Christmas Tipples

It’s the Christmas break for many of our readers. Naturally you will be spending quality time with Driven To Write now that you have some free moments. What can we recommend you enjoy responsibly?

Belsazar Rose, Carpano Dry and friends

I have gained access to editor Simon A. Kearne’s “filing cabinet” and have been sampling some of the adult beverages therein.

Lillet is known for its blanc version (a favourite of James Bond). The less well-known Lillet rouge can be understood as a thinking-person’s Dubonnet. If you’ve tried to  get to know Dubonnet you will realise why it goes so well with gin: it kills the taste entirely.  On its own, Dubonnet is too fruity and too sweet, so I never buy it.

Lillet Rouge is fruity enough, bitter enough and tannic enough to be satisfying on its own or, best, mixed with soda water. It isn’t a vermouth, note, but a tonic wine. It contains quinine and no wormwood. Some recommend mixing it with ginger ale. You can try this but it is a waste of a rather expensive drink, in my view. If you have to mix something with ginger ale use Dubonnet or, better, supernarket red vermouth.

On the vermouth side, Belsazar red is robust enough to serve as an aperatif on its own or as a mixer. I recommend adding soda water which lowers the a.b.v to 8% if you mix 1:1. That way you can enjoy the citrus, cinnamon and artemisia notes and it softens the sweetness (and lowers the viscosity). You might consider drinking it neat as an alternative to port. Chilled, note

Carpano (makers of Antica Formula and Punt e Mes) have a red vermouth. It is less costly than Belsazar and sells in slighty vulgar litre bottles. It is however, very suited to mixing with tonic water, soda or ginger ale. You can also mix it with fino sherry (a capful for a small glass) and ice to make an Adonis.

Moving to white vermouth, we can recommend Carpano Bianco and Carpano Dry. The Bianco is sweet like a desert wine, with vanilla, orange and rose notes and lingering bitterness to offset the sugar. It is best served over ice and can be an aperatif or desert wine. Carpano dry challenges Dolin for its balance of flavour and residual sweetness. Like Dolin, Carpano dry is distinctly vermouthy so one is never left wondering why one didn’t  buy a sweet white for half the price. Carpano Bianco and Dry can be described as fridge door staples. While being a good cut above supermarket vermouths, they are affordable enough not be seen as special occasion drinks like Belsazar red or Lillet Rouge.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

24 thoughts on “Christmas Tipples”

  1. Congratulations – an important and noble piece of research, going above and beyond the call of duty for the benefit of your readers. Trust you had a lie down afterwards.

  2. I always find Autosport 1952 – 68 more comfortable when I’m in need of a lean. Happy Christmas to all at DTW.

    1. You’re so right. Autosports of that era are just that little more giving. It’s probably got something to do with the cosy patriotism of John Bolster to say nothing of that deerstalker. On the other hand, those hard spines of pre-70s Autocar could leave unsightly welts should one inadvertently rest one’s face against them while breathing deeply and evenly – or so I’m reliably informed.

      Have a very Merry Christmas everyone.

  3. This evening I tried the Oliver Matter Dry Vermouth. It’s Swiss. You can taste the extra cost of the product. It’s way more subtle than supermarket vermouth. I’d be tempted to get a second bottle as a trophy but Dolin and Carpano still make a better case for affordable quality. The Matter Vermouth has a clearer herbal note (lavender) and more citrus. Like Dolin it’s clearly not just odd-tasting wine. Oliver Matter Vermouth is one for collectors and trophy hunters. Very good though.

  4. A local shop has a supply of Dolin red vermouth. I have obtained a bottle and will review it soon. Christmas brought me a bounty of dry Marsala and an oloroso from Hidalgo. I’ll round to them soon.
    As a sidebar, I had a chance to compare Frazitta secco marsala and Barbadillo medium amontillado on the same evening. I’ve never tried a medium amontillado and I found it much less sweet and nearly quite dry. Not bad at all – nearly as dry as the Frazitta which I’d not tasted for a year or more. It was replaced in my wine shop by Curatolo Aroni secco which has a higher sugar content and is more fruity (raisins, toffee, cherry?) than the Frazitta.

  5. This evening I tasted Dolin rouge on its own and mixed with ginger ale. First, neat Dolin is brownish red and not wine red like Dubonnet or Martini. It’s not unlike Belsazar red though it’s less viscous. The flavours are herbal and there’s a pleasant bitterness at the end. It’s worth drinking straight or maybe with a little ice-cube. The revelation is that pairing Dolin rouge with a good botanical ginger ale makes for a surprisingly different balance of flavours where both the vermouth opens up and the ginger comes forward. Some mixed drinks are a waste of both ingredients. In this case unlike Lillet which should be drunk straight the Dolin benefits from a 1:1 mix with the ginger ale.
    I’ve tried quite a few red Vermouths now and Dolin rouge would be among the better ones with Belsazar red and Carpano rouge among them. Punt e Mes is in its own category: peerless.

