is impossible to buy soda water in Jutland so I haven’t tested Antica with that.
Rather more interesting and cheaper, is Punt e Mes (also made by Carpano). This is bitter and sweet and goes very well with a good tonic water (try Franklin and Sons light tonic). Punt e Mes has quinine which accounts for the Mes part of the name: one and a half in Italian dialect, or one part sweet to a half bitter. This is so good I bought a second bottle.
Vermouth is not entirely in decline. Some new brands have appeared which I have yet to try but which pique my interest. From Germany is Belsazar (of which I tasted one version). For this one, its producers went to extra lengths to use a better quality of base wine (gewurtztraminer from the Kaiserstuhl area for the white). I have tried the Belsazar Rose, which as its name suggests, is based on rosé wine. Unlike some of the others, you can taste the wine base. It is good drunk neat, chilled and in a small glass. You get good value for money in terms of the quality.
Also from Germany is Ferdinand’s vermouth. Unusually, this one is released as a vintage and sold in small, pricey half litre bottles. The distiller and the winemaker both get credits. Much to my disappointment it tastes a lot like the much cheaper Chip Dry Port by Taylor and it’s not dry at all. I wouldn’t mix it with anything – it’s citrus, acidic, sweet with only a faint hint of botanicals. Very curious.
Mancini comes in five versions. The Rosse Amaranto might be like St Raphael amber.
Are we forgetting Dubonnet? The Queen Mother supposedly liked to mix it with gin. I found it very much dominated by berry flavours and it effectively drowned the (inexpensive) cognac I mixed it with experimentally. It probably is best mixed with spirits and not costly stuff either.
If you’re interested you can blow your mind by looking at this website, Vermouth 101, which has more brands on its pages.
The main lesson I get from this is that while vintage wines such as those reviewed by Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker get a lot of coverage, this does not reflect the variety of drinks also available. Presumably the fact that wine is variable means it can be reviewed year after year after year and still be news. The very attributes that made fortified wines and vermouths good for shipping and staying drinkable after the bottle opened are also bad for press coverage. So, once you’ve written about a vermouth that’s it until the producer launches a new version or changes the formula.
However, there are more than enough vermouths out there for one person to try and, like foods, really ought to be a part of a varied drinking diet.
**another reviewer called it “satisfying, with rich vanilla taste with notes of spice and dried fruit”. I thought it too sweet, like a treacly PX sherry which you can buy for a fraction of the price.