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Weekly Alibi Vermouth: The Maker of Martinis

By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 6, 2000:  Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel once weighed in on the use of vermouth in martinis. According to Buñuel, "Connoisseurs suggest simply allowing sunlight to shine through the bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin."

Few arguments in the realm of cocktail culture have engendered as many barside imbroglios as the proper proportion of vermouth to gin (or vodka) in a martini. Most hip drinkers these days are apt to ask for their martinis "very dry" -- meaning "as little vermouth as humanly possible." This is a crying shame and a real slap in the face to proper mixology. Vermouth is an essential ingredient to any martini. Ask for a martini with little or no vermouth and you might as well be asking for a straight shot of gin, cowboy.

Charles Schumann in his indispensable American Bar (Abbeville Press, 1995) noted that, "once the equal partner of gin, today (vermouth) has been forsaken because of popular trends or ignorance on the part of bar guests and the disrespect of many bartenders -- humbled, it is often only poured over ice and then dumped out. Let's stick together at last and give vermouth its pride and purpose back: without dry vermouth -- no dry martini! Without dry vermouth -- naked gin!"

Perhaps the reason many drinkers ask for martinis with ridiculous 8-to-1 or 10-1 gin and vermouth mixtures and dream up such preposterous inventions as the martini dropper and the martini atomizer is that vermouth is a much misunderstood concoction. So let us clear up a few misconceptions regarding the martini's mate.

Vermouth is a fortified wine infused with a mixture of herbs, sugar and water. It is one of the oldest drinks in the world, and was used for many centuries for its medicinal properties. Vermouth begins with a blend of various white wines, usually dry. This base-wine mixture is then "fortified," or brought to a higher alcohol level (between 15 and 18 percent) with the addition of pure grape brandy. The wine is then infused or "macerated" (allowed to steep like tea) in a secret combination of herbs and spices. The herbs are removed before bottling. Each proprietary brand of vermouth uses a different recipe, and each imparts a different, subtle flavor. Major manufacturers of vermouth today include Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Punt é Mes (all from Turin, Italy, the birthplace of vermouth) and Noilly Fils & Co. (the French manufacturers of Noilly Prat -- the driest of all vermouths)

Vermouth comes in two major types: dry (also known as "white" or "French") and sweet (also known as "red" or "Italian"). Here's where much of the confusion over vermouth arises. When talking about martinis, "dry" and "sweet" can each mean one of two things. "Dry" can refer to a type of vermouth or it can mean "less vermouth;" "sweet" can refer to a type of vermouth or it can mean "more vermouth." When ordering a martini at a bar, be sure the bartender knows exactly what you mean.

There is a fairly large difference between dry and sweet vermouth. Aside from the color, sweet vermouth contains 15 percent sugar and has a much rounder, sweeter taste. Dry vermouth contains at most 5 percent sugar and has a sharper, more sour taste. Try several brands before deciding which best suits your tastes.


Chrysanthemum Cocktail

  • 1 ounce dry vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce Bénédictine (a French herbal liqueur)
  • 3 dashes Pernod (an aniseed-flavored brandy wine)
  • Orange peel
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Twist orange peel over drink and drop into glass.


Cinzano Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 ounce red vermouth (Cinzano, of course)
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • 2 drops Angostura bitters
  • Orange peel
Stir well with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass. Twist orange peel over drink, drop into glass.


Coronation Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 ounces dry sherry
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes maraschino (a cherry-based liqueur)
  • 2 dashes orange bitters
  • Orange peel
Stir well over ice cubes in a mixing glass, strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist orange peel over drink and drop into glass.


Mary Ann Cocktail

  • 1/2 ounce Dubonnet
  • 1/2 ounce dry vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce orange juice
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled cocktail glass.


Perfect Martini

  • 3/4 ounce dry vermouth
  • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 3/4 ounce gin
  • orange peel
Stir well over ice cubes in a mixing glass; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist orange peel over drink and drop into glass.


Vermouth Cassis Cocktail

  • 1 1/2 ounces dry vermouth
  • 1/2 ounce créme de cassis (a black currant-based brandy)
Shake with cracked ice; strain into a chilled wine glass. Fill with soda water.


Wyoming Swing Cocktail

  • 3/4 ounce dry vermouth
  • 3/4 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1/2 teaspoon powdered sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 orange
Shake with cracked ice; strain into chilled wine glass and fill with club soda, using one lump ice.


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