Friday, 28 October 2011

What use are "single varietal" bitters?

Most of us probably have a bottle of Angostura bitters somewhere: it’s one of those things, like Tabasco, that never seems to get finished. But such is the strength of the cocktail revolution going on at the moment that all manner of other bitters are being unleashed on to the market, ranging from the primordial Peychaud’s bitters, recreations of ancient recipes such as celery bitters and Jerry Thomas’s favourite Boker’s bitters, to all manner of fruit and veg flavours (grapefruit, rhubarb, cranberry, plum…) and oddities like chocolate bitters.

Bitters are the granddaddies of the cocktail world. Originally medicinal infusions of bitter herbs, roots and barks, it’s likely that we started blending them with booze to make the medicine easier to take, then developed a taste for it. The original definition of a cocktail was specifically a spirit augmented by any or all of bitters, sugar and water. Any other kind of mixed drink fell under a different name. Now the term “bitters” is used for any concentrated flavoured tincture a dash or two of which might be used to deepen a cocktail’s flavour or add aromatic notes.

Master of Malt have thrown their hat into the ring with a range of “single varietal” (a term taken from the wine world, I assume) bitters—each featuring just one flavouring ingredient, infused in vodka, bourbon or rum. The range includes sour cherry, cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, juniper (a kind of “gin concentrate”—add a few drops to vodka, perhaps, and voila?), cardamom, clove, coriander, fennel, angelica, cocoa, coffee, liquorice, sweet orange, gentian, curaçao (bitter orange), chilli (both smoked chipotle and volcanic naga) and frankincense. They also do their own blended products, such as their whisky-barrel aged bitters and a forthcoming Christmas bitters.

Of course the first thing that sprang to mind with the single varietal ones was—is this any better than just using the ingredient itself? For example, why use cumin bitters rather than just a pinch of cumin? I tried using just such an ingredient in one of the North African inspired drinks at the A Night in Casablanca event that the Candlelight Club held in August:

Djinn Fizz
2 shots gin
1 shot lemon juice
½ shot crème de menthe blanche
½ shot sugar syrup
Pinch of cumin/few drops of cumin bitters
2 shots soda water
Shake first five ingredients, strain into a glass and add soda. Garnish with fresh mint.

The cumin is by no means essential but in moderation it is quite interesting, adding a flavour that is fresh but quite savoury. I tried this with both ground cumin and cumin bitters and the result is pretty much the same, though you need more of the bitters than you might think.

Or course the big difference is that the bitters are liquid and therefore blend easily. Spices as a rule do not dissolve as such: I don’t know what actually happens to the cumin in the Djinn Fizz, but in the following cocktail—created for the Candlelight Club’s Boardwalk Empire Season 2 launch party—I had trouble with the ground cinnamon:

Applejack Rabbit
1½ shots Laird’s Applejack
½ shot Aperol
½ shot maple syrup
¾ shot lemon juice
1 shot orange juice
Pinch of cinnamon/few drops of cinnamon bitters
Apple slice to garnish
Shake and strain into an ice-filled highball. Garnish with a slice of apple. An old cocktail from the 1930s, with added Aperol (something that currently vies with tea as the cocktail ingredient du jour).

It tasted right, but the actual particles of cinnamon are quite visible and quickly sink to the bottom. I also noticed that if you left the cocktail for a while the cinnamon flavour intensifies, as the ground bark spends more time infusing. On the night the bar staff mostly just sprinkled the cinnamon on the top instead. By contrast, the Master of Malt Cinnamon Bitters avoids this problem altogether.

Similarly, another cocktail from our Moroccan night (originally created by Will Sprunt for our Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and here just wheeled out again under a different name because it went so well with the theme) originally used cardamom seeds:

Rose Martini (aka Queen of Hearts)
2 shots gin
¾ shot dry vermouth
½ shot rose syrup

The seeds from a cardamom pod/few drops of cardamom bitters
Lemon twist 

Shake cardamom, gin, syrup and vermouth together, and strain into a martini glass. Finish with lemon peel. This is a cracking cocktail that tastes like alcoholic Turkish Delight.

