In my version of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day” – in which Bill Murray gets stuck living the same winter day over and over, waking time after time to his alarm clock blasting lines from “I Got You Babe” – the tormentors are not Sonny and Cher, nor aggressive insurance salesman Ned Ryerson nor even warm, glowing, irritating Andie MacDowell.
No, my Groundhog Day is hearing old stories about how geniuses such as Alfred Hitchcock or Winston Churchill preferred their martinis, how some pearl of wisdom that once dropped from their lips dictates that the best possible martini is the one with the least possible vermouth. That so-and-so’s martini technique was to pour a glass of gin and glance at a bottle of vermouth, or bow in the direction of France, or whisper “vermouth” above the surface of the drink.
It’s not that the stories are annoying as stories – in fact, it’s almost the opposite: They’re so appealing as anecdotes, as glimpses of the wit of the people involved, that their charm has given them unmerited credibility as advice about how to cocktail.
Generally, bias against vermouths and other fortified wines has declined in savvy cocktail quarters. For one thing, we now have access to a range of better vermouths. Early in the cocktail renaissance, bar guru Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club made her Fifty-Fifty martini, placing vermouth on equal footing with gin and inspiring many a cocktailer to reconsider the short shrift they had been giving the wine. More broadly, many bartenders have fallen in love with sherry or a particular aperitif wine, and have tried to preach away these lingering biases.
Yet more than a decade into the cocktail renaissance, you still encounter people arguing that a good martini has a mere atomic particle of vermouth in it, or referring to sherry as sweet-grandma wine.
Those clinging to these old notions are missing out, especially as fall finally saunters in. These days, the best liquor stores are laden with beautiful new vermouths, dry and complex sherries, rich ports, bittersweet quinquinas. More producers are using better base wines in these products, too.
Skip the pumpkin-spice trend for fall cocktails; fortified and aromatized wines carry a wide range of autumnal flavors, some subtle and suggestive, others big and spicy.
Fortified wines comprise a huge group of beverages, so a high-speed dash around the category might help. A fortified wine is one whose alcohol content has been beefed up via the addition of a spirit, a process that was originally done to keep wines from turning to vinegar in their casks during long ocean voyages. As people grew to like the results, the addition came to be made for its own sake, creating a new category of spirit-enhanced wines.
There’s now a massive range of fortified wines – ports, sherries, Madeiras, Marsalas and so on – and within that broader category, there’s also a diverse subcategory of “aromatized” wines, which have not only been fortified with spirit, but also flavored with herbs, spices or fruit.
This huge range results in plentiful sources for the flavors people tend to gravitate to this time of year. In tawny ports, you can often find notes of caramel, spiced citrus, nuts, raisins, figs. Dry amontillado and oloroso sherries can bring a nutty richness, and a teaspoon of Pedro Ximenez sherry can serve as a more intriguing sweetener in drinks.
The Columbia Room’s bar manager, Suzanne Critchlow – whose Salted Lime Rickey is among the finalists in the annual U.S. sherry cocktail competition – says some of the richer sherries are great for fall and winter drinks.
They’ve even done wine-on-wine in the past in a drink called the Harvest Cobbler, which added a mulled-wine syrup to oloroso sherry.
When you’re working with these ingredients, one of the most critical things is to taste your wine, says bartender Andrea Tateosian of Urbana. Not all wines are created equal, and you won’t be able to make a good cocktail from a bad wine. Urbana’s current cocktail menu is all wine-based, which Tateosian says was a way “to incorporate something lighter proof but with some of those familiar warming fall flavors as well.” She also loves a port-bourbon flip during the winter, “just two ingredients plus an egg, so simple, warm and rich.”
Some fortified wines are so delicious on their own that you don’t want to hide them.
Take the intriguing Vermut Lustau (a luscious blend of sherries that’s been aromatized with classic vermouth herbs and spices) and Cocchi’s Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro, which amps up a classic Torino vermouth with a bitter botanical boost.