  6. Since writing this I´ve made some observations based on experiments and reading.

    Red vermouth goes very well with scotch whiskey to make a Rob Roy. Adding Chartreuse (half a unit) makes a Jacobean.

    Punt e Mes takes on a whole new life when standing in for red vermouth in the Rob Roy. It especially thrives with lowland scotch and Johnny Walker black label.

    Lillet plus scotch plus Suze (a gentian-flavoured liquor) makes a Smokey Mizu which I have discussed. With the open bottle of Lillet in the fridge and the Suze this has been my current cocktail and I can recommend it highly as an alternative to Rob Roys and martinis. It makes good use of Lillet´s sweetness and Suze´s earthy, bitterness. I´d very much like to try it with a highland whiskey – so far it´s been with a bland supermarket whiskey (sorry) bought for feeding the Christmas puddings. (We have one left, now three months old and soaked in scotch.)

    That leads me to note that Suze and gin (half a Suze and one unit of gin) can be included in the roster of “gin plus one other thing” mixes. The Queen Mother has been documented here (Gin and Dubonnet). Gin and port wine makes a more refined version while gin and Campari is a sudden and serious way to start Friday evening. It´s not subtle whereas gin and Suze is much more low key. Suze is greeny-yellow compared to Campari´s toxic red. It is less sweet than Campari. Thus gin and Suze can be considered the thinking drinker´s version of gin and Campari. That said, I like the low-life style of gin and Campari or gin and Dubonnet. It´s what you´d order in a corner bar, much less pretentious than the spirit-plus-vermouth cocktails.

    Dry vermouth plus Gin makes for a classic martini and here the quality of the vermouth and gin really matter. I tend to think Dolin is still the standard for everyday martinis while Quintinye is for special occasions. It has been a while since I tried the Oliver Matter – with its 18% alcohol content versus 15% for other vermouth it´d be best taken in a smaller dose. It´d be very dry.

    I have invented, I think, a cocktail of my own: blended scotch plus dry vermouth and Chartreuse (half a measure). I need a name for this cocktail. Speeding Vicar?

    1. The Speeding Vicar is a variation on the Armistice. I use green Chartreuse and the Armistice uses yellow; I don´t add bitters (but could do). And I use scotch whereas an Armistice uses rye. But they are pretty much close cousins.

    2. Cocktails with fruit juice and added sugar do nothing for me. In the name of moderation I restrict myself to whiskey and gin plus other liqours. No paper umbrellas and no garnish other than citrus peel, thanks.

      The Dirty Vicar sounds vile.

  7. This evening I wondered if I could mix Dubonnet with blended scotch. The result is a cocktail that already exists, the Arnaud´s Special. Like the Queen Mother (gin and Dubonnnet), it´s a bit on the coarse side, which might be part of its charm. It´s one for a serious Friday night´s drinking.

    More sophisitacated and easier on the liver is the Adonis. This is only 15% ABV and consists of a bit more manzanilla sherry (almost sugar free) and a good red vermouth such as the Quintinye I´ve been favouring lately. The sugar concentration is lowered and the other flavours in the vermouth emerge. I would be happy to serve this is a light kind of aperatif for people nervous about bone dry sherry and nervous about neat red vermouth. I would only use a mid-price sherry for this, a fridge door staple like La Gitana or one of Lustau´s cheaper bottles like Papirus.

    Oh: extra dry Noilly Prat makes very good dry martini (Roger Moore prefers Noilly Prat) much to my consternation. Noilly is much, much cheaper than Dolin and much, much better than supermarket, no-name dry vermouth. Unlike other vermouth-like drinks it is matured for a bit before bottling.

  8. This is absolutely not my area of expertise, but I have one unusual (I think) combination to offer: Limoncello and tonic. The sharpness of the tonic water takes away the slightly syrupy texture of the Limoncello and makes for a very refreshing aperitif. Serve with a couple of slices of lime, rather than lemons.

    Apologies if I have outraged any purists out there!

    1. I have heard about Limoncello before but have not tried it yet. There is surely no room in mixology for purists. Certainly, if anyone says “one must only ever mix x and y” they are just being emphatic about how much they like a certain mix. The nonsense about perfect dry martinis has been very counter-productive much as a lot of wine snobbery has been. So, if you like Limoncello with tonic, that´s fine. It sounds okay to me.

    2. Limoncello is rather like Cointreau but lemon rather than orange flavoured, as the name suggests. It’s very nice as a disgestif, served chilled or over ice.

      Hmm, I wonder what Cointreau and tonic would be like?

