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Vermouth: Not the Devil's Juice

The Russians may have lost the cold war, but they won the cocktail war; by the end of the 60s, vodka had replaced gin as the spirit of choice in American martinis.
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You've heard the old joke: a guy walks into a bar and orders a dry martini. So dry, in fact, that he tells the bartender to merely whisper the word "vermouth" over the glass. When the bartender obliges, the customer growls, "You whispered it too loud."

Shunned, scorned, mocked, doled into martinis in the tiniest amounts possible (with implements like eyedroppers and atomizers) for over a half-century, vermouth is one of the most misunderstood liquid refreshments. While necessary to transform a glass of gin or vodka into a martini, most drinkers seem to think that anything more than a molecule of the stuff in a six-ounce glass makes for a ruined cocktail.

Vermouth is not the devil's juice. It is, in fact, an aromatized wine, with botanicals and spices infused to give it its distinctive flavor. Sweet vermouth -- the kind found in Manhattans -- originated in Italy in the 18th century. Dry vermouth, which has a more bitter flavor and is used in martinis, originated in France not long afterward.

Gin, the de facto spirit used in martinis until the '50s, is flavored in a similar manner to vermouth, with juniper berries as well other herbs and spices. The two blend with each other to create a complex yet harmonious cocktail. Those heady post-war, gin martini years are still remembered fondly by aging cocktailians. But then along came vodka.

The Russians may have lost the cold war, but they won the cocktail war; by the end of the 60s, vodka had replaced gin as the spirit of choice in American martinis. Unlike gin, vodka is a neutral spirit which is intended to have minimal flavor, if any. Throw in more than a spritz of vermouth, and you'll overwhelm it. So it's little wonder that the desire to include as little vermouth as possible in "olive soup" developed into a sort of fanaticism over the years.

Thankfully, during the last decade or so, there's arisen a new breed of bartender. Called mixologists, they know the history of cocktails and how that knowledge can be used in creating new and better drinks. They largely shun vodka, reasoning that spirits should have, you know, flavor. Trailblazers like Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders have transformed the art of the cocktail in the 21st century, and rather than shunning vermouth, they've taken it along for the ride.

At Saunders' Pegu Club, one of the hottest locales for cocktail geeks in New York, you can order a "Fitty-Fitty," a martini prepared with equal parts gin and vermouth. To a dyed-in-the-wool macho martini-head, that may sound disgusting, but no -- it's fantastic! If I hadn't known what was in it, I would only have thought, "Wow, what a smooth cocktail!"

(By the way, given that vermouth is a form of wine, you'd expect that it should be kept the same way -- refrigerated after opening, replaced if it sits around too long. But if you go to your local beer-and-shots watering hole, often as not you'll see a dusty, rarely-touched bottle of vermouth sitting on the shelf right next to all the other spirits. No wonder unconverted bartenders only want to put the tiniest dash of the stuff in your 'tini.)

The cult of vermouth is still a small one in the grand liquor landscape, and it hasn't yet led to a big increase in sales. But it has led to greater quality control among the companies who make it, and the emergence of at least one superb new brand. Vya, based in California, makes both sweet and dry vermouth, and they've gotten deservedly ecstatic reviews. This stuff is so good it can even be drunk straight -- which, after all, is how vermouth was originally meant to be consumed.

Here's the way to make a proper, old-school martini:

* Start out by getting a fresh bottle of dry vermouth. Don't forget to refrigerate after opening!
* Use gin, not vodka (my gin of choice is Plymouth, but Beefeater makes for a surprisingly good 'tini).
* Employ a 4-to-1 ratio of gin to vermouth. A little less or a little more is fine too, but you want to be able to taste the vermouth.
* If you really want to do it right, try adding a dash or two of orange bitters to the mix as well.
* Shake or stir with plenty of ice until it's super-cold, and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass, adding an olive or twist of lemon if you so desire.
* Take a sip and realize that vermouth is a force for good, not evil, in your martini.