Both of these aromatized wines can make delicious Manhattan variations, but they’re so good solo that I had a hard time “sacrificing” them to cocktails.
With drinks that have a larger proportion of a lower-proof ingredient, you’ll want to be careful about your mixing process so you don’t water them down too much. Chill the wines in advance if you can, and then give them at most a quick stir with ice.
“When a drink is lower-proof, it doesn’t necessarily have to be as cold a cocktail as a martini, where the cold helps you get through that strong alcohol flavor,” Tateosian says.
That’s how I like to treat a classic cocktail called the Adonis, which is a great place to start rehabilitating your impression of fortified wines. With Cocchi Vermouth di Torino or Carpano Antica for the vermouth, and a dry Lustau Amontillado for the sherry, it’s a simple, beautiful drink that, in one sip, corrects outdated notions about both wines.
It’s what I plan to drink, calmly and happily, the next time someone starts martini-splaining about Winston Churchill’s vermouth preferences.
You can’t get much simpler than this classic wine cocktail that dates to the late 1800s – though depending on your palate, you may wish to tinker with the ratios, especially when you use a spice bomb vermouth like Carpano Antica (in which case you may want to dial back the amount of vermouth).Tio Pepe from Gonzales Byass and Lustau’s finos are good options for the dry sherry, but you could also turn up the autumnal nuttiness with an oloroso sherry.If you can, chill the sherry and vermouth in advance to cut down on mixing time and avoid over- dilution.Ingredients:Ice2 dashes orange bitters1½ ounces sweet vermouth (see headnote)1½ ounces dry sherry, preferably chilled (see headnote)Twist of orange peel, for garnishMethod:Chill a cocktail coupe.
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the bitters, vermouth and sherry and stir briefly to chill.
Strain into the chilled coupe. Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink to express the oils, then drop it into the glass.
Nutrition: Per serving: 120 calories, 0 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Source: Adapted from The Art of the Shim by Dinah Sanders (Sanders & Gratz, 2013).
Bitter HarborServing: 1
The lushness of tawny port finds a strong partner in a smoke-laced mezcal; Vida works well here.Gran Classico Bitter is a lovely addition to any liqueur library, but if you don’t have it, try substituting ½ ounce of Campari and add 1 teaspoon of dry curacao.This bittersweet cocktail can also be batched and served as a punch; simply multiply the ingredients for the number of servings you need and serve in a punch bowl with a block of ice and orange wheels for garnish.Ingredients:1 large ice cube, plus ice for mixing2 ounces tawny port1 ounce mezcal½ ounce Gran Classico Bitter liqueur (see headnote)Twist of orange peel, for garnishMethod:Put the ice cube in a rocks glass.
Fill a mixing glass with ice, then add the port, mezcal and liqueur; stir briefly to chill.
Strain into the glass. Twist the orange peel over the surface of the drink to express the oils, then drop it into the glass.
Nutrition: Per serving: 210 calories, 0 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Source: Columnist M. Carrie Allan.
Shoulder SeasonServing: 1
Oude-style genever has malty notes that work well in this drink, but you could substitute an Old Tom gin.Velvet Falernum is a citrus and clove liqueur that, with the spices in the Angostura, gives this vermouth-based drink an autumnal edge. Use a good dry vermouth (such as Dolin or Ransom), and if you can, chill the vermouth in advance to cut down on mixing time and avoid over-dilution.Ingredients:Ice2 dashes Angostura bitters1½ ounces dry vermouth1 ounce oude genever (may substitute Old Tom gin; see headnote)¾ ounce pear liqueur, such as Mathilde¼ ounce Velvet Falernum or homemade falernum (see headnote and related recipe at washingtonpost.com/recipes)Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnishMethod:Chill a cocktail coupe.
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the bitters, vermouth, genever, pear liqueur and falernum and stir briefly to chill.
Strain into the coupe and sprinkle a little nutmeg over the surface.
Nutrition: Per serving: 190 calories, 0 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar
Source: Columnist M. Carrie Allan.