Dry Vermouth Tasting – With SW4 Gin

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Anyone that has been following my series on Martini Gadgets will realise I have a passion for this mixture of gin and vermouth. As gin has become increasingly popular, a wide array of gin tastings have taken place, held in London, Manchester and Oxford, to name but a few. But what about the vermouth? When a cocktail only has two ingredients, even the lesser partner is a crucial component.

Vermouth is an automatized wine. The flavour is determined by “appropriate derived substances” (e.g. seeds, herbs, spices, roots) and there is no prescribed combination of these, with the one exception that a Vermouth must contain an Artemisia (such as wormwood). Vermouth can be sweetened, but only with caramelized sugar, sucrose or grape must.

Typically there are three main types of vermouth:
Red: A sweet style that is coloured with either caramel or herbs. Often drunk as an aperitif or in cocktails such as the Manhattan and Martinez (both potential ancestors of the Martini).
White: A sweet style based on white wine.
Dry: A dry style, also based on white wine and synonymous with the modern Martini.

Two more styles seem to be growing increasingly popular: Rose Vermouth and Orange/Ambre Vermouth.

All of the vermouths in our tasting were tried on their own and then we tried our top ten in a Dry Martini.

Dry Martini Details
SW4 Gin
5:1 Ratio
Stirred
No Garnish

#1) Martini Extra Dry (Italy) (15%)

A very familiar product to most and synonymous with its namesake cocktail.

Own: On the nose, there is a little pistachio and wet slate. This is quite dry; probably one of the driest we tried. It was quite simple and rather tart.

Martini: Pretty good, a classic drink. It’s a popular brand, readily available and makes a decent drink. This is an excellent fall-back when it’s difficult to get hold of some of the more obscure varieties.

Martini Extra Dry is available from most supermarkets and off-licences for around £8 (75cl).

#2) Noilly Prat Dry (France) (18%)

Own: A very fruity nose with a hint of nail polish. Great scents of honey and blossom, and the slightest hint of salt. One panelist likened the nose to that of a good muscat. Noilly Prat has depth of flavours and is quite complex. There is some jamminess, akin to an apricot preserve, and there is a pleasant warmth at the end. Very popular with the panelists.

Martini: A truly classic Martini and exactly what I would expect when ordering a Dry Martini. Excellent balance between gin and vermouth, with just enough herbal flavours to complement the gin without overpowering it. Cool, clean and crisp.

Available from Waitrose around £10 for 75cl.

#3) Filipetti Extra Dry Vermouth (Italy) (14.8%)

Perlino also make a Blanco and a sweet vermouth, as well as Martelletti, a Classico Vermouth.

Own: Dry; exactly what you’d expect from dry vermouth. Some floral aspects like a good muscat. Well balanced with hints of honey and cinnamon. Very pleasant.

Martini: In the proportions of 5:1, this made the wettest Martini of those that we tried. The dry and slightly fruity flavours have a strong presence in the cocktail and, if you like only a whisp of Vermouth flavour in your Martini, this is worth a look.

#4) Dolin Chamberry Dry Vermouth (France) (17.5%)

Made in Chambery, near the French-Swiss border, this has a wine content of 75-80%, which is notably higher than some of its competitors. Dolin also make a Blanco and a Rosso vermouth.

Own: A musky, tropical nose with notes of passionfruit and guava. Soft flavours, well-rounded, simple and neat. This would make an excellent aperitif and has a lovely aftertaste. A couple of panelists likened it to a dry sherry. Another popular vermouth amongst our panel.

Martini: Exceptionally clean, with a slightly warm texture. Strong, but not overpowering flavours of Juniper and Angelica, a balanced bitterness and a touch of cinnamon. The vermouth compliments SW4 well.

Available from Waitrose around £8 for 75cl.

#5) Stock (Italy) (16%)

Made by the Stock Spirit Company, whose biggest markets are in Italy and Slovenia, Stock is made with Italian Table Wine and Italian Brandy and is infused with more than 50 herbs & spices. They also make a Blanco and a Rosso vermouth, in addition to a very tasty Maraschino.

This has a superb, fresh leafy green flavour and was a favourite of one of the panel. It made a very flavourful Martini whilst still maintaining the underlying characteristics of a Dry Martini.


