Last night, I went to one of Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli classes at Craigie on Main. While I did not go to last week's class on "Stirred not Shaken: How James Bond Got it all Wrong," some of last night's attendees went and spoke very highly of it. The one I went to was "When Bar Meets Kitchen: Making Your Own Vermouth." During the introduction section, the 14 people seated around the bar gave their reasons for attending the session. Two were wine vendors, three worked at the restaurant, one was a bartender at Eastern Standard, and the rest were cocktail enthusiasts (many of the above also stated that "hanging out with Tommy" or "heckling Tommy" was another reason to attend). For me, it was a large part practical. About three months ago, I had made an attempt at making my own sweet vermouth and wanted to know more about the process and tricks of the trade. Right before class, I re-read the section on vermouth making in a book that Stephen Shellenberger from Dante recommended to me, M. A. Amerine's Technology of Wine Making. While I was the only person who mentioned an interest on the hands-on aspect, once that portion started, it was clear that I was not the only one.
As cups of warmed mulled wine were passed out, Tommy started with an overview of the history of what is vermouth and how mulled wine was a predecessor of current day vermouths. The discussion went into regions where vermouth is made and how the climate influenced the grape production and often how that sometimes necessitated the adulteration such as in warmer climates which produced thinner and less interesting wines. In addition, it was mentioned how cooler climates provide crisper, more acidic wines that tend to make for a different and perhaps higher quality vermouth. Grape choice and various methodologies were discussed, including an interesting regional analysis of the indigenous spices of each region. Before cocktails, vermouths were originally served to accompany food, and similar botanicals were used in the vermouth as were used to spice the meal.
The next phase of the class was part tasting and part talking about the different techniques and flavors using the examples as starting points for the discussion. We tasted 6 vermouths: Noilly Pratt Dry (the old not the new American version), Dolin Dry, Lillet Blanc, Martini & Rossi Sweet, Carpano Antica, and Barolo Chinato. One aspect of the tasting was the importance of fresh vermouth and how the aging process can affect not only what flavors are dominant and how the flavors change, but how the balance of bitters to sweetness could be greatly affected. For example, the 3 month old Carpano Antica was way too sweet for my palate and was not as delightful as the freshly opened bottle; both could work in a cocktail although there would be a difference. The change in the month old Noilly Pratt dry was mainly in flavor for me for there is so little sweetness in it that any balance change was marginal. With the tasting were a lot of wine terms and flavors thrown out by the crowd that I did not usually think about when analyzing botanical-infused liqueurs and wines. After a round or two, I even got into the act of contributing a couple of tasting notes.
Somewhere in Tommy's talk, he focused on the historical significance of vermouths in America during the 1860's and on. Vermouth was the new hot cocktail ingredient of the time akin to the rage over St. Germain these days. Perhaps it was a mark of status for the bars to have such wonderfully rare imported products to serve and perhaps it was a mark of status for the drinker as well to be able to afford such luxuries. For the bartender, sweet vermouth served as a new sweetening agent. It could substitute in for the sugar otherwise used in cocktails by utilizing the sweet vermouth's approximately 15% sugar base. He also discussed the history of its use in the Manhattan and the Martinez, and the later use of less sweet and more dry vermouth in the more modern day Martini. He attributed the switch to the drying of the American palate prior to Prohibition.
The hands on part of the show was a discussion of the boiling-a-third of the wine rapid method I used in my vermouth and the slow-cold method. While the house vermouths at Craigie are made with the latter method, he wanted to show us both as he and the Craigie staff made their ambre vermouth and Carpano Antica replica. I did get a good lesson on the proper ways of making caramel using the wet and dry methods, and pointers on other ingredients such as raisins and sherry to use in my own batches. Once the Carpano Antica replica was finished, Tom mixed up a batch of Martinez cocktails for us to taste.
In terms of a class, it was 2 hours well spent. For me, the most valuable parts were the unexpected like the historical significance of vermouths on the incipient cocktail scene in the United States as well as how to properly appreciate vermouths like you would a fine wine. It was a good supplement to the informal lecture Eric Seed gave us when he stopped in to Boston to introduce his Dolin vermouth line last September.