I peered into the liquor closet — yes, I have a closet devoted to booze, not shoes — and there it was: A dusty bottle of Martini & Rossi Vermouth that had been opened and left untouched for years. Since I don’t drink many martinis at home — what else was vermouth good for? — I admit to neglecting this singular item in my liquor arsenal.
But as bartenders tending the nation’s cocktail renaissance breathe new life into old ingredients, vermouth is getting its groove back.
Vermouth is a wine fortified with spirits, flavored by an infusion of botanicals, historically gathered in the wild (how quaint!). The classic version was dry and bittered by wormwood, but the category is quite elastic since sweet, faintly herbal versions exist, plus everything in between.
The Italian and French have been drinking it as a beverage, not just using it as a cocktail ingredient, for centuries. Vermouth had a stint of popularity in the States, but pretty much disappeared after the 1960’s in part due to an image of being, well, disgusting.
Neither bartenders nor home cocktail enthusiasts were ever instructed to treat vermouth as perishable or requiring refrigeration. It languished on shelves and soured in bottles. Dry martinis got even drier. Imagine uncorking a Chardonnay and leaving it open for six months or years — would you want to add a drop of that to your drink?
Even when shelf-life was respected, lack of demand left drinkers little choice but bland, mass-market renditions like Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. Now, like discovering how great beets don’t come from a can, we’re learning more about vermouth’s potential.
To tackle the hole in the artisanal market, NYC bartenders, er, mixologists, have begun crafting in-house versions, namely at East Village bar Amor Y Amargo and uptown restaurant Rouge Tomate. For the rest of us at-home boozers, there has been a wave of domestic and international bottlings hitting retailers; if you prefer to keep things local, then look for new brands Atsby and Uncouth Vermouth. Both have dramatically different points of view, demonstrating the range this category of hooch carries.
Atsby founder Adam Ford began experimenting with different versions in his downtown Manhattan dwelling. Another lawyer who ended up in the booze industry, Ford fell in love with the drink while traipsing across Europe.
The brand comes in two versions: A dryish blonde called Amberthorn, and the slightly sweeter bourbon-hued Armadillo Cake. Both are made using a base of North Fork Chardonnay, fortified with apple brandy from the Finger Lakes. To create his unique infused flavors, Adam sources roots, spices, herbs, flowers, seeds and pods from all over the world.
I tasted both and found their complexity intriguing; either could enhance a cocktail or be sipped neat or on the rocks. The Amberthorn in particular delivers layers of flavor, thirty-two to be precise, including a lovely hint of lavender.
If you prefer cocktails that reflect the farmers’ market, try Bianca Miraglia’s seasonal line of Uncouth Vermouths. Using Red Hook Winery for both the base wine and fortifying grappa, Miraglia has experimented with various fruits, spices, root vegetables, even squash. She sources ingredients locally, including Stone Barns for herbs and Long Island for mugwort (a relative of wormwood) used to bitter the blends.
Unfortunately, the line has not made it to retailers yet; Miraglia was working out of Red Hook Winery which was devastated after Hurricane Sandy. However, she is optimistic about a late winter launch and is avidly sampling the remainder of her current line-up for future allocations.
Given the small batch production, degree of seasonality and growing demand from bars and restaurants, getting a bottle might be difficult, but worth it. The Beet-Eucalyptus and Butternut Squash are delightfully unique, and the stellar Pear-Ginger pops in your mouth. Alternatively, you can taste Miraglia’s work at Rouge Tomate; a debut of her vermouth collaboration with wine and beverage director Pascaline Lepeltier should be ready in a few weeks.
If you drink dry martinis like Roger Sterling, then expressive vermouth may not be your thing. The new styles have evolved from listless wallflower to serving up sass. But I happen to like character in my cocktail. As for that sad bottle of Martini & Rossi? The garbage truck picked it up this morning.
New York Negroni
1 ounce gin
1 ounce vermouth (try Atsby Armadillo Cake or Uncouth Beet-Eucalyptus)
1 ounce Campari
Shake well with ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of orange peel if you’re feeling fancy.
Where to Try:
Rouge Tomate, 10 E 60th Street, 646-237-8977
Amor Y Amargo, 443 E 6th Street, 212-614-6817
Employees Only, 510 Hudson Street, 212-242-3021
Experimental Cocktail Club, 191 Chrystie Street
Where to Buy:
Astor Wines & Spirits, 399 Lafayette Street, 212-674-7500
Le Du’s Wines, 600 Washington Street, 212-924-6999
Vestry Wines, 65 Vestry Street, 212-810-2899