Thursday, 20 August 2015

Belsazar: vermouth with a Teutonic twist?

After my pronouncement last year that new vermouths were as rare as hen’s teeth, they seem to be coming thick and fast. Vermouths are primordial cocktail ingredients so, with the Second Golden Age of Cocktails in full flow, I suppose it should not be surprising to see this development. It may also be tied in with the trend for bars to make their own infusions, as well as the alleged interest in lower-alcohol cocktails (vermouth can be the base of a drink—you don’t have to add it to spirits).

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.

Traditionally vermouths come from Italy or France, and older cocktail books will usually refer to “French” vermouth (dry white) or “Italian” vermouth (sweet red). The Belsazar range has the distinction of being made on the edge of the Black Forest by the old family-run distiller 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
And yet in a Dry Martini, even a relatively wet one of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth, Belsazar Dry makes a balanced and approachable cocktail, with the vermouth in no way overpowering. Indeed one recommended serve is the Reverse Martini, with more vermouth than gin (60ml Belsazar Dry to 30ml gin, plus two dashes of orange bitters), just as Regal Rogue’s house Martini has: the result here is not a classic Dry Martini, as it is more about the vermouth, but it does showcase the way the vermouth’s various herbal, fruit and savoury contours interlock with the juniper and coriander gears of the gin. Again, compared to Noilly, Belsazar makes a woodier, more wormwoody, slightly saltier Martini, while Noilly makes a cleaner, more citric cocktail.

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
Which brings us to Belsazar Red (18% ABV). This was the last one I got to try but it is definitely my favourite. The nose is of cinnamon, ginger and a dry rootiness. The palate offers balsam, cassia and sandalwood, with a juicy bitter finish like rhubarb, something floral plus berries and black cherries. The colour is unashamedly murky, pretty much opaque, in fact.

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
Belsazar Red makes a punchy Negroni (equal parts, red vermouth, gin and Campari), with the cinnamon, burnt orange and rhubarb character making itself clearly felt. Get the balance right and the vermouth does not dominate, however, with the Campari’s bitter fruit element slicing through and the gin’s juniper finding its place in the mix. It is powerfully flavoured but velvety on the tongue. You instantly feel that it might be too easy to drink too many of these.

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.

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