First of all I found that you really need to crush the seeds with a muddler to get any flavour out in the short time that you are shaking. But actually splitting a cardamom pod is pretty fiddly and not really something you want to be doing in a busy bar environment. In this example, using 5–6 drops of the cardamom bitters was a godsend, adding the desired flavour quickly and without any solid residue to worry about.

Then you have something like the Master of Malt Frankincense Bitters. Most of us probably don’t have lumps of frankincense knocking around the house, so if that is the flavour you are after then this is clearly a good way to go. Frankincense (a resin tapped from the Boswellia sacra tree) is a hard flavour to describe, being a bit like cinnamon but less overtly woody. If you’ve ever done any soldering (solder includes resin) the smell of frankincense will be familiar. I plan to try using the bitters in a Christmas cocktail called Gold, Frankincense and Byrrh (using Goldschläger or Goldwasser, Byrrh and Frankincense Bitters, perhaps with a gin base)—expect a report in a month or so as to whether this has any merits beyond a play on words.

Another possibility is to play with gin by using the coriander, cinnamon, angelica or cardamom bitters (all common enough gin botanicals) to push your gin’s flavour balance one way or another. Fennel and clove too, now I come to think of it. Of course these are infusions rather than distillations, so things like the gentian bitters (which I have not tried yet) will presumably be indeed very bitter (like Peychaud’s or Angostura bitters, which contain it), compared, say, to Ian Hart’s Sacred range of single-botanical distillates, in which the distillation process removes all bitterness from botanicals such as gentian, hop or wormwood.

Check out the full range of Master of Malt bitters here.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Cocktails with Jameson Irish Whiskey

Me looking proprietorial at the Jameson Apartment—just before the real barman
came and threw a bar towel at me

If you fancy a drink in London’s Soho area any time between now and 27th October, why not slide by No. 39 Greek Street. Jameson have conjured a pop-up “cinematic speakeasy”* out of the largest of the private dining rooms on the first floor of ancient restaurant Kettner’s, with its own door into the street. As well as an agreeably quirky room, with lush oak panelling and a moulded plaster ceiling, you get to enjoy a menu of cocktails made with Jameson.

Not only that, but I will be there in a sort of “host” capacity every night except tonight, Sunday 16th. (We’re also having Candlelight Club parties on the Saturdays, but those are ticketed events and I’m afraid they have sold out.) So do swing by and say hello.

I must say that Celtic style whisk(e)y—as opposed to American style—is not something that obviously springs to my mind as a cocktail ingredient, and specifically Irish whiskey less so. But now that I am spending my evenings as a professional barfly I have had the chance to find out how well the stuff works in cocktails.

There aren’t so many classic cocktails featuring Scotch, apart from things like the Rob Roy (essentially a Manhattan made with Scotch)—and, if I’m honest, the Rob Roy is a pretty good example of why.** There is something pungent about Scotch which seems to quarrel with so many other ingredients. Ed McAvoy, now a Jameson ambassador, who designed the drinks at the Apartment, says it is the smokiness in Scotch that causes this problem. I have certainly found that trying to use a really smoky, iodine-flavoured Islay malt to make a Godfather cocktail failed dismally because the whisky worked so badly with the Amaretto.

But Jameson don’t smoke any of their grain. And they also triple distil their whiskey, whereas most blended Scotch is apparently only twice distilled. Given that, with each distillation, the “heads and tails”—the very first and very last vapours to emerge, which contain undesirable parts of the alcohol spectrum—are discarded, the more times you repeat the process, in theory, the more “pure” a spirit you’ll end with. This purity may or may not be what you are after (and at the Boutique Bar Show recently I tasted the single-distilled Polish Vestal Vodka which is hair-raisingly full of characterful congeners), but apparently the smooth approachability of Jameson can be attributed to the triple distillation.

