Review: Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

Carpano Antica Formula VermouthCarpano’s Antica Formula vermouth is the first lady of aromatic wines. In a world where most vermouth runs under $10 for a bottle and is tossed out during clean-up from last night’s party, the $30 or more you’ll pay for a liter of Antica Formula indicates at least someone thinks pretty highly of it.

The heritage of this spirit dates back to the late 1700s, when vermouth was invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano — inspired by German aromatic wines. Antica Formula doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to today’s German wines, but it doesn’t take long to see why it has such a loyal following.

On its own, Antica Formula offers a complex nose of raisins, prunes, licorice, root beer, and citrus peel. The body is initially sweet, then slowly turns more and more bitter — almost to the level of an amaro — as it fades in the glass. In cocktails, this can create a dazzling complexity and, depending on how much you use, an intensity of flavor. Manhattans are gorgeous with it, the vermouth a wonderfull foil for whiskey, and Negronis take on another dimension. Rather than disappearing into a cocktail, the wine coaxes out notes of cocoa powder, dark fruits, and the spices of Christmas.

That said, drink it year-round.

33 proof.

A / $32 (1 liter) /

Review: Jardesca Blanco California Aperitiva


Drinkhacker pal Duggan McDonnell — of Encanto Pisco fame — is up to some new tricks. His latest project: Jardesca, a lightly fortified, aromatic wine. Esseentially part of the vermouth/Lillet category, Jardesca is a blend of sweet and dry wines plus a double-distilled eau de vie that is infused with 10 different botanicals. The big idea: Find a balance between the cloyingly sweet stuff and the grimace-inducing bitter apertifs.

Jardesca’s bittersweet character is at first surprising because it’s so different from other aperitif wines. A bit off-putting, I found myself struck first by notes of dill, eucalyptus, and dried apricot. That’s a weird combination of flavors, and it takes some processing — and some time exploring the product to really figure out what’s happening here. The wine develops in the glass and on the palate, offering rich honey notes, grapefruit, and a nose that’s increasingly heavy with floral aromatics — lavender and honeysuckle, plus rosemary notes.

Like I said, lots going on here, and sometimes it comes together beautifully, and sometimes it comes across as a bit much. Actually I found myself enjoying the more herbal components of Jardesca over its sweetness, which helps it to shine quite brightly in a vodka martini. It works well on its own, but I think its true destiny is a spot on progressive bar menus as a more intriguing vermouth.

18% abv.

A- / $29 /

Review: Maurin Dry, White, and Red Vermouth

Maurin White vermouthVermouth is a beverage on the return, and Anchor Distilling has joined forces with old Maurin (you’ve seen the iconic green devil posters at better French cafes in your neighborhood) to recreate the vermouths once made by Auguste Maurin, back in 1884.

The two companies adapted Maurin’s traditional recipe for these new vermouths, which are available in three styles. Per the company’s press release, “The Maurin Dry, White and Red Vermouths are fortified wines blended from various regions across France, then infused with coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, Maurin’s absinthe and other traditional herbs and spices.” We tasted the trio, and thoughts follow.

Each is bottled at 17% abv.

Maurin Dry Vermouth – Fragrant with notes of incense, coriander, and cloves. Ample spice on the palate, with a light astrignency and a drying finish. Over time the wine develops a holiday character, as the cinnamon and nutmeg warm up, giving it a mulled wine sensibility. But the bittersweet finish leaves no doubt that you’re drinking vermouth, not glogg. Pairs better with gin over vodka. A-

Maurin White Vermouth – Much like the Dry, but with a richer body and sweeter from start to finish. The bitter conclusion is absent here, as the vermouth takes on a more peachy/mango character as it fades from view. (This has the side effect of dulling some of the spice character, but that’s really just a different approach.) Overall, as a mixer I find I have a preference for the dry — and I’m not alone, which is why sweet white vermouths are relatively rare in comparison to the other two varieties — but if I was drinking vermouth straight (people do this), I’d easily pick the White. Better with vodka; gin demolishes what spice it has left. B+

Maurin Red Vermouth – Aka “sweet vermouth.” Indeed it’s quite red in color, and the spice is thick on the nose, very much offering a mulled wine character, with cloves easily the strongest component. On the palate, there’s gingerbread, anise, and brandied raisins bobbing in and out. Classic gluhwein flavors, but with refinement (and lower alcohol levels), it’s sweet but not overly so, offering a bit of fruit punch without quite making you think about that cartoon guy in the Hawaiian outfit. Acquits itself well in a Manhattan. A-

each $19 /

Review: High West Distillery Barreled Manhattan “The 36th Vote”

If a cocktail requires no fresh juices or other highly perishable ingredients, why not just bottle it outright?

