Drinks Before a Meal
If Sherry makes you drowsy, and Whisky does not appeal to you, try some of the other appetisers which are light in texture and not too intoxicating. They make an excellent prelude to a meal because their delicate flavour doesn’t overwhelm the taste-buds. If on the other hand you need a pick-me-up, go for one of the Anis or Aquavit spirits.
Vermouth is an extremely popular drink in Britain, and is most commonly taken straight and sweet, on and off the rocks, or as a mainstay to many cocktails. ‘French’ Vermouth is dry and white, and ‘Italian’ sweet and red, but the words have no specific geographical signifi-cance, because other wine-producing countries make both kinds. Vermouth is blended according to strictly guarded formulae, but is basically wine infused with a variety of herbs and spices, and usually fortified with Brandy. Its origins are believed to date back to the fifth century BC: they may have been evolved in Ancient Greece by Hippocrates. The oldest known commercial producer is Carpano, who began producing his Vermouth in the eighteenth century, and the family is still going strong today. The word is believed to derive from the German wermutwein, the name for a highly-esteemed medicine, consisting of wine and wormwood.
There is a wide variety of brands available today, so it is best to try them all and then — since flavours differ quite considerably — choose the one most suited to your palate.
Cinzano, with Martini and Rossi, is probably the most widely known brand name. The company is based in Turin, and in addition to the famous Bianco, also produces a world-renowned red. Half-and-half Cinzano Bianco and soda in a tall glass with a twist of lemon and lots of ice, makes a light, refreshing drink.
For a more decorative look, fill a glass with cracked ice, add red vermouth, a few dashes of Curacao, a teaspoon of sugar and stir. Add fruit, a sprig of mint and a couple of straws.
Chambery is probably the least known Vermouth, but it is quite outstanding — light, clear and fresh. Like many good things, it isn’t easy to obtain, but certain specialist wine-shops do stock it. It comes from the Savoy Alps of France, and is a registered trade name. Of the four producers, the oldest is Dolin, founded in 1821, the producer, too, of Chamberyzette, a delicate dry Vermouth, flavoured with the juice of wild strawberries. (Another name to look for is Gaudin.) Like all Vermouths, it is best served well-chilled and will mix happily with gin, in whatever glass you care to choose. Other branded Vermouths to try are Dubonnet, St. Raphael and Lillet. Vermouths may be served however you enjoy them most, but are probably at their best in tall glasses, with lots of ice and a long twist of lemon peel. Add soda for a longer drink, or Vodka for extra verve.
Punt e Mes
Punt e Mes is a deluxe Vermouth from Carpano of Turin. It has a distinctive bitter-sweet taste, and to my mind it is best served with ice and a slice of lemon in a long glass, although it gets along well with gin or soda. Its taste is clean and positive, and if you drink two or three, you won’t feel drowsy after lunch.
Campari has rocketed in popularity quite recently. It is a Bitters, not a Vermouth, and with a British proof of 45° (US 50°) is classified by Customs and Excise as a spirit. It has a bitter-sweet taste, described aptly in advertisements as cryptic, is a rich pink in colour, and has a delicate bouquet. It is made by macerating herbs in fortified wine, and is best served with ice and soda and a slice of orange. (The Italians serve it in ‘one drink’ Campari-Soda bottles, available in any cafe or restaurant.) If you like a really sharp flavour, try Campari with tonic — and insist on orange, not lemon. Half-and-half Campari and fresh orange juice — very cold — is delicious too. Angostura Bitter It is worth mentioning Angostura Bitters just briefly here. It is good in Gin and water, and a few drops added to the water in your ice-cube tray will give the cubes a subtle fragrance that won’t harm your Dry Martini in the least.
An amazing drink for summer days is Vin Blanc Cassis, or Kir, as it is sometimes called. It was invented by a Canon Kir, a former Mayor of Dijon. It is quite simply very cold Chablis mixed with crème de Cassis — the blackcurrant liqueur, not the Sirop de Cassis — 5 parts wine to one part Cassis.