#6) Cinzano (Italy) (15%)

Founded in 1757 in Turin, Cinzano is owned by Gruppo Campari. Cinzano has a Classic range, comprising of a Dry, Red, White and Rosé varieties, and a Mediterranean range: Limetto and Orancio, which are vermouths with twists of orange and lemon (somewhat akin to the old Martini Limon).

Own: A fruity nose, akin to a house white wine, with some peach notes. It tastes like sweet grape juice and is not very dry, as vermouths go. The taste is much better than the smell, but the panel was left unimpressed.

Martini: Quite a basic Martini; pretty good, but lacks the depth and crispness of some of the others.

Available from Waitrose around £5 for 75cl.

#7) Vya (USA) (17%)

Made in Madera, California, Vya was made in response to an increasing number of premium gins making their way into the market; the idea being that, if you’re spending $30 on a gin, does it make sense to then mix it with a $6 vermouth? They also make a sweet variety of their premium vermouth.

Own: Vya had a nose reminiscent of fresh vegetation: cabbage or pea pods. The panel disagreed on their opinion of the taste: some enjoyed its definitive flavours, which were fresh and bright with hints of cloves and liquorice, whereas others found it exceptionally bitter and overpowering.

Martini: Cool and flavoursome with hint of cinnamon and spice, followed by a lightly bitter edge at the end. Complex and slips down the throat very easily, moving toward the intense flavours of the home-made vermouth.

Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £16 for 75cl.

#8) Top Shelf (UK)

This is based on a flavouring syrup produced by home-brew specialist Still Spirits. They suggest mixing it with either vodka or wine, so we decided to try both versions.

i) Wine-based (14.7%) – This had a nose of moth balls; slightly sherberty. Very sour, very dry, a bit like cordial. Watching the physical recoil of people as they tasted it was very interesting. As a result, this is not recommended, although it should be noted that mixing the syrup with a better quality wine would probably improve the results.

ii) Vodka-based (Sipsmith) (16%) – With a nose of moth balls and lavender perfume, this reminded one of the panel of their great aunt. The taste is much better than the wine version, being sweet with hints of creamy vanilla, although some of this obviously came from the vodka. Not so dry and closer to a Sweet Bianco than a Dry vermouth, this was nonetheless quite palatable and had an interesting a hint of Christmas spice.

Top Shelf Dry Vermouth Flavourings is available here for £2.29 for 50ml (One 50ml bottle makes up to 1.125 litres of Dry Vermouth.)

#10) Berlino (UK) (13%)

Berlino is produced and bottled by Continental Wine and Food (CWF), who are based in Huddersfield. Although it looks a lot like vermouth, it is in fact billed as “Extra Dry Aperitif”, made from the “finest quality concentrated grape juice, herbs and spices.”

Own: There were various cries of disgust at the smell of this; “wet dog” and “drains” were among two of the more polite comments. It had very little flavour and was rather watery, but did have a sharp, bitter finish. This was the least popular of the varieties we tried. At £3.20 a bottle it may look like a cheap alternative, but it would be a false economy.

Belrino is available from Tesco for around £3.20 for 70cl.

Mr Hartley waits, in anticipation, for the tasting to start.

#11) Home-made (UK)

Based on a recipe from the Plymouth Martini Book, which can be found here, this vermouth was designed specifically for Plymouth Gin, but we were intrigued as to how it would fare with SW4.

Own: Fresh, with a slightly meaty nose, one panelist likened it to hotdogs (in a most positive way). Another comment stated that it was reminiscent of a German Christmas market, with mulled wine, stollen and bratwurst. The taste was rather savoury and quite heavy on cloves, with some hints of anise and angelica too. Without a doubt, it had very intense flavours, but was also very good. If you’ve never tried making your own vermouth, I highly recommend it.

Martini: Very popular with the panel, this was jam-packed with flavour. This vermouth may not produce your typical, very clean, very crisp Martini, but it is an excellent drink nonetheless and, if you like a wetter, more flavourful Martini, then this is definitely worth trying. Cloves and Christmas spice come through, but complement the gin well.

#12) Lillet Blanc (17%)

Own: A very light and subtle nose of white grape, grass and dried flowers. Sweeter than expected, this was less complex and thinner than the Jean de Lillet, but, served cold, it is an excellent aperitif and an all-round good product.

