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Aperitivos, Digestivos, Cherries & Bitters

Vermouths are made by steeping a little bit of wormwood and a number of other spices in wine that has been beefed up with a distilled spirit, then letting everything rest for a while.

Originally intended as aperitifs or apertivos (literally “openers”), in the late 19th century American bartenders discovered that they were ideal for rounding the sharp edges off a cocktail. Vermouth became the primary component in many cocktails, but eventually the recipes flip-flopped and spirits became the main ingredients. With the rising interest in cocktails — particularly those with a lower alcohol content — Vermouth is enjoying a resurgence in popularity both as a before-dinner drink and as a mixer. It can also be used in cooking, but allowances should be made for its stronger flavor.

Following are descriptions of the Vermouths currently in stock at Grapevine Cottage. With few exceptions Vermouths aren’t rated by the wine magazines, but we sampled a bunch and brought in a selection of our favorites.

Lillet Blanc (France) is refreshing poured over ice and very mild, so used in cocktails it’s best to mix it with subtle spirits, such as Irish whiskey or one of the softer gins.

Perucchi Gran Reserva (Spain) is very fragrant, with aromas of chamomile, ginger, lemon verbena, cinnamon, orange blossoms, nutmeg, cardamom and more. On the palate it is silky and golden, its initial sweetness fading into a Sherry-like dryness.

Priorat Natur (Spain) is made with White Garnacha, Macabeo and Pedro Jiménez grapes and aged in oak for two years before bottling. It leads with aromas of rosemary, thyme, fennel and forest floor, followed by flavors of Marcona almonds and dried fruit.

Kina l’Avion d’Or (Switzerland) is based on a 19th-century recipe that blends wine with cinchona bark, ginger and orange peel, as well as sandalwood and wormwood. Candied citrus peel and woodsy aromas are followed by flavors of Spanish quince paste and marmalade, then an herbaceous, tingling bitterness. If you want to make an authentic Vesper, you’ll need this.

Dolin Vermouths (France) are lighter, drier and less pungent than their larger commercial counterparts. The particular mixture of plants found near Chambéry give a fresh, restrained and elegant nose, with a subtle, complex bittersweet palate. The exact recipes are a closely guarded secret, but there are up to 54 different plants used, most notably wormwood, but also hyssop, camomile, genepi, chincona bark and rose petals. We carry Blanc, Dry and Rouge.

Carpano Antica Formula (Italy) is made by the company that invented Vermouth. It has rich, dark notes of licorice, herbs, figs, cocoa, and sweet cinnamon. It’s full-bodied and a little sweet, but spectacularly balanced. It finishes bone dry. Antica Formula (along with Luxardo cherries) is the sine qua non of top-shelf Manhattans in many of the better cocktail lounges.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (Italy), made from an 1891 recipe, has flavors of cocoa, citrus and rhubarb with a balanced bitter undertone. It can be served over ice or used to make classic cocktails such as Manhattans.

Barolo Chinato (Italy) is a Barolo DOCG wine (100% Nebbiolo) infused with the bark of the Calissaja Quinine tree, rhubarb roots and cardamom seeds as well as a secret blend of herbs and spices before being laid down for lengthy maturation. A nose of roasted orange peel, cloves, cherries, eucalyptus and dried figs leads to a palate of rhubarb, date, sultana, cloves, Five Spice and orange bitters. Originally made as a digestivo, it makes an excellent after-dinner drink and could also be used as a component of an astonishingly good Manhattan.

All of these wines should be drunk chilled to 60°-65°F with the exception of the Kina l’Avion d’Or, which is to be served very cold. Though they are fortified they will still oxidize, so they should be kept refrigerated and can benefit from such wine-preservation methods as vacuum pumps and inert gas blankets. With refrigeration, a Vermouth can be expected to last from one to three months.

For further reading:

Cherries & Bitters
The best cocktails are made from the best ingredients. In addition to our selection of Vermouths, we also carry these essentials:

Fee Brothers Bitters — Made in Rochester, New York by a family business, Fee Brothers produces high-quality bitters from recipes developed over four generations. We currently carry their Cherry Bitters — good for an extra dose of cherry in Manhattans — and Traditional Bitters, which are made from Angostura bark among other ingredients. (For a satisfying non-alcoholic cocktail, shake a few dashes of Traditional Bitters over a glass of ice and fill with soda water.)

We also carry handcrafted artisanal bitters from Bittercube, which are available in only five states, and in Indiana only at Grapevine Cottage! They’re highly concentrated, which is why each bottle comes with an eyedropper. We carry Orange; Cherry Bark Vanilla; and Bolivar, which has flavors of cinnamon, chamomile and dried fruits.

For the finishing touch on a top-shelf Manhattan, there can only be the original Maraschino cherries from Luxardo. Deep burgundy colored, these are nothing like the neon-hued fruits found on grocery shelves, but real Marasca cherries candied in their syrup. They are amazingly good, and can be used for a decadent cheesecake topping or as a component in meat sauces.

Written by Mark Finch