Friday, December 14, 2018

Mapp and Lucia with Vermouth

Yesterday I bought a Christmas tree and decorated it. Still been years since I had a real tree, for a while I just didn't bother (between working like crazy in the run up to Christmas, and then being away for the day itself and often the first week of new year, and it only really being for my benefit, it didn't seem worth the fuss), and then I got a plastic tree because it seemed sensible in a flat.

Looking at my real tree it's worth the effort. It looks so much better in all its asymmetric glory than any perfectly shaped plastic replica, and the decorations look far more at home on it than they ever have on my (admittedly budget) fake tree. I think I'm committed to doing this every year now. 

My relationship with Vermouth is a not dissimilar story - in that it's taken me a long time to really appreciate how good a thing it is, but now that I have there's no going back. An early misadventure which involved drinking far to much Martini extra dry didn't help.

Vermouth, like Brandy, isn't the easiest thing to categorise. It comes sweet, dry, and a few things inbetween, in red, white, pink, and orange colours, from France, Italy, Spain, Australia, and all sorts of other places - and all of them have something individual to offer the mixologist and drinker. 

It was only when I started exploring The Savoy Cocktail Book that I really began to grasp how complex the subject was. There are a host of recipes that use 2 types of vermouth at a time in differing proportions to get different results. After some research I have at least discovered that in older books 'Italian' generally means red/rosso and slightly sweeter, whilst French is dry and white.

Vermouth itself is a fortified, aromatised, wine. It's been around in it's current form (more or less) for a couple of hundred years, and if you like gin it's you need to explore it. Equally if you're looking for a slightly lighter alternative to spirits for a long drink, vermouth is great mixed with tonic, soda water, or lemonade - according to taste. It's bottled at around 16 - 18% abv against the somewhere around 40% of most spirits so that's only a lighter option rather than a low alcohol one. 

Once open a bottle keeps well in the fridge for round about a month before the flavours start to fade, but it's good for cooking with too, so getting through a bottle shouldn't be hard. That said I avoid the litre bottles of Martini because I wouldn't get through them anything like fast enough. There are an increasing number of smaller, more expensive, bottles around which I consider worth the investment though because the quality is better and I don't waste any of them. Cocchi, Lustau vermut, and Regal Rogue (this is a fairly new to the UK Australian brand - it uses less sugar than European versions, lots of Australian botanicals, and was a surprise star of the last big wine tasting I went to in all its expressions) have all been recent favourites, and aren't to hard to find.

Given my new found love of the stuff you can imagine how pleased I was when I saw this quote from E. F. Benson's 'Queen Lucia'. Olga is speaking to Georgie "Come into my house and we'll drink vermouth. Vermouth always makes me brilliant unless it makes me idiotic, but we'll hope for the best."

There is something about the flavour of vermouth - or it's flavourings, combined with that unmistakable fortified hit that I've convinced myself is the flavour of the roaring 20's. It's certainly how I imagine it and I feel like Benson is confirming it for me. For anyone as yet unfamiliar with the Mapp and Lucia books, 'Mapp and Lucia' is probably the best of them (it's certainly the one you're most likely to find in bookshops) and though it comes towards the middle of the sequence it's also a great place to start, you can always go back to the earlier books if you find yourself hooked in.


  1. My grandmother liked gin and Dubonnet (probably because she’d heard that the queen Mother drank it) and at one time I liked Chamberyzette (sp) which was apparently flavoured with wild strawberries.

  2. When the queen mother died there was a surge in sales of Dubonnet (which apparently isn't classed as a proper vermouth, but is very similar - and something I've never actually tried. I really need to) and it's retained its popularity since then, at least it has round here. Your grandmother must have been about the right age to have picked up the habit in the 1930's? (Assuming she was roughly the same age as my grandfather born in 1910) when it was a relatively fashionable take on a Martini.

  3. There are two "carry on" Mapp and Lucia books by (if I remember correctly) Tom Holt. They are very good and really do justice to the two ladies and their idiosyncrasies and battles.

    1. I read them in my teens, but cleared them out along with some of the Benson ones, in what is easily one of my most stupid streamlining decisions ever.