Vermouth, sherry, and port strive for their own pedestal
By V.R. BryantPublished October 25, 2012
As cocktail culture in Columbus continues to grow, the desire for a wider array of ingredients and spirits grows with it. Apart from finding drinks with yuzu, Serrano peppers, and local honeys in them, aperitif and other fortified wines are creeping into the local lexicon. Here’s a crash course in the category.
Vermouths qualify as aperitif wines, a term that derives from the Latin aperire, meaning “to open.” What’s being opened – apart from the bottle, of course – is your appetite. Many aperitifs feature a trademark bitterness that, in vermouth’s case, comes from the fortification of the wine with aromatic herbs, barks, and roots (along, of course, with additional alcohol). The name itself comes from the German Wermut – wormwood, traditionally a principal ingredient. Most Americans view vermouth, which comes in sweet and dry varieties, merely as an ingredient in other concoctions such as Manhattans (sweet) and martinis (dry), rather than a stand-alone beverage. This is probably a good thing in most cases, since your average bar tends to carry just one major brand of each variety, and nobody seems to find it necessary to keep them refrigerated after opening, which prevents souring. But you wouldn’t want to drink those by themselves anyway. Nose around to find places that carry Antica Formula or Punt e Mes, both by Italian distiller Branca. Both make fantastic cocktails, to be sure, but a nip of either before a meal is a great way to excite the palate.
Sherry’s limitation in the minds of many is that it’s just good for cooking – so untrue. Many wine enthusiasts will tell you, in fact, that Sherry is vastly undervalued on its own. Where vermouths are primarily produced in Italy and France, sherry is a Spanish product, a white grape wine fortified with additional alcohol in the form of grape spirit. Its name is essentially the Anglicized pronunciation of Jerez, the region where the grapes are produced. Some sherries – like some tequilas, for example – are young, relatively unaltered, and less complex. Others are aged over long periods of time and become darker, richer, and more sophisticated. Manzanilla and Fino are the lighter, drier versions that can be enjoyed soon after bottling either on their own or combined with soft drinks to make Rebujitos. Aged sherries like the Amontillado variety reside somewhere in the middle of the aging process and are popular in a drink called the Sherry Cobbler, which dates back to Victorian times. A good Cobbler can just be three or four ounces of Amontillado, a little bit of simple syrup, and some fresh orange and berries.
And then there’s the Portugese offering, port wine. The grapes are produced in the Douro Valley region of Portugal, and the wine, like sherry, is fortified with grape spirit (aguardente, in this case) to up the alcohol content and alter the flavor. In port’s case, the fortification takes place halfway through the fermentation process, which leaves sugar in the mix that would otherwise have turned to alcohol. As that process is tweaked, different types of port are produced, though the main distinction is really how the producers choose to age the port: in barrels, or in bottles. Either way, ports tend to be enjoyed after dinner, alone, or with dessert. You won’t find port popping up in too many cocktails, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of its spot behind any good bar.