Ed’s cocktails contain some bold flavours, but the other ingredients aren’t there to mask the flavour of the Jameson. Rather, he has spotlighted some unexpected combinations that work really well with the woody, caramel flavours of the whiskey. Combinations such as whiskey and kiwi fruit in his Jameson Emerald Presse or Jameson and raspberry in the Jameson Macree. Elsewhere he plays up the caramel character, such as in the Irish Martini that uses butterscotch schnapps and textural pear juice (which manages to be silky and slightly grainy at the same time)—and despite the name contains none of the ingredients of a Martini—and the Jameson Caramel Manhattan, one of my favourites:

Jameson Caramel Manhattan
35ml Jameson
15ml caramel liqueur
12.5ml red vermouth
25ml pineapple juice
2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice and fine strain into a chilled glass. Squeeze a lemon twist over the top (and discard) and garnish with a pineapple wedge on the rim.

What hits you first is the caramel, backed up by the whiskey. The pineapple juice, by comparison, creeps up on you. In fact if you didn’t know what was in it you might struggle to work out what was giving that balancing character, the rather spiky flavour of the juice evening out the sweet burnt sugar of the caramel. The only problem with this cocktail is that it is so moreish you are tempted to finish it too quickly!

Another of my favourites is this one:

Jameson Apricot Sour
35ml Jameson
12.5ml apricot brandy
20ml apricot purée
20ml pressed cloudy apple juice
10ml freshly squeezed lemon juice

Shake and strain. Again the caramel warmth of the whiskey marries delightfully with the apricot, and the lemon juice and rind oil give it a wake-up zest. I tried this using apricot jam and it works well, though I personally think that the cocktail tastes better with 50ml of whiskey. Even Mrs H. agreed and she admits she doesn’t really like whiskey—but really likes this cocktail. Job done, Ed.

* The cinematic connection is that Jameson sponsor the BFI London Film Festival, which runs for precisely the period that the Apartment is there, and other film festivals around the world too. I gather the film link is all about storytelling, and an idea of a specific Irish love of storytelling as part of any convivial—and therefore whiskey-fuelled—evening.
** Though if you want to try probably the nicest Rob Roy you are likely to come across, try the ready-mixed, bottled version from Master of Malt.

Friday, 14 October 2011

There is Worcestershire Sauce. And there is Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition

If you thought the attempt to create a premium version of Marmite with Marmite XO was unexpected, then check this out. Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce now comes in a luxury version called Worcestershire Sauce Special Edition. (In what sense a sauce can come in an “edition” I do not know. It hasn’t exactly been “edited”.)

Like Marmite XO, the bottle of the new version is larger and darker than the standard version, though not quite as weightily opulent as the black and gold makeover given to the pot that the yeasty paste comes in, with its suggestion of the decadence of a Roman Emperor, or perhaps a slightly scaled down version of Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides. The label on the Lea & Perrins basic sauce bottle is already dark brown and orange with gold details, and the SE mostly just adds a lot more gold. But the bottle itself has gone from clear to frosted, opaque dark brown—as if it is just not safe for mortal eyes to gaze upon the wondrous liquid inside.

Like Marmite XO, Worcestershire Sauce SE has been lovingly blended for a fuller flavour and aged for longer: normal Worcestershire Sauce is kept for 18 months, but this stuff matures for “up to” two years. Like the Marmite, it also comes with a hefty price tag, in this case £3.35. (But then it comes in a 290ml bottle, almost double the size of a normal bottle, which sells for around £1.57 for 150ml, so the price difference is not actually significant. One would have though that such a precious tincture would actually come in smaller bottles than normal, but perhaps the manufacturers know that anyone likely to buy this product is probably some sort of addict who puts Worcestershire Sauce on everything that passes his lips.)