  9. Further thoughts: it beats me why Dubonnet has fallen out of favour. This evening I compared a Rob Roy made with whiskey and some pricey vermouth (Quintinye red, which is excelllent) and an Arnaud´s Special (whiskey and Dubonnet). I can`t honestly say the Rob Roy made with Quintinye is any nicer than the Arnaud´s Special though it is considerably more costly.
    Behind this is is the difficulty of knowing which vermouth-type drink to have in stock: Punt e Mes, Dolin red, Quintinye, Carpano, Antica Formula or even plain old Martini red which is actually pretty good.
    This evening I feel like suggesting readers have a go at revisiting Dubonnet and giving the red wine a miss this weekend and drop a bottle of vermouth, Dubonnet or Martini into your shopping basket.

  10. I have not had any Lillet in the house for about ten days meaning my Suze is going unused. Suze´s not up to much on its own but goes with whiskey and Lillet to make a Smokey Mizu. It´s very much a modern cocktail yet vies with the Rob Roy for my attention. Until I discovered the Smokey Mizu I did not really know what to do with Lillet. Also, it keeps for far longer once opened than you´d believe if you read the internet. Having had several Mizus I can agree with the reviews that it has a interesting balance of sweet and something earthy or even rough or sandy. I have some form of synæsthesia I think. The gentian in the Suze provides the root-like taste and knocks the Lillet´s sweetness off its perch. I wonder how it would be with Lillet rosé.

    At the moment Belsazar red and Quintinye red are being used alternately for my Rob Roys. It is very hard to decide which, if any of them, are better. At this level it´s merely random preference. What I can say is that Punt e Mes plus whiskey deserves a name other than Rob Roy. The Punt e Mes is not a real vermouth; it´s itself. Very good too. If you haven´t tried this one, go ahead.

    In the name of science a comparison of the various red vermouths, Lillet red and Dubonnet would be worth setting up. The panel would have to try possibly ten different drinks in one sitting.

    The other night I had a dry martini made with Dolin dry. I wonder if the gin overwhelmed it – it did not float my boat.
    Indeed the huge variability in gins means asking for a martini is like asking for “some jazz”. You could get a anything from a wide variety of styles whereas a decade ago a gin was probably Beefeater or Saphire or maybe Cork Dry Gin (avoid, at all costs). The martini is already victim of an annoying cult based on the supposed “perfect” version. With 1437 gins now available (and wasted by mixing with tonic) there is even more room for piffle and pretension. It also makes ordering a dry martini something of a crap shoot; at home you might have vermouth A and gin B but in the bars the chances of that combination being available are vanishingly small.

    After a pause on the sherry front I got a hold of an amontillado by Lustau. It´s called Escuadrilla and is supposed to be made with minimum 14 y.o. amontillado. The first taste was cracklingly dry and almost desssicating. This could be because I´d eaten something sweet too soon beforehand. Returning to the bottle a few days later with something salty (Pringles, if you have to ask, but also smoked ham and dry cheddar) the Escuadrilla presented a fuller, rounder and almost (not actually) sweet taste. It isn´t real sweetness – this is still very dry sherry. The aftertaste is long and rich. I am afraid I am terrible at making up flavour descriptons. It might be one of the most full-flavoured amontillados I´ve tried, almost like an oloroso in its viscosity. I´d suggest this one to go with food and not on its own: tapas, salami, soup or even decent potato crisps. It´s a bit on the costly side compared to a bottle or wine but much cheaper than a whiskey of the same quality. It is also much cheaper than a bottle of wine of the same quality. A distinctive wine costs way too much but a distinctive sherry is very affordable.

  11. So far DTW´s editor-at-large has got as far as trying Cinzano Rosso, Cinzano Bianco, Black Forest Gin and had ample opportunities to assess Martini Rosso.

    I can report that for the very first time I have encountered a vermouth I would avoid, namely Cinzano Bianco which is too heavy on the vanilla and sugar. Even Martini Bianco is better. Cinzano Rosso is alright but bested by all no-name supermarket vermouth for half the price.

    A visit to Berlin allowed me to try a Rob Roy made with Lillet Rouge and Johnnie Walker Black Label. The famous Vesper is Lillet Blanc with London dry gin (Tanqueray, sp.?). Oddly the sweetness of the Lillet Works very well. The barman. while enthusiastic, did not know that Lillet is not a vermouth.

    And finally, the martini which is not the “dry martini” is gin plus red vermouth. That´s an under-rated mix which I can only recommend to DTW´s once the car keys are away for the day and you want to relax with some automotive insights on your tablet or mini-pocket computer device.

  12. Richard, welcome back! Hope you had a great holiday. We’ve all been very good while you were away and gave Eóin no trouble.

    What have you brought back for us?

    1. Ah, but I’m sure they’re very witty, tasteful and sophisticated fridge magnets.

    2. Daniel – I heard a rumour that Richard was looking for BMW grille-shaped magnets, but they were too wide for the fridge…..

    3. Obscurity has been the key. I have been assiduously gathering them from all the small towns in Denmark that I have been visiting. It started last year at Cortina d’Ampezzo, not so obscure, I grant you.

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