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.
Why? 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!