Posts Tagged ‘Cocktails’

Cafe Volpini, Paris, 1889

If you find yourself among the gentlemen in their frock coats and wide cravats in a Parisian café in the 1880s during the hours just before dinner, and are wondering what to order, the word you’re looking for is vermouth. Between the hours of 5 and 7 all the best people crowded these fashionable watering holes for a pre-dinner tonic to whet the appetite. The most popular was vermouth, served plain over ice, or mixed with something sweet like curaçao, cassis or gomme, a simple syrup made with water, a very high percentage of sugar, and gum arabic to prevent the sugar from crystalizing.

How did vermouth fall from being the being the apertif of the beautiful people to a thing they now brag about avoiding? The first mention in print of the Vermouth Cocktail is in 1869 where it is defined as chilled vermouth with a dash each of bitters and maraschino liqueur, and a twist of lemon. Apart from Prohibition, during which it was difficult to get, vermouth was used in many cocktails until the mid-20th Century when the fad of the “dry martini” began. This was accompanied by much silliness about how much (or really how little) vermouth to add, including games like waving the bottle over your glass, or having a friend leave the room during the mixing and then return to whisper the word “vermouth” just before taking the first sip.

Martinis are not meant to be that dry. In this stupendous article on the subject, Jason Wilson speaks with cocktail expert Robert Hess who points out that “those mid-20th Century luminaries who championed a nearly vermouth-free martini, such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill and Humphrey Bogart, were borderline, if not full-blown alcoholics.” If you want a glass of gin, order one, but if you want a martini, Wilson encourages the restoration of a pre-war version which contains at least 4 parts vermouth to one part gin, or a pre-Prohibition recipe that is 50-50 gin and vermouth.

Yuck, you say? Ah well, perhaps that is because it is likely the only vermouth you have tasted has been of low quality to begin with and then has oxidized because it’s been open too long and stored improperly.

Vermouth is white wine that has been infused with a mixture of botanicals and fortified by the addition of a neutral alcohol like un-aged brandy or grain alcohol. The fact that it is fortified leads many people to believe that it is shelf-stable, that is simply not true. For a better vermouth experience, buy a high quality product such as one of the offerings from Boissiere, Noilly Prat, or Vya, and always buy from a source with high turnover. Vermouth should be used within 6-8 months of bottling or it begins to go off. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and away from light. Even when stored properly, it oxidizes like any other wine, so it is advisable to finish the bottle within a month after opening. Unfortunately, this means you should almost never order vermouth (or a cocktail containing it) in a random bar where the bottle is just sitting out and has been open for who knows how long. Find a cocktail establishment where they care about these things, or make it yourself at home.

Its refreshing character makes vermouth a perfect after work tipple accompanied by a handful of salty nuts. Let’s join the beautiful people of 1890s Paris and bring back this delectable treat.

Vermouth Cocktail

Makes 1 cocktail

1½ ounces dry vermouth
½ ounce maraschino liqueur
½ freshly squeezed lemon juice
a dash orange bitters
1 twist of lemon for garnish

Add all ingredients except the twist of lemon to a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon and serve in a 3½ ounce glass.


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On a recent Sunday evening our house fell under the shadow of a looming work week. A cocktail was needed to lift our spirits. Besides, we had recently purchased some new (to us) cocktail glasses at the Salvation Army (a great source for cheap, nice glasses, by the way) and needed to christen them.

We had rye in the house but no sweet vermouth, so Manhattans were out. We did have dry vermouth however, and in lieu of a Maraschino cherry there was Maraschino liqueur. Since were were improvising, we reached for the Fee Bros. Orange Bitters instead of Angostura, stirred it all up and gave it a try.

Due to liberal use of the bitters it was very orange-y and that, combined with the toasty rye was just the thing for a freezing winter night. As we sat sipping away the blues we wondered what to call it. It wasn’t a Manhattan but it was an almost Manhattan, so of course it should be called a Marble Hill.

For those of you who don’t live in New York City, and those of you who do, but aren’t as obsessed with weird tidbits of history as I am, here’s the story of Marble Hill. It’s a neighborhood that used to be geographically located at the very northern tip of the island of Manhattan. As you may know, the river (well really at that point it’s a tidal estuary) to the west of Manhattan is the Hudson, and the tidal strait (no, it’s not really a river) to the east of the island is called the East River. Connecting the Hudson and East Rivers and going around the top of the island is another tidal strait called the Harlem River. In the late 19th Century it was decided that a ship canal needed to be created to allow larger ships to be able to navigate easily from the Harlem River to the Hudson River. The canal, known as the Harlem River Ship Canal, was dug through one of the narrowest parts of Manhattan, just south of the neighborhood of Marble Hill. After it’s completion in 1895 Marble Hill was an island surrounded on three sides by the original path of the river and to the south by the new ship canal. In 1914 the part of the Harlem River that flowed north of Marble Hill was filled in, connecting the neighborhood to the mainland and making it geographically part of the borough of the Bronx.

Over the years there have been many arguments as to whether Marble Hill should be considered part of Manhattan or the Bronx. A particularly weird episode occurred in 1939 when the Bronx Borough President at the time, James J. Lyons, planted a Bronx County flag in Marble Hill and demanded that the residents declare their allegiance to the Bronx. He even went so far as to call Marble Hill “the Bronx Sudetenland,” a reference to Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia! The residents of Marble Hill smartly gave him a raspberry (I won’t call it a Bronx cheer) and sent a petition to New York’s Governor to remain a part of Manhattan.

It took a while but in 1984 the New York State Legislature passed a law declaring Marble Hill a part of Manhattan. Unfortunately, residents must put up with a ZIP code beginning in 104 instead of the coveted Manhattan 100 and in 1992 their area code was changed to from 212 to 718 along with the Bronx. However, to avoid confusion they are listed in both the Manhattan and Bronx phone directories.

Next time you want to win a bar bet, ask your opponent to name the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan.

Marble Hill

It turns out there is already a cocktail named for Marble Hill which contains gin, Dubonnet and orange juice. But I say if there can be multiple Corpse Revivers then there can be multiple Marble Hills too, so here’s ours.

Makes one 4 ounce cocktail

2 1/2 ounces rye
3/4 ounce dry vermouth
3/4 ounce Maraschino liqueur
3 healthy dashes of orange bitters
a twist of orange

Combine liquid ingredients with ice and stir to chill. Strain into proper 4.5 ounce cocktail glasses and garnish with a twist of orange.

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