Sunday 13 March 2011

Vermouth Death Match!

The "dry" you are looking for is…
Mrs Bridgman-Smith gathers her mental strength as she prepares to tackle 16 vermouths
When assessing all the new gins that tumble on to the market these days, I suspect that for many people the classic Dry Martini is the first or second most popular way to drink them, along with the G&T. But as we furrow our brows over the subtle differences between one gin and another, I always think: what about the other ingredient that makes up the drink? Are all vermouths created equal?

Regulars will know of my ceaseless quest to find a way to stop vermouth from oxidising as soon as you open a bottle, but there is also the matter of how one vermouth compares with another. Could it be that your choice of Martini or Noilly or Dolin has more effect on the cocktail than the brand of gin or the choice of shaking or stirring?

With this in mind DBS and I decided on a comparative tasting of all the vermouths we could lay our hands on. Once again the venue was Graphic, and we gathered together a band of tasters—featuring Robert Beckwith and David Hollander from the New Sheridan Club, plus Sarah and Adam from the bar—so we could produce a vaguely scientific rating. We were faced with 16 vermouths, allegedly all dry whites, although the Gancia turned out to be a sweet bianco style, and Lillet blanc is certainly not dry either. We tasted them in tranches of four, seeking a favourite out of each tranch, but in fact it fairly easily became apparent what our overall favourites were. We then took the ones that had scored well and tried them in Martini cocktails made with our benchmark gin, SW4.

DBS with the understated Martini Gold bottle
For a full list of what we tried, see my tasting notes below, but there are a couple of oddities worthy of mention. In addition to Lillet blanc, a key ingredient in a Corpse Reviver No.2 and often cropping up these days in attempts to recreate the Vesper Martini (even though the Kina Lillet that Bond specifies would have been more bitter), we also had Jean de Lillet, a special reserve version that has been barrel aged for some years. It has great depth and nuance and, for my money, was the best one when tried on its own. But I think that that is the best thing to do with it: squaring up to gin its subtleties are lost and it can’t really make its presence felt.

We also had the extraordinary “gold-plated” bottle of Martini Gold, apparently concocted in partnership with Dolce & Gabbana. It’s quite interesting, with strong bergamot notes plus saffron, and it also contains myrrh, ginger and cubeb, but it somehow tastes as you would expect—a bit bling, a bit overblown, a bit Essex. Like drinking overhyped perfume. I was intrigued by its showing in the Martini cocktail test, creating a perfumed but very dry drink, but I have to admit I preferred others over it. And it costs over £20 a bottle.

And most interesting of all we had a couple of homemade vermouths. At a previous presentation of Plymouth gin at Graphic we’d been given a promotional booklet that happened to contain a recipe, made by simmering a range of spices in a little white wine then adding this to more white wine plus gin: I’d knocked up a batch (using SW4 gin) just before coming out to the tasting, and its flavours were incredibly strong and vivid. We had another sample of the same recipe, which David had prepared some months earlier—the flavour was consistent but had clearly dimmed over time. This particular recipe is quite heavy on cloves and I think if I made it again I might go easy on those, to try and get a more balanced flavour.

So, which came out on top?

Noilly Prat and Homemade (joint winners)



A special prize also goes to Jean de Lillet as the best drunk neat.

By and large we found that the character a vermouth exhibited neat was the same as the impression it gave in a Martini, although I admit I was surprised by the homemade one. There were some who considered this concoction their favourite of the whole tasting. I wouldn’t say that myself, but I was struck by how well it went with gin; that unexpected clove note actually marries quite well with SW4’s powerful spice elements, to give a sort of Christmas Martini.

Aside from that, the end results are perhaps not that surprising: many regard Noilly as the vermouth of choice and Dolin is used a lot in bars. You’ll notice, of course, that Martini Extra Dry itself does not feature among the winners. Personally I was slightly surprised how well did work in the cocktail, given that, tasted neat, it was easily overshadowed by more sophisticated examples. But I still prefer Noilly Prat overall.

