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The vermouth hour

De-mystifying a drinkable aperitif



Bird & Bottle’s modified Negroni pays homage to Anthony Bourdain. The thick wedge of orange is torched for garnish.

Greg Bollinger

When La Pivon Spanish vermouth arrived in Tulsa, it was accompanied by a story, as most alcoholic beverages are. Selling a story is easier than selling a bottle of booze, especially one as little understood as vermouth.

Yes, good bartenders know what vermouth is and how it works best—but for most of us, it’s a prop in a James Bond film or a dusty bottle on a relative’s home bar. Sure, the labels are often intricate and perhaps even beautiful, but unless you drink Manhattans, your experience with vermouth is likely very
limited.

According to the La Pivon story, Madrid slows down at “La Hora del Vermut,” the vermouth hour, and friends gather in cafes to drink vermouth from cordial glasses as an end of the day/before dinner aperitif. The Spanish, we should note, have done many things right in the world of lifestyle enhancers: paella, manchego, Tempranillo, and Jamon Iberico (Iberian ham), to name a few. But vermouth?

A martini drinker once told me he just looks at the vermouth on the back bar, and that is sufficient for his preferred martini, yet we have these festive Spaniards slogging it down as if it’s magical. What is the truth?

Good vermouth is very drinkable as an aperitif, either on the rocks or with soda, as a spritz. It begins as wine, and is then fortified with a neutral spirit, and finally “aromatized” with botanicals, including wormwood typically, from whence it derives its name; wormwood is vermut in German. The effect is similar to what happens when botanicals are added to a neutral spirit to make gin—it becomes more interesting, more complex.

Logan Sweetwood, the general manager at Hodges Bend, said he likes to use vermouth in cocktails before dinner because the lower alcohol means he’s less likely to get drunk before the meal.

“Vermouth also adds an interesting set of components to a drink, and it helps create a more balanced, less boozy cocktail,” Sweetwood said. “We have an Adonis—a classic cocktail—on the menu now.”

The Adonis is simply vermouth, sherry and bitters, which means low alcohol, tons of flavor, complex notes, and good balance. It makes for a good digestif, too, after a meal because it won’t leave you feeling overly full and it won’t slow digestion like a boozy cocktail.

“I think people have had bad vermouth more than they realize,” Sweetwood said. “It’s not like liquor. You can’t just leave it sitting out. It’ll keep in a refrigerator for a couple weeks, but that’s it. When people taste vermouth that’s been kept right, they are typically surprised at how much they like it.”

Like Hodges Bend, Bird & Bottle uses vermouth in a classic cocktail, but in this case, it’s a variation on a classic. Bartender Jason Thompson said he started making the modified Negroni as an homage to Anthony Bourdain last year. He uses Turmeon Spanish vermouth, London Dry Gin (Hayman’s Navy Strength is excellent), and Cappelletti Amaro (a bitter liqueur).

“I torch a thick wedge of orange—Bourdain’s preference—to garnish,” Thompson said.

Spanish vermouths started showing up in Oklahoma in late 2017, and Turmeon was first. While it first appeared in Germany, vermouth is better known as a French or Italian spirit, but the Spanish are making exceptional vermouth now, especially if you like vermouth neat on the rocks. The Turmeon is pleasantly sweet but not cloying. It’s made with twelve botanicals, so there is some complexity. Whether or not the product does what its producers claim (“Turn Me On”) we’ll leave to your own personal investigations. Still, even if it’s not an aphrodisiac, it is delicious.

The La Pivon is the newest of the Spanish vermouths, and the Rojo is filled with pleasantly bitter baking spice notes, like the barely-burned edge of a cookie or pumpkin bread. You can find the La Pivon at Amelias, or if you want a bottle for yourself, Ranch Acres and Parkhill’s.

A quick note to clarify: red vermouth started as white wine—all vermouth does—and it’s typically referred to as sweet, but it’s not Coca-Cola sweet. Dry vermouth is always white, but some white vermouth is sweet, so it’s not dry vermouth in the traditional sense.

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