Belsazar has been around since last year, and we were given some samples to play with at the Candlelight Club in the spring, but I only recently got to complete the set by tasting the red version. Vermouth is wine that has been aromatised (infused with herbs, spices, barks, fruit, etc) and fortified. The list of botanicals must include wormwood to qualify for the name vermouth, and most of them tend to offer a balance of bitter, sweet, aromatic, herbal and floral flavours. As with many boozes the original idea was to make a tonic wine, a delivery system for the perceived health benefits of the botanicals in the mix.
Schladerer, blended from six German wines and fortified with the firm’s traditional fruit brandies.* They claim that most of the botanicals are home-grown and sweetening comes from locally-sourced grape must.
There are four expressions, following the usual pattern of Dry [white], [sweet] White, Rosé and Red. They come in dark brown bottles with an Art Deco-influenced, diamond-shaped label, the background colour of which varies for each version. For years we’ve been used to the very limited range of vermouths in the UK being moderately priced,** but Belsazar follows the pattern set by Antica Formula of being considerably more expensive. And where Antica was £25 for a litre (now about £32), Belsazar Red is around £28 for 70cl and the others between £26 and £29. (By comparison, Martini Rosso can frequently be found in supermarkets for £10 a litre.)
The Dry (19% alcohol by volume) opens on the nose with hints of orange, a zesty freshness and dainty floral top notes like elderflower, sweet elements of honeysuckle and sherbet, a hefty combination of simmering tartness and a candied quality that one fears could become cloying. The palate has orange and lemon notes to the fore, but is unexpectedly and uncompromisingly dry, with powdery wood flavours of cinnamon and sandalwood, a bitter finish and even savoury notes of rosemary and thyme suggesting themselves. Noilly Prat is, by comparison, paler in colour, sweeter on the nose and more honeyed on the palate. Belsazar has darker, bolder flavours and a more bitter aftertaste (the botanicals apparently include not only wormwood but gentian and cinchona as well).
|The strongly coloured Belsazar range|
Belsazar White (18% ABV) has an aroma of honey, orange and crystallised fruit. The palate is pretty sweet but with a herbal dryness to balance it out a bit. I confess that bianco vermouth is not something I personally have much call for; for me the sweetness is off-putting. Likewise, the Rosé (17.5% ABV) is not something I would seek out. It has a nose of strawberry, rhubarb, redcurrant and candyfloss, and its palate offers the same combination of sweetness, a little tartness and herbal, wormwood dryness, plus elements of strawberry and orange. But add tonic water and flavours of peach and raspberry emerge, still with that bitter root finish, and I have to say that if you use Belsazar Rosé to replace half the gin in a gin and tonic you do get a very pleasant drink, the sweetness dialled down and herbal and fruit notes allowed to rise up.
|The Bovril-like consistency of Belsazar Red|
If you like a Manhattan (about 2½ parts US whiskey to 1 part vermouth plus a dash of bitters) you will want to try Belsazar Red: with rye-heavy Bulleit bourbon the notes of cinnamon, burnt orange and chocolate latch on to your tastebuds, finishing with rhubarb and prunes. The woodiness of the vermouth marries effortlessly with the wood character of the bourbon and, even with a dash of maraschino, it comes across as a serious, quite dry cocktail. I try a Manhattan with Rittenhouse 100 (50% ABV), and it makes a turbid, uncompromising drink, the wood notes of the vermouth again mingling with the rye wood and dry aromatic contributions of the bitters; but it is vivid and complex too, with new flavours of tart fruit, chocolate and cooked vegetables constantly popping up.
|A Belsazar Manhattan: a cocktail you can get your teeth into|
So is there anything intrinsically German about the Belsazar range? Not that I can see. They don’t taste of smoked cheese, sausage or sauerkraut and I don’t think I would even have guessed they were made from German wine. But if you can afford them, they are definitely worth a look. The Dry is an intriguing Martini ingredient, beefy yet limber, but my favourite is definitely the red, making a powerful but profound statement in the classic red vermouth cocktails.
* Which shouldn’t seem so unusual, given that the word vermouth comes from Wermut, German for “wormwood”.
** As a student I remember regarding vermouth as a good session drink because of the alcohol:price ratio. Not that I would recommend getting hammered on Martini Extra Dry.