That’s the idea behind High West’s Barreled Manhattan: It’s a Manhattan cocktail pre-bottled and ready to go.

Now this isn’t some rotgut nonsense, 10 percent alcohol bullshit in a single-serve bottle. It’s the real deal, and top shelf at that.

The recipe is authentic: 2 parts rye (High West’s 95% rye is used) to 1 part sweet vermouth, plus 2 dashes Angostura bitters. The company notes that this isn’t as easy as it sounds: You can’t just drop “off the shelf” vermouth in and resell it: Once federal excise taxes have been paid on booze, it can’t be repackaged and resole. So the Utah-based High West had to buy wholesale, pre-tax vermouth in bulk.

The mix is then put back into an oak barrel (formerly used for rye) for 120 days — and High West says that the cocktail doesn’t oxidize during this time.

Results: Incredibly impressive. This is for all intents and purposes a high-grade Manhattan like you’d get at any upscale bar. It’s a little sweeter than I might mix up, but that makes it incredibly easy-drinking. Lots of red cherry fruit character here, with that spicy rye especially evident on the nose. Go easy on the ice, or you’ll kill off some of the character here — it’s drinkable even warm, like a good whiskey. Add a cherry if you’re feeling decadent.

Incidentally, High West also sent along the un-aged version of this cocktail for comparative purposes (it’s not for sale), and it’s amazing to see how much more of a hard edge it has in comparison. With that barrel time, the cocktail gels sweeter, too — much like any whiskey — and more character. The un-aged version is a straightforward and very good tipple. The aged version is a modern classic. Bring on the ultra-high-grade pre-mixed Martinis and Sazeracs!

74 proof.

(The story behind “The 36th Vote” is left as an exercise for the reader.)

A / $50 /

Review: Martini & Rossi Rosato Vermouth

Ladies and gentlemen, we now have a new kind of vermouth to contend with.

Joining Dry, Sweet, and the rarely-seen Bianco and Rosso, Martini & Rossi has launched another expression: Rosato.

Rosato falls somewhere between the red and white spectrum — indeed it’s a blend of red and white wines, plus a lot of spice. The pink color belies its intense flavor: Roses, brier thickets, and the essence of the woods. All brought together with an aromatic, if a little strange, blend of red and white wines.

In moderation, Rosato is interesting, but as an aperitif it’s overpowering. The balance is a little off, and the bittersweet aftertaste gets cloying. Many of Martini’s recipe suggestions are fruit juice focused, and that makes sense. With a real spirit (like whiskey or gin) behind it, Rosato wouldn’t stand a chance.

C+ / $10 /

How Long Does Vermouth Last?

Reader Evan asks (in a nutshell):  Does vermouth go bad?

Grab that bottle of vermouth that’s been sitting open in your liquor cabinet for a year and take a sip. Yeah, it goes bad. Real bad. Vermouth is basically just wine, after all.

But how long does it last after you open it? Conventional wisdom is all over the map, so I put the question to the experts at Noilly Prat. Their answer: After opening a bottle of vermouth it should be stored in the fridge, where it will keep for about three months.

There ya go. Here’s an idea: Replace your vermouth whenever you replace your fridge deodorizers.

Review: Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth – New Recipe 2009

People agonize over what brand gin or vodka to use in their martini, but precious little thought tends to go into the selection of vermouth. Today I’ve done something most would deem unthinkable: Drink vermouth straight.

noilly-prat-vermouth-old-bottleWhy? Because Noilly Prat, the French maker of one of the world’s best-selling brands of vermouth, is changing its recipe. Well, updating it, really: Noilly Prat is introducing its current European blend to the U.S. market, discontinuing the old American blend that’s been sold here for years (decades, maybe). The bottle design gets an update too (that’s the old one to your right, the new one is below), so you’ll be able to tell which version you’re buying as stores run out of the old stock. The new blend is scheduled to go on sale in January 2009.

How do the two compare? I definitely prefer the new, European version to the old. The original is very pale, almost clear, with a very strong bitterness overwhelming any herbal notes in the vermouth. It’s fine, but plain and unthrilling. The new version is striking in its changes but it’s still a real vermouth: It’s got a distinct, light gold color to it and hits the tongue first with some sweetness and a more pronounced herbal flavor, before then fading into a lighter bitter finish. The new Noilly Prat is quite reminiscent of Lillet Blanc and even reminded me a bit of Strega. (However, both Noilly Prat versions — tied at 36 proof — are better than Martini & Rossi dry vermouth… but of course they say you should only drink Italian vermouth if it’s sweet and stick with France for the dry.)

Of course, the true test of any dry vermouth is in a martini… and I’m happy to report the new Noilly Prat shines with either gin or vodka. Check it out!

