Reviewing our Vermouth Taste-off
As we mentioned yesterday, fortified wine importer Fasel Shenstone was kind enough recently to send us a sampling of their products. Since trying out new fortified ones is one of our favorite things to do, this made us very happy.
One of the things that we learned from Fasel Shenstone is that there’s a hitherto unknown to us, long, proud tradition of vermouth making (and drinking) in Spain. A whole new country of fortified wines to explore is an exciting prospect for us. Knowing that it exists also made us think back to one of our earliest sets of posts, what we called the Great Vermouth Taste-off, a four bracket tournament we ran to decide which vermouth we’d stock in our bar. We’ve tasted a lot of vermouth and learned a lot about cocktails since that tournament, and on that basis alone perhaps it’s more than time for a revision of the brackets. Discovering that we left out an entire historic center of vermouth-making makes revisiting all the more necessary.
In lieu of a full re-run of the tournament, we decided to do a little side-by-side tasting of Fasel Shenstone’s products with some of our favorites from the taste-off. We also added in another recent favorite, Cocchi di Torino, which was left out of the earlier tournament because it didn’t fit in to our conception at the time of a red vermouth.
About that. We realized in setting up these head-to-head matchups that, to our great embarrassment, we’ve fallen prey to an optical illusion. We’ve always thought of Cocchi di Torino as being more brown in color; so we matched it up with Lacuesta Reserva, one of the Fasel Shenstone selections, because it is also brown. We were pouring out our tastes at the same time, though, as the two red vermouths. And we noticed something: they’re all brown. Red vermouths are all brown! Cocchi di Torino comes in an olive-colored bottle, with a brown label; so it looks brown. Lacuesta comes in a clear bottle, and therefore clearly looks brown as well, being that it is brown. Our two ‘reds’ were in green bottles, giving them a purple wine tone in the bottle; I guess up until the side-by-side comparison with the two obviously brown ones, our purple impression continued even after pouring. In any case, we quickly realized that, despite their bottle coloring, we had set up the wrong pairs. Lacuesta had more in common with one of our green bottle contestants, Boissiere. So we scrambled the pairs. Let’s tell you a little bit more about today’s contestants:
- Boissiere Sweet–Despite it’s Frenchy name, Boissiere is an Italian vermouth–though, in honesty, pretty close to what has historically been a shifting border. It’s not currently a particularly well-known brand, and it’s a little hard to find. But it won our ‘Inexpensive Reds‘ competition because it’s a good jack-of-all-trades, neither too spicy, nor too sweet, nor too sour, but a little bit of all of those things. If you’re going to have only one sweet vermouth in your fridge (You’re putting your vermouths in the fridge, right? We should talk about that.), we thought this is not a bad one to have.
- Lacuesta Reserva–Lacuesta is made in Haro, Spain, in the rioja wine growing district. It gets its ‘reserva’ status by spending an extra 6-9 months in either French oak or acacia wood barrels. For what it’s worth, the bottle we tasted was acacia.
What We Thought
To be both honest and fair, Boissiere doesn’t really belong in this competition. Lacuesta Reserva costs twice as much as Boissiere. Lacuesta is made from bottle-worthy Rioja wine, whereas Boissiere is probably made from cast-offs. The normal, non-reserva Lacuesta spends 3 months aging in French oak barrels, which is 3 months more than Boissiere likely spends in any barrel of any kind; so Lacuesta Reserva gets at least 9 months more aging than Boissiere. I say at least because the Lacuesta also gets three years of aromatization in an American oak barrel before it’s ever barreled to age. We have no information on the production process for Boissiere; so we really have no idea how they bring the herbs in, which means it could quite possibly be from an extract. Boissiere is outclassed here.
That being said, we’re not ashamed to have been using Boissiere. It’s not overly sweet. It has a pleasant, sour start, and a slightly bitter finish reminiscent of coffee. It seems like a perfectly decent, relatively complex vermouth.
Until you taste the Lacuesta. They actually have very similar flavor profiles: a semi-sweet, sour start, with a faintly bitter finish (though Lacuesta’s bitterness tastes of citrus peel rather than coffee). But when you taste the Lacuesta, you realize that the Boissiere is thin, while the Lacuesta is full and integrated. All of that aging makes a difference. It’s kind of like going from black and white TV to color. You just have to admit that there’s more there to see/taste.
Honestly, the price difference still gives us pause. Yes, Lacuesta is hands-down a better vermouth, but is it so much better that it makes for a completely different cocktail experience? Then again, when’s the last time we watched black and white TV?
When mixing, Leith Shenstone recommends using Lacuesta with tequila or mezcal. We, however, had already mixed ourselves a Creole, a relatively fortified wine centered, herbal, New Orleans classic. By the way–because we are so devoted to giving you the full and honest truth–we did make it with both vermouths. While they were both good cocktails, the advantage was quite solidly in Lacuesta’s favor, even more so than when drinking them straight.
The Creole Cocktail Recipe
- 1 oz rye whiskey
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Benedictine
- 2 dashes Amaro Ramazotti
- lemon twist, for garnish
- Stir all of the liquid ingredients with ice until the ice is noticeably melted.
- Strain into a cocktail glass.
- Garnish with the lemon twist.