Three of the best: the murky liquid in the SW4 bottle is the homemade
vermouth. Did I not mention it is cloudy and brown? I suspect that just
straining it through muslin or double layer of tea towel would sort that out
Tasting notes
Tranche A
1. Cinzano Extra Dry A vanilla sweet nose. Palate is sweetish and reminiscent of buttery biscuits. But I can’t imagine choosing to drink it on its own.
2. Bellino Extra Dry Has a strangely “farty” aroma, though this mercifully quickly dissipates, leaving a dry nose. Fruity and a bit watery on the palate, reminding you more that it is made from wine.
3. Noilly Prat A muscaty honey nose, a bit like a Sauternes, with elements of vanilla and citrus and a dusty aromatic quality too. This is the first one that actually smells appetising. The honey carries on to the palate and it is slightly buttery but dry with a little bitterness in the aftertaste. I got a hint of avocado.
4. Dolin A balanced nose, with piney retsina notes sitting evenly with vanilla and citrus. Some detected brandy and salt too. The palate is sweeter than you expect from the nose, plenty of honey and fruit. And yet for me it’s less complex than the Noilly.
Best of Tranche A: Noilly Prat, very closely followed by Dolin
Tranche B
5. Top Shelf (wine) This is an essence that DBS acquired. Oddly, the instructions tell you to add it to either wine or vodka—as if it doesn’t matter which. This sample is made with wine. It smells like a French urinal. Don’t ask me what I mean by that, but that’s what comes into my head. Beyond that it is dusty and piney—as someone suggested, perhaps that is the pine-scented cube in the urinal. It is strongly flavoured, of vanilla, pine and lemon, but it is not really very nice.
6. Top Shelf (vodka) Smells warmer and more perfumed, with still a strong pine element. It is sweeter on the palate; I’m assuming water has been added to bring the ABV down, and this does taste a bit watery, but also has interesting elements of rosemary, thyme and apple peel.
7. Gancia Bianco This should have been Gancia Dry but they sent us the wrong one. It has a strong aroma of orange rind with a bit of blossom in there too. On the palate it is sweet, the sweetest of the lot, a fairly simply taste but quite nice. The finish shows elements of grapefruit, melon and mango.
8. Stock Extra Dry Smells a bit oxidised—sour, woody and sherryish. Dig a bit deeper and you find vanilla, citrus and something herbaceous, but there is also a taint of damp cardboard. This carries on to the palate, which is thin and dry and not much more than that.
Best of Tranch B: Gancia
My "vermouth matrix" of glasses for the 16 samples
Tranche C
9. Jean de Lillet Reserve 2006 This is a barrel aged version of the Bordeaux aperitif, and it has a clearly more refined flavour. I think this has a slightly pinkish colour, and the nose is like a rubber strawberry with biscuits and a distinct wood-aged note. On the tongue it is delightful, sweet with orange blossom and lime cheesecake, then grapefruit on the finish. But it’s more like a dessert wine, great to drink on its own, but probably too subtle for mixology.
10. Homemade (made that day) The nose is huge, with hits of vanilla, grapefruit, rose and pine (note that, of these, only vanilla is actually in the recipe!). The palate is dominated by cloves. Some at our table thought it was their favourite so far, but I wouldn’t say that. It makes me wonder whether I shouldn’t have found a better wine base (I used a cheapish Sicilian Cataretto-Chardonnay).
11. Lillet Blanc A pleasant but less sophisticated nose than the reserve, exhibiting wood and orange notes with a hint of pears. The palate is sweet and orangey—not surprising considering that, as far as I can tell, it is made simply by mixing wine with liqueurs made from sweet, bitter and green oranges.
12. Martini Extra Dry The nose is rubbery and wine-like, and a bit dusty, dry and sour. On the palate it is the driest yet, perfumed yet bitter, with elements of pine resin and berry fruit. 
Best of Tranch C: Jean de Lillet 2006 very closely followed by the homemade
Tranche D
13. Vya Extra Dry Dark in colour, with an incredibly resinous nose of coal tar soap and freshly creosoted fence. The palate is heavy, without being that sweet; it’s very woody, and feels like it’s coating your teeth, then has a grapefruit finish. Rather extraordinary.
14. Homemade (some months old) Very similar to no.10, but much softer, sweeter and with more buttery oak (which will be down to the base wine used).
15. Filipetti I’d not encountered this brand before. The nose seemed well balanced, fresh and energetic, but with not a lot of character. Like an amalgam of some of the others already tasted (in fairness it may have suffered from coming towards the end). The palate is surprisingly tart.
16. Martini Gold We deliberately kept this one till last. It’s quite dark in colour and has a strong element of bergamot on the nose with hints of blossom and lavender (though there is no lavender in there). Sadly, though, it is perfumed in a way that reminds me of scented handwipes. “A bit ladyboy,” is Dave Hollander’s pronouncement. The palate is a bit disappointing after the exotic nose, bitter-sweet. I may or may not be picking up the saffron, which is where the colour comes from.
Best of Tranche D: Filipetti


  1. would that be no trouble to publish the homemade vermouth recipe?
    Kind regards.


  2. Sorry, only just spotted this comment. The recipe comes from a booklet published by Plymouth Gin:

    2.5g coriander seed
    0.5g cloves
    1g caraway seeds
    1g juniper berreis
    1.2g cardamom
    2g star anise
    0.5g fennel seed
    3 bay leaves
    2.5g angelica root
    2.5g marshmallow root
    2g liquorice root
    60g sugar
    0.5g wormwood
    1/4 of a vanilla pod

    White wine (Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay)
    Plymouth Gin

    Crush all solid ingredients with a muddler. Add all ingredients to a saucepan with 200ml of the wine. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. To 70ml of this liquid add 100ml gin and 500ml wine (plus extra sugar to taste). Store in a glass bottle in the fridge. Use within 1 month.

  3. It is quite funny that you think a liquor dry. Even though it is a liquid but if you think about the throat. You realized that it doesn't sound stupid.