Apparently the sauce was created in the 1830s by Worcester chemists John Wheeley Lea* and William Henry Perrins at the behest of local Lord Sandys who wanted to revisit exciting tastes he had encountered on his travels to Bengal. The story goes that the two boffins were not very happy with their concoction, and just put the barrels aside and forgot about them. It was only when they rediscovered the experiment some months later that they found it had mellowed into the murky sweet-sour-salt blast that we know and love today. The label proudly claims that it “Brings food alive!” I don’t think I actually want the food on my plate to be brought to life: mealtimes would become quite traumatic if you had to chase your sausages around the room as they begged for mercy.

As usual the precise recipe is a closely guarded secret, but the ingredients in the Standard Edition are listed in this order: Malt vinegar (from barley), spirit vinegar, molasses, sugar, salt, anchovies, tamarind extract, onions, garlic, spice, flavouring. The Special Edition contains the same ingredients but in different proportions: Malt vinegar (from barley), molasses, spirit vinegar, sugar, salt, onions, tamarind extract, anchovies, garlic, spice, flavourings.

When I compared Marmite and Marmite XO I initially thought I could taste the distinct flavour of the new spread, but when I tasted them blind I eventually had to concede that I just couldn’t tell the two apart. Would I find the same with the tangy nectar from Messrs Lea and Perrins?

To look at they are pretty much impossible to distinguish (see photo below). But tasted neat—admittedly an odd thing to do—I believe there is a difference. Regular Worcestershire Sauce has a nose of caramel, gravy and fresh sawdust, plus an Angostura-like aromatic spiciness and a strong waft of oranges—like a crate (a wooden crate) of oranges that has been boiled right down into tar. This profile continues on to the palate, where it is joined by salt, molasses and a pepper heat.

The SE version essentially follows the same profile but is indeed more intensely flavoured. But on top of that I would say there is also a pronounced lime flavour which I don’t really detect (at least not to the same degree) in the original.

Of course there is a mixological significance to all of this, because Worcestershire Sauce is an important ingredient in a Bloody Mary, and related drinks like the Red Snapper, Bloody Maria, Bloody Caesar, etc. So I knocked up a couple of Red Snappers using Master of Malt’s curious Bathtub gin:

Red Snapper
2 shots gin
4 shots tomato juice
½ shot lemon juice
7 drops Tabasco sauce
4 dashes Worcestershire Sauce
Pinch of celery salt
Freshly ground black pepper

In case you can't tell, that's the SE on the left and original on the right
One drink was made with original Lea & Perrins, the other with the SE. Any difference? Actually, yes. Of course it is hard to know how much it has to do with subtle differences of proportion in the drinks, but it did seem to have a bit more presence and that limey edge that I detected neat (and which presumably comes from the tamarind). But at the same time I wonder if one could achieve much the same effect by just using more of the sauce in your recipe.

If you’re a Worcestershire Sauce fan and fancy the improved efficiency of a more concentrated dose, or tend to use the product in a way that showcases its subtleties (erm…) then give the SE a try. After all, who knows how long it will be around.**

* What kind of a parent calls their child Wheeley? Or perhaps it was just a nickname he picked from his BMXing days.
** I wouldn’t be surprised if someone buys up a batch and decides to barrel age it even further to see what happens. Years from now VIPs will be invited to gala events where guests are able to taste a rare bottle of the ethereal 2011 vintage…

Friday, 7 October 2011

Red vermouth showdown!

DBS braces himself for the challenge of tasting 19 red vermouths
Our exhaustive blind tasting of dry white vermouths back in March has proved a continually popular post, attempting as it does to answer the question of how much difference the actual brand of vermouth makes in a Martini (and other cocktails too, but the Martini must surely be the quintessential dry vermouth drink, an obvious shibboleth and, arguably, the main reason for the liquid to exist*).