Martini: A soft Martini that was less herbal than normal. Simple flavours, less bite and some subtle citrus. Smooth and delicate, and rounds off the gin nicely.

Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £15 for 75cl.

#13) Jean de Lillet

Own: Strong, savoury nose; fresh and very appetising. The taste is quite sweet, with overtones of honey, blossom, apple, pear and peach. It’s a little buttery and reminiscent of a quality Sauternes. This was really very, very good and there would be little danger of it oxidising before the bottle was finished. It had a finish of apricot stones, apple and almond.

Martini: A rich and flavourful Martini, this does make a truly excellent drink, but for my money I’d rather drink it neat. We also tried it in a Vesper as a substitute for Kina Lillet and the drink certainly had a more bitter edge and was pleasant golden yellow, although perhaps not quite sweet enough.

A selection of the Vermouths we tasted

#14) Gancia Bianco (14.8%)

Own: The nose of Gancia Bianco had hints of sloe gin and lemonade. Floral and herbal. The taste is very pleasant and was a very nice surprise: it was a little syrupy, like mead. It also had a finish of lemon pith, which counteracts the sweetness well.

Martini: A very flavourful Martini and not too sweet. I’d never really thought of using Bianco vermouth in many cocktails, but in a Martini it worked well; nice for a change.

Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £12 for 75cl.

#15) Martini Gold (Italy) (18%)

Own: Very floral on the nose, with hints of tea, lavender and Bergamot. The taste is quite smooth and sweet, but has an underlying bitterness akin to Campari or Suze. Quite a long finish, with the saffron coming through. Very much a departure from their traditional range, but a product with potential.

Martini: On the face of it, this is a pretty standard martini – cool and crisp – but there is definitely a more bitter finish than usual, with herbs and spice and the hint of saffron, which works well with the bitter elements. It’s like you’ve made a martini half with vermouth, half with a bitter apertif.

Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £21 for 75cl.


In Conclusion
From our tasting, it is clear that the vermouth you choose for your Martinis can have a big impact on the drink and so it’s a decision worth some consideration. It’s also clear that vermouth is something that is more versatile than I had previously thought: its merits extend beyond its use in Martinis and that, by over-looking Bianco/White vermouth, I’ve been missing out; definitely something to look into.

THE RESULTS

Best Aperitif: Dolin
Best Martini: Noilly Prat, Home-made
Best All-rounder: Fillipetti

Special Recommendation: Jean de Lillet

A special thanks to Pernod Ricard, Bacardi-Martini, Lillet, Marblehead, Speciality Brands, Vya, Perlino, Stock Spirits Interntional, Imbue and Graphic Bar for their support in this tasting.

Thanks also to SW4 Gin for providing the Gin for our Martinis.

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The Vesper

I’ve got a little gin research project going on that is due the end of February. The survey is simple and takes 90 seconds please help us out by completing the survey.

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Update: I seems that after inventing “the Vesper” Fleming was never really a fan: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2012/9/27/1348745314585/Ian-Fleming-writes-to-the-001.jpg

Ever since I first read Ian Fleming’s “Casino Royale”, I have been captivated by the detail Fleming pays to the food and drink enjoyed by his well-known character. The Vesper, a drink of James Bond’s own creation which he enjoys in the casino in Royale-les-Eaux, is a perfect example of Fleming’s attention to detail.


Bond orders his first Vesper, an extract from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale (1953):


‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’

‘Oui, monsieur.’

‘Just a moment.  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?’

‘Certainly, monsieur.’  The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

‘Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.

Bond laughed.  ‘When I’m … er … concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner.  But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made.  I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad.  This drink’s my own invention.  I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.’

He watched carefully as the deep glass became frosted with the pale golden drink, slightly aerated by the bruising of the shaker.  He reached for it and took a long slip.

-

The first Vesper I mixed used Gordon’s Green Gin, Grey Goose Vodka and Dry Noilly Prat Vermouth, which were the best ingredients I had on hand at the time. After my first glass I immediately developed an affection for the drink, but I knew it could be made better, it could be more authentic.

My first challenge was to find a bottle of Lillet to replace the Noilly Prat I had been using up to that point.  Before the 2006 film release of “Casino Royale”, Lillet was not as easy to find in the UK as it is today.  After an extensive online search and some telephone calls, I ended up taking a trip to Lillet’s UK distributor, arriving just in time to purchase their last two bottles.  At this point I discovered that Kina Lillet no longer existed and that I would have to settle for Lillet Blanc, at least for the moment.

