Sometimes, Respect Starts With a Pour Down the Drain

By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jared Brown wants you be nicer to your vermouth.

He'd like you to stop making those tired jokes when you order your so-called dry martini. He'd rather you didn't quote Alfred Hitchcock's martini recipe, calling for "five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth," or Winston Churchill's, which calls for drinking a tumbler of gin while bowing in the direction of France. And he isn't amused when you ask the bartender to simply wave a bottle of vermouth over the shaker. In his opinion, the joke's on you, because you're not really drinking a martini anyway. You're drinking a cold glass of gin.

"Vermouth gets picked on, and it doesn't deserve to be," says Brown, cocktail scholar, consultant and co-author of "Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini." "Vermouth is the least-understood common beverage behind bars today."

Most of all, Brown wants you to take better care of your vermouth. Go to your liquor cabinet, fish out that ancient bottle and pour it down the drain. Now go buy a fresh bottle and, this time, keep it in the fridge. "I will die a happy man," says Brown, "if I leave this life having only succeeded in leading the world to the understanding that vermouth is a wine and, like port, spoils a month or two after opening." Spoiled vermouth tastes like, well, spoiled wine.

It's not only the home cocktail maker he's trying to convert. Brown, along with his partner and co-author Anistatia Miller, recently created a cocktail menu for the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner, including a Reverse Manhattan that called for three parts sweet vermouth to one part bourbon. Arriving at the banquet room, they discovered that the bar was stocked with several already-opened, half-filled bottles of vermouth that, according to Brown, had been sitting there "since Carter banned the three-martini lunch." He sneaked into the hotel's supply room and found shelves loaded with more unsealed, half-used bottles -- all spoiled.

In a panic, Brown ran to the nearest liquor store and bought all the vermouth he could get his hands on. The bartenders, of course, thought he was nuts. But once the event began, they changed their tune. "Every time another person raved to the bartenders about the drinks, I shot them an I-told-you-so look," he says.

Brown is not alone in his vermouth evangelism. Over the past year, numerous food and beverage trendspotters have declared a sort of vermouth renaissance.

Though vermouth traditionally is one of the cheapest spirits available, ranging from $7 to $10 a bottle, several premium brands have edged into the market in recent years. A few years ago Quady Winery, in Madera, Calif., began selling its Vya sweet and dry vermouths at more than $20 a bottle. And some bartenders are using the hard-to-find Carpano Antica Formula, based on the original vermouth recipe from 18th-century Italy.

Whether a rise in vermouth represents a true or concocted trend is still open to debate. Jack Robertiello, an editor at Adams Beverage Group, which monitors the wine and spirits industry, is skeptical. His research shows that Italy's Martini & Rossi, the most popular brand of vermouth in the United States, imported about 550,000 cases in 2005 and has hovered there for years.

"If you asked a bartender, 'When's the last time someone ordered a glass of vermouth?,' they'd look at you like you were crazy," Robertiello says.

However, Laura Baddish, who represents the Martini & Rossi brand in the United States, claims that vermouth sales increased significantly in 2006, though she said numbers were not available. "Classic cocktail recipes are re-energizing the vermouth category," she says. The recent trend of high-end bourbon and rye whiskeys, for instance, has rekindled interest in the Manhattan, for which sweet vermouth is essential.

Brown backs up the enthusiasm. "It is a trend in its early stages," he says, explaining that the interest is being led by those "who want to restore bartending as a profession and an art."

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