So it wasn’t long before DBS announced that he had corralled no fewer than 19 different red vermouths for a similar tasting. Red vermouth (or “Italian vermouth” as you will often find it in old cocktail books, referring to the bitter-sweet rosso style developed in Turin in the late 18th century) is based around wine, typically flavoured by infusion with various herbal and spice botanicals and fortified to around 14–17% alcohol by volume with spirit. It is not usually made from red wine, as I had always assumed, but is coloured primarily by the addition of caramel. It is invariably sweet, though often with a bitterness too—it’s part of that whole family of wines and spirits flavoured with bitter herbs that probably started as a medium for conveying and preserving the supposed medicinal benefits of the herbs. The classic bitter herb has to be wormwood, in its various strains, found in absinthe and also very much in vermouth; in fact in a recent lecture at the Boutique Bar Show, Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller (who were launching their new book on vermouth) informed us that the presence of wormwood was a defining characteristic—not unreasonably, considering that vermouth gets its name from German vermut, meaning wormwood. But red vermouths are flavoured with many other herbs and spices, citrus peel and sometimes cinchona bark too.

My (now patented) Vermouth Matrix
I don’t know that red vermouth has such an obvious quintessential cocktail as the Martini, though we went for two strong contenders, the Manhattan (in this case two parts rye whisky, one part red vermouth and a dash of Angostura) and the Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari).

So our tasting involved sampling all the different vermouths neat, then taking our short list and trying them in these two cocktails. So, in the order we tasted them…

1. Filipetti (15% ABV) A nose of vanilla, sandalwood, orange and perhaps cinnamon; quite pleasant though it smells surprisingly dry. On the palate, however, it is actually quite sweet, but not unpleasantly so; there is bitterness there too, and it’s pretty balanced.

2. Forteni Rosso (14.4% ABV) A more sour, dry nose, like biscuits or the sesame confection halva; a bit pungent. The palate is more bitter than the Filipetti, with a somewhat sour aftertaste. Not too bad overall, but less sophisticated than the Filipetti. We don’t know too much about the brand—it is one of DBS’s purchases from his regular trips across La Manche to Carrefour.

3. Dolin Chambery Vermouth (16% ABV) Dolin dry vermouth has found a place for itself in many bars and indeed it scored well in our own blind tasting. Their products are billed as “Chambery Vermouth”— vermouth from Chambery has AOC status, though Dolin are the last firm to be manufacturing it. This red one has a nose a bit like Coca Cola, almost leading you to expect it to be fizzy, plus a hint of ginger and something slightly “off” like decomposing seaweed. On the palate it is sticky, with a candied finish.

4. Sacred Organic Old English Spiced Red Vermouth (around 16–17% ABV) Shortly before conducting this tasting David and I had been lucky enough to visit Ian Hart’s Sacred microdistillery—which is basically a room in his house where he vacuum-distils a range of botanicals individually (after macerating the ingredients in neutral alcohol in his garden shed for sometimes weeks or months), then blends them into his Sacred Gin. But he was also considering other possibilities, such as making an absinthe and, as it turned out, vermouth. This pre-production sample was part of an attempt to make a very English vermouth, using local ingredients—this one had some 20 botanicals. It is indeed much redder than the more tawny-coloured first three samples. The nose is startlingly thyme-led, a very fresh and herbal attack. On the palate, the thyme again dominates and perhaps other woody, aromatic herbs, plus orange and sweetness. It apparently has elderberries in it, which might explain the colour, and tastes a bit like port infused with thyme. Compared to the previous samples, vanilla is notably absent.**

5. Carpano Antica Formula (16.5% AV) Carpano have been making vermouth since 1786 and this product is, I believe, a resurrection of an ancient recipe. It has been a big hit with bartenders (I’ve heard it described as a sort of universal ingredient that you just bung into everything to improve it). Since 2001 the company has been owned by Fratelli Branca, makers of Fernet Branca. Oddly the Antica Formula only comes in litre bottles, now at £30 a pop, and I was hesitant about stumping up that much for a vermouth, which one tends to use only in small doses but which has a habit of oxidizing after being open for a while. However, I ended up with the sample bottle from this tasting and I can confirm that, unlike most dry white vermouths, this one is not nearly so affected by oxidation, so it is safe to invest in a bottle. The nose is vinous and vanilla-led, and I also get chocolate, prunes and rum & raisin. The palate is complex and rich, with elements of chocolate and vanilla again, plus oranges and blueberries, yet all with a clean, bitter finish. Sophisticated and highly appealing.

