Like many people, I have Antica Formula to thank for the revelation that red vermouth could mean more than just Martini Rosso. Since then, the Second Golden Age of Cocktails has brought us many new vermouth brands, but for a while now my go-to has been Belsazar (both their red and their dry white).
Recently Mrs H. and I were having lunch at the National Gallery’s new Ochre restaurant. We had a couple of exquisite cocktails before eating and I (unsurprisingly) got talking to the gentleman who would probably nowadays be called the Beverage Director. I was asking about the ingredients in my drink and he was keen to show me the red vermouth he had used, and even gave me a taste of it. It was made by Cocchi and I was intrigued. (I later discovered that Cocchi actually make two, their Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino plus their fancy Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro with a dose of quinated Barolo in it,* but I think it was the former he showed me.) So I decided to get myself some to try at home.
A week or two earlier I had been drifting through Waitrose in Romsey and spotted a red vermouth from the sherry house Lustau, made from a blend of dry Amontillado and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherries, and was intrigued enough to scoop up a bottle of that. I’d been happily using that to make Manhattans, but now I decided it was time to put these three vermouths up alongside each other to see how they varied and whether I still felt that Belsazar should be my house pour.
I’d mentioned Belsazar to the Beverage Director and he agreed it was nice, but said that it had too much sediment in it to be of use in a professional cocktail environment, where appearances are important to the experience. He has a point. Belsazar red is seldom less than hazy, and towards the end of the bottle you do get a visible sediment slithering at the bottom of the neck as your pour. I have sometimes wondered whether it would be a good idea just to pour each new bottle in its entirety through a coffee filter before rebottling it, but so far I have not got round to trying this out.
Sampled neat, Belsazar has a sharp, rhubarb nose, with clear notes of orange and an earthy undertone. On the palate it immediately strikes me as having a good sweet/bitter balance—assuming you like a bit of bitterness. I’m also getting some fresh mint, and cinnamon on the finish. The base wines are from the Baden region of Germany, the sweetness from grape must and the fortification from fruit brandy; I can’t find any information about the precise botanicals.
The Lustau has a similar earthy aroma, again with clear orange citrus, but somehow both sweeter and meatier on the nose. The sharpness is more delicate, like rosehip rather than rhubarb. On the tongue there is an unavoidable sherry flavour, with less botanical intensity than the Belsazar, but it still has a deft sweet/bitter/sour balance, with a gentle drying tannin on the tongue (perhaps from the wood that the sherry has been aged in) and, oddly, a hint of spicy heat. The label admits to wormwood, gentian, coriander and orange as botanicals.
The Cocchi Storico is new to me, and quite different. It is not so predominantly sharp on the nose, more sweet, with strong notes of coffee and vanilla. On the palate it does immediately seem softer and sweeter than the others, but there is a bitterness that builds. There is coffee again and strong notes of orange peel. (The label admits to cocoa, citrus and rhubarb in the mix, and the website adds cinchona, star anise, achillea, rose petals, juniper, quassia wood, mace and coriander.)
Tasting these three neat, the Belsazar is clearly the least sweet and the most rooty and earthy; it seems muscular and rustic compared to the relatively urbane Lustau and Cocchi. Not, of course, that I do tend to drink vermouth neat—though if I were to, I think the Lustau would be my choice out of these, and in fact this is a recommend serve. The Cocchi is probably too sweet for me to want to drink much on its own.
For most of us, cocktails are the way we consume vermouths. So my next step is to make a Manhattan. In fact it’s a simplified Manhattan, in a ratio of two parts rye whiskey to one part vermouth (I normally might use more whiskey than this, say 2½ parts, plus bitters, of course, and usually a dash of maraschino).
The Belsazar is immediately noticeable on the nose in this cocktail. On the tongue the bitterness is clear and the mint element meshes happily with the mintiness of the spirit.** This is a punchy Manhattan, a solid pre-dinner cocktail to whet the appetite, with lots of rough, bitter herbs to partner the sawmill wood of the spirit.
The Lustau, on the other hand, is a subtle presence. At 2:1 you’re just getting sweetness and some sherry ghost notes. If you increase the proportion of vermouth you can bring up the sweetness and the languorous sherry character, like shafts of afternoon sunlight on a leather armchair, making for a pleasant, Old World sort of Manhattan. It makes me realise how well whiskey and sherry can go together. But even at these enhanced proportions the spice and herbs keep a low profile.
With the Cocchi vermouth the coffee/chocolate strand is dominant. Even though the bitterness is certainly clear too, this vermouth makes a sweet, smooth, after-dinner sort of Manhattan, with a candied fruit finish.
I think it’s safe to say that, after the Manhattan, the other classic red vermouth cocktail is the Negroni—equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari—so I try this with my three vermouths. The Belsazar elbows its way in first, vigorous fruit and sharp rhubarb on the nose, and pepper and ginger on the palate. This is a Negroni to blow away the cobwebs and sharpen your palate for dinner. Or more cocktails.
The Lustau Negroni is dominated by the Campari on the nose, but there is still a sweetness and a silky strand of honeyed wood on the tastebuds. It is quiet and subtle, with just a genteel sherry rasp. A refined example of the cocktail.
The Cocchi Negroni has that signature mocha note, and is strikingly sweet compared to the other two. Maybe a bit too sweet and chocolatey for this cocktail—these qualities come to dominate and rob the drink of its aperitivo sparkle.
So what have I concluded? I’ll probably stick with Belsazar for these cocktails, though I might experiment with the Lustau more, even just on the rocks. It comes in a bottle that is only 50cl, rather than the normal 70cl, but at the moment this is just £10 in Waitrose, which is pretty good value compared to the others.
As for the Cocchi, even though I found it intriguing and beguiling when I first tasted it at Ochre, I have to admit that I struggled to find a purpose for it, seeming as it does less satisfactory in these two classic cocktails. Feeling that the coffee/chocolate note worked better with rye than with gin, I wondered if the addition of Campari to counter the sweetness might make everything come together in a Boulevardier (whiskey, red vermouth and Campari). I tried this—but up alongside a Boulevardier made with Belsazar too, to compare. If you fiddle around with the proportions with Cocchi (i.e. get the whiskey and Campari levels up enough to counter the sweetness) you actually get a balanced, nutty version of the cocktail. But is it better than the bitter, fruity sucker-punch version with Belsazar? Hmm…
* I encountered this first at a trade show, during a demonstration of things to drink with chocolate, and I can confirm that Barolo Chinato is a fascinatingly good candidate for this notoriously difficult match.
** Am I the only person who thinks that American whiskey often has a minty flavour to it?