The Vesper

Anyone who has looked into creating a more authentic Vesper will have probably come across David Wondrich’s informative article on the subject; this gave me a great start, but I wanted to go further. I identified three challenges:

1. Achieving the strength of Gordon’s Gin in the early fifties;
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2. Achieving the strength of the vodka in the early fifties; 
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3. Recreating the renamed and reformulated Kina Lillet.


With the passage of time, both Gordon’s Gin and vodka in general have become weaker, and so a Vesper made with modern ingredients just doesn’t have the same kick as the “large and very strong and very cold and very well-made” drink of the 1950’s.  After looking at a plethora of newpapers and magazines for Gordon’s Gin and vodka brand advertisments from the early fifties, I confirmed the following:

1. Gordon’s Export Gin

Gordon’s Export Gin (the variety most likely to have been used in France) was 94.4 proof (47.2% ABV); Given this information, I was delighted to find that Gordon’s still make an Export Gin at 47.2% ABV and eagerly asked the next relative travelling to the continent to pick me up a bottle.

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2. Vodka of the Early Fifites

Vodka varied between 80 and 100 proof (40-50% ABV).  I took Mr. Wordrich’s recommendation and used Stolichnaya Blue (100 proof). There is some suggestion in the book that the vodka used to make the drink in the Casino was not made with grain-based spirit  rather a potato one. I have searched for a 50% potato vodka still made today but am still to find one. (Answers on a postcard please).

 So with the first two challenges behind me, only one remained; the final problem and probably the trickiest:

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3. Recreation of Kina Lillet

Tasting reports suggest that the original Kina Lillet was more bitter than its contemporary, being more heavily flavoured by Cinchoma Bark, the main ingredient of quinine. In addittion sources at Lillet have told be that is was also more syrupy and viscous and was sweeter than the Lillet Blanc of today. I therefore established and experimented with four possible options:

1. Angostura Bitters – a method suggested by David Wondrich, add a few drops to the drink – although a convenient and tasty addition, the result was not as bitter as I would have liked, and the pink tint to the cocktail does not coincide with the pale golden colour of the drink in the novel.

2. Cocchi Americano – a substitute for the Lillet, this is a wine aperitif with a bitter kick and was recommended to me by Jay Hepburn of the Oh Gosh blog; once again, a trip to an obscure supplier was in order, but it was well worth a visit.  This is a tasty product in its own right and although it makes a good tasting Vesper, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, as the drink contained no Lillet, it wasn’t really a true Vesper.

From Left to Right: Stolichnaya Blue, Cocchi Americano, Lillet Blanc, China Martini, Gordon’s Export gin

3.  Quinine Bark – A third alternative would be to add a little quinine powder or bark, either directly to the drink, or using it to create a Lillet infusion. I have now sourced some Cinchona Bark and have experimented a little with some success. I think getting the timing right for the infusion is  a bit tricky and also working out how best to sweeten the Lillet will take a bit to work out.

4. China (“kee-na”) Martini – a gift from a relative who had recently returned from Italy, this had sat unopened in the cellar for a few years.  On inspection, I discovered that it is a product made by Martini Rossi, heavily flavoured with Cinchoma Bark – how promising!  After testing various combinations, I found that a 50/50 mix of this and Lillet Blanc worked best, adding the level of bitterness that I sought, as well as the important pale golden colour described in the book. This seemed to be the closest I have come so far.

5. Jean de Lillet – a reserve version of Lillet Blanc, I cannot seem to find any concensus (even within the Lillet Company)m as to whether this is more or less similar to Kina Lillet than Lillet Blanc.

Although my quest for the authentic Vesper is ongoing, I feel that I have reached a milestone. Here is my somewhat work-in-progress recipe for a more authentic Vesper.

One More Thought

When you’ve spent as much time as I have thinking about this drink as I have you come up with some strange theories, here’s my favourite: The Vesper was that it combined three essential aspects of the book. James Bond, The British secret agent (GIN) The Russians whom Bond is fighting (VODKA) and the backdrop for their encounter, France (LILLET). Maybe the vodka undertones reflect the turmoil of the character?

Was this intentional or a happy coincidence? Who can say? But like I said I think it’s rather neat.


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