6. Toso (14.8% ABV) The nose is sweetish, a bit like nougat, and you can sense the underlying wine base. The palate is mild and winey, a bit like grape juice. OK, but not very interesting.

7. Punt e Mes (16% ABV) Made by Carpano since 1870, when it was allegedly created when a customer, a stock exchange agent, asked for vermouth plus china bitters (presumably one part and half a part respectively, as the name means “point and a half”). Another story is that Carpano’s stock went up by a point and a half on the stock exchange and the company released the new vermouth to celebrate. The drink is a very dark red with a port-like and slightly sour nose and a palate that is strongly bitter, but (to me) pleasantly so. Hints of coffee (someone said Camp coffee), chocolate and anise, and something banana-esque too. Jared Brown describes it as like Antica Formula with a dash of Campari.

8. Dubonnet (14.8%ABV) Created in 1846 by a Paris chemist as a way to make anti-malarial quinine doses more palatable for French Foreign Legion troops, Dubonnet has had an international presence ever since. It has a fruity nose, “like Ribena” according to one, plus a rooty element, and perhaps a hint of dishcloth. The palate strikes me as surprisingly light, with flavours of carrot juice and grape juice. It seems sweet to me, and not especially bitter, but then we were tasting is after the Punt e Mes.

9. Casa Marteletti Vermouth Classico (16% ABV) The flagship of the Filipetti range, this vermouth has a subtle coffee/chocolate nose and a smooth, complex, sweetish palate, with definite notes of anise, menthol and coal tar; it doesn’t seem bitter to me but has a lingering dry, rooty, herbal aftertaste, probably from wormwood.

Ian Hart (far right) from Sacred, sees his product square up to the competition
10. Sacred Organic Old English Amber (ABV?) Another experiment: the subsequent production version has less thyme, but in this version the thyme if very dominant; a piney resinous nose with what I call in my notes a “see-though vividness”, which may come from the fact that it had been distilled that afternoon. (I kept a sample and I think that in time the thyme softens and integrates.) The palate is also strong, vivid and quite bitter; to me it seemed more “together” than the red version (no. 4 above), which had a “scooped” quality of pronounced bitter high note and sweet low note, but not quite enough glueing the two together in the middle. The amber reminds me of East European style bitter liqueurs, like becherovka, but without the sweetness.

11. Homemade (ABV?) David made this using the same recipe as in the dry vermouth tasting (a recipe from a booklet handed out by Plymouth gin), but using sweet (white) wine as a base, extra citrus and dark brown sugar instead of white. In my tasting notes, though, I record that it didn’t smell of much at all and had a watery palate, sweet with hints of orange and dusty spice, and none of the dominating clove power I recall from the dry white version. Not a great success.

Adam from Graphic mixes up some Manhattans
12. Byrrh (18% ABV) Another oldie, invented in 1886 in Perpignan by two brothers who were drapers by trade but, for some reason, wanted to make a quinine drink, which they initially sold through pharmacies as a health draught. It declined after the war but has recently been rising in popularity again. It has a nose of Ribena fruit and wood and, on the tongue, a drying, herbal, woody liveliness, subtly complex and evolving with a bitterness that grows on the finish. Made me want to try it mixed.

13. Stock (16% ABV) The Extra Dry version didn’t impress last time, and the tradition is carried on here. This sample had a nose of Bovril and Worcestershire sauce and a palate of Bovril and cheap ruby port, but with a really nasty, sour oxidized finish.