A- / $6.50 (750ml bottle) /


Review: Dubonnet Rouge

Sure, I’m familiar with Dubonnet. You see it on every bar shelf, without question. It’s almost always full and it’s sitting next to the equally dusty bottle of Punt e Mes and the half-empty bottle of Galliano. Old school, but obviously a requirement for the bar. Anything that’s been around this long deserves a spot on the shelf in honor of its sheer longevity.

When the folks at Dubonnet sent a bottle for me to try, I went on a treasure hunt in my own bar. And there it was: My own long-forgotten bottle of Dubonnet, which had been sitting in my bar, unopened, probably for years. I’m not sure how long, exactly, but the label had changed at least once between then and now.

I cracked open the fresh bottle this weekend and finally tasted Dubonnet as it was intended. More accurately, I was drinking Dubonnet Rouge. Just like Lillet, Dubonnet is a fortified and aromatized wine, and it also comes in a Blanc version (with a green label). But while Lillet Blanc is the more popular version of that spirit, the red red Rouge is the more popular version of Dubonnet.

On its own (and on the rocks), Dubonnet immediately strikes you with the taste of Port wine, a raisiny concoction with a distinctly herbal, bittersweet aftertaste. It’s not at all bad (and easily better that Lillet Rouge on its own), but not something I’d likely drink every day. Dubonnet’s claim to fame is in a cocktail (often called the Dubonnet Cocktail) which is half Dubonnet Rouge, half gin. Sometimes a dash of orange bitters. Dubonnet goes well with gin, but it does get awfully lost amidst the juniper. How much you enjoy this tipple is directly related to how much you like gin. I thought it fine with Tanqueray, though probably better with a more citrus gin.

Out of curiosity, I tried one of Dubonnet’s featured recipes, the Fat Like Buddha Cocktail (see below), from the bar Death & Co. This stout cocktail showed some really interesting flavors (I used a different rum; didn’t have Flor de Cana on hand), and though orange is more the highlight in the glass (don’t skip the flamed orange twist), it does indeed show that Dubonnet has range far beyond ice cubes and gin. Yeah, you could probably do about the same thing with ruby port, but for just 11 bucks it’s something fun to tinker with.

B / $11 /

And here’s the cocktail…

Fat Like Buddha Cocktail (pictured above)
3/4 oz. Dubonnet Rouge
2 oz. Flor de Cana 7yr old Rum
1/4 oz. Benedictine
1/4 oz. Cointreau

Stir and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a flamed orange twist.

Review: Lillet Rouge

The charms of Lillet Blanc have been adequately covered in this blog. But there’s another Lillet — Lillet Rouge — which is considerably harder to find even though it’s been on the marketsince 1962, 24 years longer than Lillet Blanc.

There’s not a lot of mystery to what Lillet Rouge is: As the name implies, it’s pretty much the same deal as Lillet Blanc, but with a red wine base instead of white. As with Lillet Blanc, it’s meant to be consumed ice cold, but anyone who’s ever had a chilled red wine knows how strange this can be. Adding in the bittersweet herbs that go into Lillet just makes it all the weirder.

In the right frame of mind, Lillet Rouge can be refreshing, and it does make for some curious cocktails (the company’s first recommendation is Lillet Glogg, which I’m sure you’ll dive right into). But all in all, it’s easy to see why the Blanc is more popular.

B- / $16 /

Classic Recipe: The Vesper

In 1953, Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, and had James Bond invent his own drink, which he called the Vesper, after a character in the book. The drink made a new appearance in the previous Bond movie of the same name, with Daniel Craig rapid-firing the recipe to a waiter so quickly I’m amazed he got what he ordered. Anyway, the drink made a sort of comeback after its Bondly appearance… here’s how Fleming wrote it in the book.

“Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

I write that here because it’s one of the few old recipes I’ve seen that, speaking specifically, includes ingredients none of which you can actually get any more. Now that’s unusual.

Let me explain. First, Gordon’s gin was reformulated from 94 proof to 80 proof (or less). The vodka would have strictly been Soviet-bottled and overproof. And Kina Lillet, as I discussed yesterday, has long since been put to pasture.

So, you can make a Vesper with substitutes today, but it won’t taste much like it did in 1953. Finding overproof gin and vodka aren’t tough, but the Kina Lillet is a deal breaker. You can try it with Lillet Blanc, but you won’t even approach the bitterness that Bond would have been looking for.

I made one with commonly available substitutes and the taste was… well, a lot like a not-very-dry gin martini. The addition of vodka doesn’t do much considering so much gin in the glass, and the Lillet Blanc doesn’t make a terribly different impression vs. dry vermouth. The real difference most modern martini drinkers will notice is the lack of olives. To me, it’s just not a martini without a bunch of ‘em adding their salty, meaty flavor to the mix.

Try one for yourself and, if you can’t channel Bond, well, at least try to think of Moneypenny.