Thursday, 14 October 2010

The trouble with vermouth

Sipsmith co-founder Sam Galsworthy shows off
Prudence, their magnificent still

On Monday night I attended a "Martini Masterclass" with Jared Brown at the Sipsmith distillery in west London. It's a glorious place, basically a garage in a well-heeled suburban street which happens to have a gleaming copper still at one end—the first new one in London for 200 years. It took them some two years to get their distiller's licence, which they have framed. I asked why it was so difficult to get licenced—were there tough requirements, does the government investigate every aspect of your history and character? No, apparently it's just because it had been so long since they issued a new licence that nobody in power knew how to do it. (The Sipsmith chaps sought help in Scotland, where they are much more on the ball about such things.)

Anyway, unlike many Martini aficionados who devote time and ingenuity to crafting techniques and even specialised equipment for delivering the most homoeopathically small doses of vermouth into their gin, Jared prefers the more classic proportions of 2:1 or even 1:1. (We began with an early recipe that was a 1:1 mix of gin and sweet red vermouth, in this case Carpano Antica Formula, allegedly a recreation of the original vermouth from 1786; the result was delicious, pleasantly vanilla inflected, and not as sweet as I feared—I think the same thing made with Martini Rosso would make my teeth curl.)

Jared Brown, our guide in the masterclass
But all of this raises a question that has vexed me for years—how do you stop your vermouth from going off?

Vermouth is a wine and, at about 14% or 15% ABV, not really any stronger than conventional wine and certainly not strong enough to preserve itself. With any other wine if you opened it, poured out a small measure then put the bottle back on a shelf for weeks or months, you would expect it to be oxidised beyond palatability next time you opened it. Yet people tend to assume that vermouth, because it is a cocktail ingredient, will last indefinitely. Jared tells all kinds of horror stories of being served Martinis in bars where the ancient vermouth has ruined the drink—his strategy, apparently, is gamely to drink the drink, then to ask the barman if he can open a fresh bottle for vermouth for the next one. If the barman is offended, Jared challenges him to compare the two.

At home the problem is more pronounced, as you probably aren't processing the volume of Martinis that a busy cocktail bar does. To my tastebuds every drink after the first one with a new bottle has that sour whiff of oxidation; if you're lucky it seems to dissipate a little after the drink is initially mixed (or maybe that's just the booze kicking in and numbing my senses), but it still spoils the first savouring of one's cocktail. I made a Manhattan the other day from a bottle of red vermouth that had been opened once and immediately resealed and stored in the fridge, and even then the oxidation was clearly there. All the connoisseurship surrounding precisely which spirits to use, in what proportions and whether to shake or stir seem irrelevant to me if there is that rank overtone of oxidation squatting in my glass.

One technique I tried was storing vermouth in small doses
I did some experimentation into this a year or two ago. One technique was to open a new bottle and immediately decant it into test tubes (each representing about the right amount for one drink) which I sealed, initially with corks, until I discovered that the cheap test tubes I had bought had a tendency to crack, so I used cling film instead. It didn't really work: perhaps I needed to fill the tube to the very brim, or perhaps I should have chilled them as well (thought there isn't really space in my fridge for a test tube rack).

I also tried pouring the newly opened vermouth into ice cube trays and freezing it. Because of the alcohol content it forms quite soft ice but interestingly you can use one of these both to add the vermouth element and to chill the drink without dilution (although Jared feels that some dilution is actually important to releasing the flavours of the ingredients). Again, it didn't work as well as I'd hoped, as the frozen vermouth still seems to oxidise eventually—and in an open tray it also tends to take on the flavours of other things in the freezer, such as coffee beans… I may try zipping the ice cube tray up in one of those self-sealing plastic freezer bags.

Frozen cubes of dry vermouth. Yes, I know they look like raw scallops.
One technique I have heard about, but not yet tried, is to use a layer of inert gas to shield your vermouth from the air. I have been advised that Halford sells canisters of argon and argon/nitrogen mix for welding purposes, but I suspect this is a bit hardcore and God knows what equipment you need to release it. There is in fact a product called Private Preserve aimed at wine preservation, which is an aerosol that sprays an argon/nitrogen/CO2 mix into your opened bottle. I have heard good things about it, so I may well investigate.

Private Preserve in operation
Mr Bridgman-Smith is less exercised about all this. He simply shrugs and says, "Use miniatures." Have you ever tried to find miniatures of Noilly Prat? They do exist, but I am not aware of a reliable source. Martini Extra Dry miniatures can be found, if that is the vermouth you wish to use, but it all adds up to a lot more money for the volume than you pay for a 750cl bottle. I'd be sorely tempted to get myself a bottle of Carpano Antica Formula (see above) if it weren't for the fact that it comes in one-litre bottles at £26 a pop—it would take me a fair while to get through a litre, and after the first few uses it will have started rotting already.

No, I'm convinced there must be a way to preserve the stuff.

If anyone wants me I'll be in the Martini Lab.


  1. "For the free tapa they served us some wonderful olives that came with a dropper filled with vermouth…you baste the olives in the vermouth before eating them…a really unique and delicious combination…loved it!"

    Another way to use Vermouth perhaps?

  2. I am equally vexed by this and I've yet to find a solution. Please let me know if you do.


  3. The solution is that the producers should sell a three-bottle pack. 250ml each. Surely some wanker in marketing can find a way to make this happen.

  4. Antica Formula is now sold in half bottles. Combining that with a vacuvin pump to remove the air and refrigeration should achieve decent results.

  5. The trick I've found for keeping vermouth fresh in a restaurant is a combination of the following techniques:

    1.) Put cocktails on a printed menu.
    2.) Put cocktails on that menu that cater to a diverse range of palates.
    3.) Put cocktails on that menu that contain vermouth--even if they're standards (Kangaroo, Martini, Manhattan, Martinez, Blood & Sand...). The trick is to pull up cocktails that use classic formulas and whose popularity may have waned in many modern bars.
    4.) Price your drinks so that it appears the customers has the upper hand in choosing their base spirit from your full liquor library (perhaps with one or two noted up-charge items. Obviously, you can't do this with scotch, or you'd put yourself out of business. But with vodka you can price your drink at the 4th of 5-tiers and make money. (And you'll be surprised how many people still want their Grey Goose because they think it's some statement of status. Let them think they're getting a deal.)
    5.) Presentation is everything. When you're mixing a drink for someone who is sitting right in front of you, do it up on how you present your techniques. Make it look classy. Make sure your drink presentation is beautiful, but not gaudy.
    6.) Slyly include a bittering agent into drinks that use sweet vermouth. I use a qinqina that balances my Manhattans like nobody's business. When I do this, I effectly triple my Manhattan sales, even though I'm technically using less actual vermouth.

    Hope this helps!

    1. "...even though I'm technically using less actually vermouth [per cocktail]" I'm using more overall, thereby keeping my supply fresh.

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