|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
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 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.
|Private Preserve in operation
No, I'm convinced there must be a way to preserve the stuff.
If anyone wants me I'll be in the Martini Lab.