Behind the Bar
How to Find, Care For and Serve Vintage Vermouth
It’s tempting to think that an old bottle of vermouth is no longer usable. Maybe the color has changed in the bottle, or over 50 years have passed since anyone has given it a look. You might want to think again.
The quest for authenticity
Why might you want to use a vintage vermouth? “One ‘why’ could be as simple as authenticity,” says Harden.
“Don't forget that most of the iconic cocktails that we today use and make are made with vermouth,” says Calabrese. “When, in the late 1860s, vermouth truly came to the world of cocktails, the spirits changed, the drinks changed, and the stars started to be born, thanks to vermouth.”
Salvatore Calabrese has taken authenticity to the next level, creating and serving “the world’s oldest martini” with all vintage spirits of approximately the same age (including an 1890s bottle of Noilly Prat).
Calabrese has taken authenticity to a precise level. Several years ago, he created and served “the world’s oldest martini” using all vintage spirits of approximately the same age (including an 1890s bottle of Noilly Prat). Last year, he made “the world’s oldest Negroni” with Cinzano from 1910.
“When you taste something that's over a hundred and twenty years old, you are tasting a treasure, basically, but that treasure is in the format of liquid,” says Calabrese. “I usually call it liquid history.”
Of course, unlike most other spirits, vermouth does change in character over time. “The fact that you are drinking a martini made with them, and they have changed and you can taste that? That is what I think actually creates the vintage experience,” says Harden. “It's almost as if you're actually being transported back to the time period of Casablanca, it's a sort of slightly tea-stained experience. If it were too fresh it wouldn't be believable.”
What to look for
For those in the market for vintage vermouth, there’s a lot of good news. “It's quite available,” says Harden. “It was among the most widely produced, in terms of number of brands over time and volume produced by each of those brands, so potentially there could be more bottles of vermouth out there than any other class of spirit, period.”
Calabrese recommends that interested bartenders do their homework before buying. “Today, because there is such a market, they could be fake,” he says. “[Bartenders] have to know the original seal, the history of the bottle, they have to look at how the glass has been blown. Also, the bottle must speak to you.” Although it’s important to trust your dealer and rely on your research, Calabrese notes that forgery isn’t nearly as prevalent with vermouth as in other categories, like whiskey.
Although it might seem that vintage vermouth would be expensive to add to your program, Harden says it doesn’t have to be. “Because it's one of the lowest alcohol spirits, it's one of the least expensive. It is much more expensive than a normal $10 or $20 bottle of vermouth, it's more expensive than that in a vintage version, but if you're pouring one and two ounce pours it's not crazy money. You could get a bottle of '70s white vermouth for 80 pounds. That would be 30 servings, so all of a sudden that's like $2.50 a serving, so if you were charging 10 pounds, you'd still be doing quite well.”
Care and keeping
Once you have acquired your vintage vermouth, Harden recommends maintaining storage continuity before opening. “If [bartenders] know how the stuff has been cared for in the past it would be best to continue to keep it in that kind of environment, he says. “Be it dark, cool, humid, whatever it came out of, unless of course it was standing next to a radiator. Even though you might want to keep it cool in a fridge, if that's not the way it's been kept I wouldn't do that until you open it and are in the midst of serving it, because then protecting it from that point on is a whole different game.”
Calabrese suggests always keeping bottles upright. “I will keep them awake, not asleep, especially if they have a screw top, because eventually if you put the bottle to sleep, even if it's fortified wine it will hit the metal and the metal will get rusty. The vermouth will become much more metallic.” He also recommends storing away from all direct light and at a consistent temperature.
Experiment with your vintage bottles to find the best means of serving the antique vermouth in a cocktail — it may require different proportions in classic cocktails or trying new cocktails altogether.
Because vermouth changes over time, it has great potential on a menu. Harden has seen it mixed into cocktails (both classics and new creations) and on it’s own: neat, room temperature, cold, or over ice, as well as at events like London’s Cocktail Week.
Calabrese’s advice on serving vermouth, and other vintage spirits? “Share it with as many people as possible.”
Harden and Calabrese differ on best practices once the bottle is open. Calabrese tries to use each bottle of vintage vermouth as quickly as possible. “With old vermouth, once you open it you need to serve it, you need to make up your mind: ‘I’m not going to choose to keep it.’ You have to be very clear in your mind that there is a very short life, don't expect to keep it as long as you would modern vermouth.” Calabrese recommends using the entire bottle in one night, if possible, to avoid deterioration.
Harden keeps his open bottles longer, sometimes upwards of six months (in the fridge, and using nitrogen, Coravin and similar strategies). “[Vintage vermouths] are already oxidized, so they're in a kind of a stasis,” he says. “I have this bottle of '70s Cinzano in the fridge that I'm using for different purposes. Last night I tried a shot of it with tonic. That bottle has been open for probably three months with no discernible degradation.”
Although he’s had mostly good experiences, Calabrese encourages caution when serving antique spirits. “The old sometimes can be a bit dead,” he says. “Just because it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s good.”
Harden recommends trying vintage vermouth as you would a completely new ingredient. “Maybe you do want to use it in a martini or something, as you did before, but obviously now the proportions will be wildly different. Or you abandon the classic cocktails thing altogether.”
Both Calabrese and Harden agree that vintage vermouth is delicious. “It gets a bit more marsalata, a bit more rich, more rusty,” says Calabrese. “There's an incredible richness to it as it ages,” says Harden. “It becomes really, really just moorish and complex. It's almost like a gift we got just by the fact that it sat around for 30, 50, 80 years, and become something great.”
Whether you’ve always loved vermouth or you’re just wading into the category, vintage vermouth promises an experience unlike any you’ll find in a fresh bottle.