Spirits: Berry good cocktails for summer

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; E05

People love berries. People love cocktails. Yet there are very few classic, or even halfway decent, berry cocktails to love. Oh, sure, there are various berry liqueurs, such as the raspberry-flavored Chambord, and there are certainly new berry-flavored vodkas being invented all the time. And sure, bartenders muddle the occasional fresh blackberry into, say, a caipirinha. But let's be honest: Berry drinks are mostly disappointing. Either the liqueurs are too cloying or the fresh berry's taste is lost when it's mixed with high-proof spirits.

The lack of good berry cocktails bums me out, especially at this time of year, when I return home from my local farmers market with my reusable shopping bag full of fresh strawberries and raspberries.

Last year, when I was visiting the Dolin vermouth distillery in Chambery, France, I tasted a wonderfully light, fresh, not-too-sweet strawberry aperitif called Chamberyzette. Apparently, in the 19th century, wealthy Brits would visit the various Alpine spas around Chambery in the early summer on their way to Nice. These tourists would drink an aperitif made from the local dry vermouth infused with local strawberries. Thus Chamberyzette was born, and it is still made in small quantities by Dolin.

I took home a tiny bottle of the pinkish-red aperitif and finished it within days. Sadly, as so often happens, I couldn't find Chamberyzette anywhere in the States. Haus Alpenz, the importer of Dolin, promises that it will be available here "eventually." So I wrote it off as yet another European aperitif I'd have to wait patiently for.

Last month, as weather turned scorching, I became interested in making refreshing, low-proof cocktails using the chilled bottles in my fridge: Noilly Prat and Dolin dry vermouth and the newly available pink Martini Rosato, which recently arrived in the States. These vermouths had been opened a couple of weeks earlier, and I really wanted to do something with them before they had to be replaced (which you have to do monthly with vermouth; it is a fortified wine and eventually spoils).

As I flipped through cocktail guides old and new, interesting dry vermouth drinks seemed as few and far between as berry cocktails. Vermouth is ubiquitous in cocktails, but usually as a supporting player. Occasionally, sweet vermouth shares top billing with equal parts sherry and a dash of bitters in cocktails such as the Duke of Marlborough or the Bamboo. But in more than three years of writing this column, I've recommended only two reliable cocktails that call for dry vermouth as a base spirit. Those are the Queen Elizabeth (1 1/2 ounces dry vermouth, 3/4 ounces each of Benedictine and lime juice; served straight up) and the Vermouth Cassis (3 ounces dry vermouth, 1/2 ounce creme de cassis, a splash of club soda; on the rocks in a highball glass). Beyond that, there's not much else in the way of dry-vermouth-based drinks.

So I was interested to open a copy of the 1936 classic "The Artistry of Mixing Drinks" by Frank Meier, barman of Paris's Ritz bar from the 1920s to the '40s, and find a number of classic cafe-society drinks based on dry vermouth. The first was the Rose, which originally called for dry vermouth, along with kirsch and a little raspberry syrup. The original is very nice, but when I substituted the Rosato vermouth -- with its notes of raspberry, cinnamon and nutmeg -- the cocktail took on an exciting new dimension.

Seeing how well vermouth worked with raspberry syrup made me think once again about Chamberyzette. I was completely thrilled, a few pages deeper into Meier's book, to discover a cocktail called the Chambery Fraise, with strawberry syrup, dry vermouth and soda water. I had several pints of berries on hand, so I immediately rejected the idea of syrup in favor of muddling fresh fruit. I was amazed by how well the dry vermouth's botanical profile paired with the berries in this early-summer-afternoon sipper. After a bit more experimenting, I left out the diluting soda water in favor of more vermouth and added just a bit of simple syrup.

In the end, my fresh-berry version of the Chambery Fraise is pretty, refreshing and delicious. And because bottles of vermouth generally sell for less than $8, this drink becomes another rarity: a downright budget cocktail. Which is good because, just as with summer berries, you'll definitely want to have more than one.


Chambery Fraise

Rose o Rosato

Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist.

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