Robert Beckwith (l) and David Hollander assess a cocktail
14. Lillet Rouge (16% ABV) Not sure this really counts as a vermouth: I seem to recall that Lillet Blanc is a mixture of wine and citrus liqueurs, with the original quinine bitterness (it used to be called Kina Lillet) dispensed with in 1985. Lillet Rouge was created only in the 1960s for the US market. It has a similar strawberry nose to the blanc and a soft, quiet palate. I think this sample had been open a while as it was noticeably oxidized, but at the same time you could tell it was once quite balanced.

15. Vya (16% ABV) Made by the Quady Winery in Madera, California, this vermouth uses Orange Muscat wine as a base. It is a mid-tawny colour and has a concentrated blackcurrant nose with added herbaceous notes and a streak of Benylin. On the tongue I am reminded of coconut flesh plus a bitter-sweet berry flavour. It is well balanced and intriguing, though I am not sure I like it, exactly.

16. Noilly Pratt Rouge (16% ABV) Noilly Prat Extra Dry is my dry vermouth of choice so I was looking forward to tasting this sample of the red version, which is not distributed in the UK, its main market being the US. However, I was disappointed: in fact I suspect the sample was off, as it tasted rank, dry and thin, with a strong waft of fermenting bananas.

17. Bellino (13% ABV) Not sure where DBS got this but he concedes it is not really a vermouth, but a mixture of wine, grape juice and herbs (although it seems there certainly used to be a vermouth called Bellino, as the poster attests). It has a sweet candied nose of Parma violets. The palate is likewise tuckbox sweet, tasting of Refreshers (which also probably don’t exist any more). It tastes like something children pour over ice cream. Which is probably worth trying, especially if you want them to be quiet.

18. Martini Rosso (15% ABV) Surprisingly woody and dry on the nose, full of aromatic herbs, thyme in particular. Maybe I expected it to be more cloying but on the palate the sweetness is again well balanced with the strong herbaceous elements. I gather that it is made in steel vats to preserve the botanical flavours rather than influence them with oak. I found it sound in concept, albeit (tasted neat) a bit crude in execution, not as polished of smooth as some.

19. Cinzano Rosso (15% ABV) Allegedly invented in 1756 and therefore the original vermouth di Torino, Cinzano has the usual secret recipe (though one which includes thyme, marjoram and musk yarrow). The brand was early to export round the world, from the 1890s, but has never matched Martini’s success. After a stint owned by Diageo it is now in the hands of Gruppo Campari. On both the nose and the palate, it is remarkably similar to the Martini we had tasted just before, although the taste seemed to me sweeter with more vanilla and chocolate notes.

So, which of these 19 did we like best? In truth there was no clear winner, because different vermouths seemed to find favour in different contexts. For example, on its own Antica Formula and the Casa Marteletti scored highest while Byrrh and Punt e Mes were preferred in a Negroni. Martini was rated the best all-rounder, while Antica Formula made the best Manhattan, its sweet, vanilla, chocolate tones balancing well with the woody edge of the rye.

Carpano Antica Formula

Martini Rosso, Byrrh, Punt e Mes & Filipetti Casa Marteletti (joint)

I personally would say that Antica Formula probably emerged the victor, with Martini, Byrrh, Punt e Mes and Casa Marteletti al  jostling for second place. I think that Antica Formula does indeed make a cracking Manhattan, but recently I have to admit that I’m not sure it’s the best choice for a Negroni—it seems it really is horses for courses. But if the only red vermouth you usually use is Martini Rosso, do check out the others in our top five.

* Of course you can drink dry vermouth on its own, but I don’t know anyone who does. When I was a student a friend and I spent an evening drinking a litre and a half of dry Martini vermouth and later regretted it.
** I met Ian again recently at the Boutique Bar Show and learned that he is now making three vermouths, but two of them are exclusively for Duke’s bar, who have cleared a number of their other vermouths to make way for him. The two samples tasted here did not make it into production, but descendants of them did, in practice with a lessened thyme presence.