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Fashions come and go, but neither gin nor vermouth ever quite left the party.

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Seduced by Vermouth

Michael Jackson's French Is Perfect

by Michael Jackson

     It seems to happen to everyone. A tune, or perhaps a lyric, sticks in the mind like a scratch in vinyl. This week, I could not escape Ute Lemper dizzying over "The Smart Set": "The nature of truth, mixed with gin and vermouth." It is a 1930s song that remains as seductive as the clink of glasses.

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     Fashions come and go, but neither gin nor vermouth ever quite left the party. Where they were and what they were doing were matters that belonged behind quietly closed doors and drawn curtains. Their love affair was in more allusive times. Suddenly, they are back on the scene.

     In the 1950s, people knowingly asked for "Gin and It." That meant London Dry Gin with a more or less equal proportion of Italian vermouth. The latter ingredient, a wine aromatised with wormwood (vermut) and other herbs, may have been the grassy-tasting, oily, long, Extra Dry from Cinzano. Or the more lemony-tasting Extra Dry made by Martini and Rossi.

     The existence of the latter product leads to much confusion. Ask in Britain for "a martini" and you may be given that company's vermouth on the rocks, probably with a slice of lemon, or even a swoosh of soda, but sadly innocent of gin. This is a very fine way to drink any vermouth, especially a good one, as a refreshing aperitif. But it is not a martini in the American sense.

     When that is what I want, I ask for a "dry martini cocktail." Unless I am in the presence of a famous bartender with his own ideas, I also specify how I would like it made: just a hint of vermouth, not necessarily from Italy, with a far greater proportion of well-chilled gin (never vodka), stirred (not shaken, no matter what Bond says), served straight up, with either a twist of lemon or a green olive, depending upon my mood. If you have other opinions on this matter, kindly keep them to yourself.

     The dry martini cocktail may take its name from the vermouth but probably doesn't. A famous bartender called Martini? A town called Martinez? There are as many theories as there are revisionist recipes.

     All vermouth has its origins in the days when winemakers masked defects with herbs, berries, fruits and tree barks. The most delicate herbs came from the Alps. On the Italian side, Turin is the centre of production. France's best-known vermouth, created by the families Noilly and Prat, began in Lyons, moved to Marseilles and is now in the city's distant offshoot, Marseillan.

     Most of my bartender friends defer to their customers and use the milder-tasting Italian vermouths in dry martinis, but several privately confess that their personal preference is the more assertively fragrant Noilly Prat. Some merely rinse the glass with vermouth; others stir the ice in it. Some add none but begin the ritual of martini-making by allowing the sun to refract through a bottle. The bibulous Dean Martin was reported simply to bow three times in the direction of France.

     Note that, despite Martin's Italian origins, it was France toward which he performed this obeisance. I agree with his orientation but not his uncharacteristic restraint in the matter of vermouth. For him, the magic of the gesture was enough, but the fact is that he was drinking chilled gin when he could have been enjoying the world's greatest cocktail.

     After decades of swing toward less flavoursome and drier martinis, there is now a counterrevolution. People are asking for a "wet martini," which requires more vermouth. It is only a matter of time before we rediscover the "Gin and It" -- or, I hope, the "Gin and French."

     Back when "French" was enough to signal the vermouth of that country, a wonderfully elliptical slogan graced British glossies: "Say Noilly Prat and your French is perfect." The entendre was double but not ribald. I always asked for "Nwayee" but -- how I can phrase this with delicacy? -- swallowed the "t" in Prat. The 50,000 tourists each year who visit Noilly hear the whole word, I can testify.

     Marseillan is on a coastal lagoon among reedy marshlands in the Languedoc. Its famous drink is assembled from two gentle varieties of white grape grown in the immediately surrounding villages. Eighty percent of the blend is the Picpoul, cultivated in flat land; the rest is Clairette Blanche, grown where the terrain becomes hillier.

     In 19th-century buildings surrounding a cobbled courtyard and an ancient eucalyptus, the wines are blended with 20 ingredients that range from chamomile, coriander and cloves to veronica. Sacksful perfume the air as the composition is constructed in a progression of galleries and cellars, each with a different style of barrels, or tuns. Small dosages of sweet wines and distillates of raspberry and lemon are also added to flavour and fortify.

     At one stage, the wines are allowed to permeate the wood of former Armagnac casks. Part of the process is a year's outdoor maturation during which the casks are stacked on gravel in a walled and hedged garden, where the briny sea air is clearly an influence. So is the rain, occasional snow, wind -- and even sun, during which the casks are sprayed with cooling water.

     My appetite aroused, I hardly needed the glass of chilled Noilly that was served straight like sherry with a dozen of the local oysters. The sauce for the local sea bass was aromatised with Noilly. There was an amber version in the crème bržlée, a medicinal red variation as a digestif.

     Even without the gin, one can be seduced by vermouth.


     This article appeared in a slightly different form in The Independent, London.

Michael Jackson is a world-renowned beer authority and author and a longtime contributor to the Celebrator Beer News.

Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!

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