It seems that cocktail hour may be making a reappearance in our lives. And instead of the usual gin and tonic, we are getting more exotic in our tastes. While a couple of full strength vodka martinis before dinner might be too much for you (it is for me), there is fun to be had in seeking out specialist aperitifs that get the digestive juices flowing, without knocking your block off.
Vermouth is possibly the most famous style of specialist aperitif. The process to make it sounds straightforward enough: various botanicals are steeped in grape spirit for a period of time and then mixed with wine and caramel to give the required level of sweetness to balance the dryness of the wine and the bitterness of the herbs. In order to qualify as vermouth, one of the botanicals must be wormwood or Artemisia absinthium. And yes, the Latin name gives you a clue that this is the same herb used to make Absinthe, rocket fuel of the Parisian demi monde, the wormwood giving it its hallmark green tinge. Wormwood has also been credited with causing hallucinations in Absinthe drinkers, even madness – though I feel the very high alcohol level (often over 50% up to over 70%) might also have had something to do with any ill effects.
The German for wormwood, Wermut, gives us vermouth in English. Vermouths tend to be around 14-20% alcohol, roughly the same as sherry and port.
The birthplace of vermouth is Italy and its second home is France. The big names, Cinzano and Martini, are both based in Turin, northern Italy. Noilly Prat, the classic French vermouth hails from Marseillan, not far from Béziers in southern France. Noilly Prat Original Dry, with its full flavoured style and hint of herbal bitterness would be my choice for a classic vodka martini, though in truth I don’t think I’ve ever asked for it by name – how on earth do you say it? Anglicising it to “Noily Prat” sounds daft, but the apparently correct way to say it in French, “Nwa-ee Pra” sounds equally silly. I once tried to get a French colleague to help me out, but he insisted that “C’est pas français ça” and seemed to think I was trying to trick him into saying something rude and that he was not about to fall into my trap.
THE big aperitif story of the last couple of years has been Aperol, or specifically Aperol spritz. Aperol shares some characteristics with vermouth, but the dominant flavouring is quinine, derived from the bark of the quinquina tree, rather than wormwood, making it a quinquina. Aperol originated in Padua in Italy and became popular between the wars. It’s a slightly disconcertingly bright orange colour and has a bitter-sweet flavour profile – think of a less brightly coloured and less intensely flavoured Campari. The in vogue way to drink it is as a spritz: 3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol and 1 part soda water, over ice with a slice of orange. As Aperol is only around 11% alcohol to start with, this ends up being a lightish option as an aperitif and has the virtue of being fizzy, which is what we Brits seem to require in our drinks currently.
There are no hard and fast rules about the different categories of aperitif and you might also come across Americano, which is usually grouped with the quinquinas as this ingredient is generally part of the recipe. Another issue which muddies the waters is that these drinks usually involve proprietary blends of herbs and spices and the exact recipes will be jealously guarded.
Other quinquinas you might encounter:
Dubonnet was originally developed as a way of making quinine palatable to French foreign legionnaires fighting in malaria-infested parts of Africa. Its glory days are probably behind it (or maybe it’s due a revival) but it is thought to be a favourite tipple of the Queen, with equal parts Dubonnet and gin I understand. Respect, your Majesty.
Byrrh is a stalwart of dusty roadside bars anywhere in deepest France and is something that I’ve never actually tasted - another example of not knowing how to say it. Well I do know how to say it, which is “beer” – but an English person asking for that in a French bar is much more likely to end up with a glass of Kronenbourg than a small glass of a quintessentially French aperitif. I must be braver!
The French have a fondness for a range of herbal-based drinks, including Suze, which is flavoured with gentian, making for a really bitter drink, and St Raphael, which is red, fruity sweet and only slightly bitter. It’s hard to know if these should be classed as vermouths or quinquinas. You might also come across Dolin from Chambéry on the edge of the French alps, which is possibly a “true” vermouth.
Such discoveries illustrate how hard it can be to classify aperitifs, but also one of the pleasures of exploring them: they often reflect local tastes and there are some hugely popular drinks in certain regions which are unknown elsewhere.
My latest vermouth discovery hails not from France or Italy, but Archway, north London. Sacred Spiced is an authentic vermouth based on predominantly English produce. The base wine is provided by Three Choirs in Gloucestershire, it contains thyme grown in Somerset and the organically grown wormwood originates in the New Forest. Other ingredients, including cubeb (a type of peppercorn berry) and cloves obviously have to be imported. It’s a rich chestnut brown colour with a good balance of bitterness and sweetness with flavours of orange zest and spicy complexity. It would make a cracking Negroni – 2 parts gin to 1 each of vermouth and Campari. Available from Caves de Pyrene for £48.