If this bottle could speak for itself, it would proclaim “she loves me!” Other bottles would have less to boast about, on this, the morning after the Great Vermouth Taste-Off.
Thanks to some enterprising and inquisitive friends, a group of us gathered last night to pass judgment on 14 bottles of sweet vermouth. I had gone into the evening with my personal favorite being the Punt e Mes, but I was open to the notion that somewhere out there a better vermouth was to be found. Since from the moment I discovered Punt e Mes I never betrayed it with another vermouth, it seemed entirely possible that my affections were misplaced, had fixed too early on some less than perfect example of the vermouth family, and so I dove into the tasting with enthusiasm and high expectations.
In the order I tasted them, there were the offerings of Lejon, Stock, D’Aquino, Gallo, a homemade hyppocras, Boissière, Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat, Martini and Rossi, Cinzano, Punt e Mes, Martelletti, Vya, and Marcarini. As we tasted, noted, chatted, it quickly became evident that each of us was looking for something different in a vermouth. One of our hosts found many of them too herbal, while I thought that lots of them were too sweet. There was, however, startled and unanimous agreement on the Gallo, which sparked strangled cries of “oh my god, where’s the spit bucket?” from virtually everyone. I think I’m summing up correctly when I say that at the end of the evening the Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, and Boissière garnered the most general approval.
But here was the kicker for me. Almost everyone detested the Martini and Rossi, which I have to confess amazed and crushed me. It’s true that it’s sweet and simple, like a first love. In fact, it was my first vermouth love, and I remember that when I tasted it, over ice with a twist of lemon, I thought it was the best drink there ever could be. It was herbal, a little bitter, not like anything I’d ever tasted before, and it lifted me above the Budweiser world that surrounded me. If you’re old enough to remember when Mateus rosé was the height of sophistication, you’ll know what I mean. That glass of Martini with a twist made me feel European and adult, transported me to the as-yet-unseen Mediterranean, where one might have such a drink on a sunny terrace in late afternoon in the company of a charming Italian, or so I imagined.
So when my fellow tasters pronounced, one after the other, that it was horrible, terrible, and even, I hesitate to say, disgusting, it was hard for me to swallow. It’s as if someone had looked at an old snapshot of my first boyfriend and pronounced him a dog, a loser, and a dweeb of the highest order.
Happily it’s the case that I’ve graduated from both my first vermouth and my first boyfriend, but still, they’re part of my history. I no longer want them in my life, although I’d pick the Martini over the boyfriend any day, but they do occupy a warm spot in my memories of growing up. Back then I didn’t know that some day I’d become a moderately sophisticated adult married to my umpteenth boyfriend and living not far from the Mediterranean myself, or that I’d shift my allegiance to Punt e Mes. But I’ll be forever fond of my sweet and simple beginnings, even though today I’m drawn to the deep, the complex, and yes, the herbal.