Get your mouth round some vermouth
One of the felicitous byproducts of the ongoing gin craze is that it has given a boost to drinks that go with it, especially tonic and vermouth, which is a fortified wine flavoured with botanicals (most characteristically wormwood) in much the same way as gin.
Not that vermouth has ever entirely gone away – it’s long been the staple of every self-respecting mixologist’s back bar, the unsung hero of classic cocktails such as the martini and negroni. In fact, its origins go way back, according to drinks writer Kate Hawkings’ entertaining book Aperitif, which is a bit like a Horrible History of booze. Her pacey account traces vermouth back to the Romans (“dreadful show-offs”), who necked wormwood-infused wines to counteract the effects of their “preposterously lavish banquets”, through the “unrelenting misery of the middle ages, where herbalism as medicine was practised by monastic orders and warty-nosed crones”.
It was first sold commercially in the late 18th century, when what we would now recognise as vermouth took off in Turin. Italy still provides some of the best vermouths and amari (bitters), which, of course, include Campari (incidentally, there is a new incarnation of that called Cask Tales, which is finished in bourbon barrels; you may come across it in airport retail).
The beauty of vermouth is that it’s made in a wide range of styles that can be drunk long or short. At around 17-18%, it’s much the same strength as sherry. My preference when drinking it neat is the extra-dry style, which is similar to Chambéry, made just over the border in France. The bianco type (those of a certain age will remember Cinzano) is slightly sweeter and best diluted with soda.
Cocchi’s Americano, which contains cinchona, is now most barmen’s aperitif of choice in a vesper (which featured in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale). Sweet rosso vermouth, meanwhile, is more often incorporated in cocktails such as the manhattan and the hanky panky, though, again, it can equally well be drunk on the rocks. Then there are more oxidative styles, which are more for vermouth aficionados: Carpano’s Antica Formula, which is traditionally used to make the martinez, being a classic example.
Like sherry, vermouth should be kept in the fridge and drunk within a month. Which means a couple of weeks of negronis after you’ve opened a bottle – no great hardship at this end. In a botanical calamity, Matricaria discoidea, commonly known as pineappleweed or wild chamomile, escaped from Kew Gardens in 1871. Now, 147 years later, it has found its way into a glass with limoncello and prosecco. You will find this plant almost everywhere, but do consult a foraging guide (you could do a lot worse than Richard Mabey’s Food for Free). The flower heads have a pineapple and herbal aroma that adds a tropical note to the bittersweet lemons and fizz. Alternatively, use a couple of thyme sprigs.
Put the pineappleweed flower heads in the limoncello and leave to steep for a few hours. Strain, divide the limoncello between two flutes and top with prosecco.
Jack Bevan, drinks writer