Vermouth born again as a connoisseur's tipple of choice
For an awfully long time, vermouth didn't enjoy much respect. "Vermouth is the least-understood common beverage behind bars today," said cocktail historian Jared Brown in 2007. Alfred Hitchcock's recipe for a martini reportedly called for "five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth".
Not any more. The world is undergoing a drinks renaissance - artisanal cocktails, craft beer, natural wine - and even vermouth has been born again as a connoisseur's tipple of choice, whether it be consumed on the rocks as an aperitif or as one of the star ingredients in a cocktail.
"There's a lot to be discovered," says Manuel Palacio, general manager of Pirata, a new restaurant and bar in Wan Chai that stocks 54 varieties of vermouth. Vermouth has been part of Palacio's life since he was a child in Spain, where his family enjoyed their traditional weekend comidas with glasses of vermouth. These days, as with gin, Spain is leading the vanguard in the drink's global revival. "It is really putting vermouth on the map at the moment," Palacio says.
In Hong Kong, the beverage has virtually no profile. Made of spiced, fortified wine, vermouth varies enormously depending on the dozens of herbs and spices added. "People would ask, 'which one is the best'?" Palacio says.
"There's no right or wrong answer. Some of them work for a particular time of day. Some are fantastic for an apéritivo at seven, some for one o'clock on a sunny day."
If Hongkongers are familiar with vermouth at all, their knowledge is probably limited to international brands such as Cinzano. Many brands offer a more distinctive experience.
Palacio loves Yzaguirre 1884, from Spain, which "tastes almost like a port". Most of the time, he enjoys lighter, drier vermouths. "I'm Spanish, so I like my vermouth on weekends, before lunch," he says. His go-to vermouths include Dolin Blanc, a French variety that is especially crisp, and Cocchi Americano, an Italian aperitif flavoured with citrus peels and cinchona bark, the same ingredient that gives tonic water is distinctive bitterness.
Palacio also likes Mancino Secco - a vermouth made in Italy by way of Hong Kong.
"I was getting very upset with the commercial products," says Giancarlo Mancino, a veteran bartender who first came to Hong Kong to set up the bar at Otto e Mezzo Bombana. Old standbys seem to have changed their formula, making them less aromatic and less complex-tasting. Mancino came up with a recipe that involves 40 different types of botanicals and scoured the Italian countryside for a family distillery that could produce his concoction. In 2012, he unveiled a line of three standard vermouths: Secco, which is ideal for martinis, Bianco Ambrato, which is similar to Cocchi Americano, and Rosso Amaranto, for drinks such as Manhattans and Negronis. "It's a vermouth for bartenders, but people love it on the rocks," he says.
Mancino runs the bar at ON Dining Kitchen and Lounge in Central, where you can sample two new additions to his line of vermouths: the Vecchio, a version of the Rosso Amaranto that is aged in oak barrels for a year, and the Chinato, a blend of all three standard vermouths mixed with red Barbera d'Asti wine and calisaya bark, which gives it the rich bittersweet flavour of an after-dinner amaro.
Mancino says he prefers to drink his vermouth on the rocks, "as an apéritivo," or else in the form of a Negroni. His wife enjoys his version of the Gibson, which is essentially a martini with a cocktail onion instead of an olive. "She has me make one for her every night," he says. While dry white vermouth is an essential ingredient in a martini, it was maligned for so long that many bartenders simply wash the glass with it before dumping it down the drain. Mancino says his goal for the Secco vermouth was to create something that could make up a full third of a martini without overpowering the gin or vodka.
Leo Cheung, head bartender at Mong Kok's Alibi bar, which opened in the Langham Place Hotel last December, shares Mancino's sentiment. "If I pour out the vermouth, it's a waste," he says. Instead, he washes the ice with Dolin Blanc and then pours it into a shot glass that he crowns with a lemon peel. Take a sip of the martini - which contains a bracing mix of Tanqueray and Tanqueray 10 gins - and then the vermouth. "It resets the tongue's palate," Cheung says.
It's a revelation in taste, one that is repeated in many of Cheung's creations. He likes making subtle tweaks to classic cocktail recipes. His Negroni contains 5ml of Fernet-Branca to enhance its bitterness. "No bartender doesn't like the Negroni," he says. "It's bitter, strong, citrus, balanced." He is fond of vermouth because its myriad flavours play off the qualities of complex spirits such as gin. Cheung also infuses vermouths: he has stuffed a bottle of Martini Bianco with lemon grass, which pairs well with Bombay Sapphire gin, and a Martini Rosso with Earl Grey tea. "It matches with Beefeater 24, which already has tea leaves in it," Cheung says. Unlike many bartenders, Cheung makes a point of revealing exactly which spirits and liqueurs he puts in each cocktail. It's a point philosophical - "I like cocktails with a story behind them," he says - and practical, because the key to a good cocktail is the bartender's technique as much as its ingredients.
"The secret is always how long you stir, how cold the ice is, how you shake it," he says. Palacio subscribes to the same transparent attitude. Pirata's menu arranges each variety by flavour rather than place of origin and customers are offered tasters to help them decide. The bar is working on installing a draught system for vermouth, which Palacio hopes will win over even more customers for its freshness and slight effervescence.
"Most people still don't come here for vermouth," he says. "We convert people."