OSTERIA PAPAVERO

Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth, is delicious served on its own over ice.

That bottle of dry vermouth at the back of the liquor cabinet is about as good as the gray, dried oregano lingering in the pantry. Get rid of them both.

“The best way to start with vermouth is to buy (a new) one, not the dusty one that’s been sitting on the shelf forever,” said Marilyn Matt, who’s been tending bar in Madison for about 10 years. “As soon as they’re open, put your vermouth into the refrigerator. It’s aromatized wine.”

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OSTERIA PAPAVERO

Osteria Papavero bartender and Spirited Women member Marilyn Matt created the “Crisantemo,” a riff on a Chrysanthemum, with Contratto vermouth as a base.

Matt, who tends bar at Osteria Papavero and works with Underground Food Collective, loves vermouth. She might drink Punt e Mes (which makes her favorite Manhattan) or Carpano Antica straight, chilled with a twist of orange peel. She’ll pour a small glass of bianco vermouth for herself while she’s cooking.

“I recommend Carpano just on its own after dinner, for dessert,” Matt said. “You can put it on ice ... I’ve seen it on tap places before.”

Found mostly in France and Italy (with a few United States experimenters), vermouth is often grouped with liqueurs but is technically a fortified wine. Made most often with white wine, vermouth has about 16-22 percent alcohol by volume. Brands like Cizano, Cocchi and Mancino add herbs, spices, bitter roots and sugar or grape juice.

It’s easy to taste the differences among the three styles using the Dolin line of vermouths, easily found in many Madison bars (and a good first choice for the home bartender).

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From left, Carpano Bianco, Dolin blanc vermouth and Punt e Mes are three fine vermouths to add to a home bar.

Dolin dry vermouth tastes clean with prominent acidity, with flavors of citrus and citrus peel. Dolin blanc is rounder and more aromatic, fruity and floral like a gewürztraminer. Rouge, or sweet red vermouth, has the most bitterness, offering more baking spices like cloves and cinnamon.

Most cocktail drinkers think of vermouth as an ingredient in a martini. A dry martini means less vermouth; a wet martini has more.

Before 2000, most people were drinking their martinis “bone dry,” Matt said, with “a splash of their vermouth in the glass, swirl it, dump it. The whisper, just the essence.”

“Slowly people in the states started to embrace vermouth,” Matt said, “to have more of that two-to-one ratio in Manhattans and martinis.”

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A reverse Manhattan is made with two parts Carpano Antica and one part Willett rye at Osteria Papavero in Madison.

That also led to increased access to better vermouth. The vermouth cocktails Matt shared on a recent afternoon at Papavero were all stirred over ice, not shaken.

“Vermouth is very delicate, so it’s easy to overdilute something,” she said. “If it is nice and cold and you’re tasting it right away, it should be good. But five minutes later, once it opens up a little bit with the temperature, any vermouth drink should change a little in character.”

Reverse Manhattans and martinis simply swap the ratio of spirit to vermouth, resulting in a highly aromatic but less boozy cocktail. Two parts Carpano Antica to one part Willett Kentucky Rye makes for an excellent reverse Manhattan, finished with a few drops of Angostura bitters and a twist of orange.

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Osteria Papavero bartender and Spirited Women member Marilyn Matt makes a reverse Manhattan with two parts Carpano Antica vermouth to one part Willett rye.

“This would be great before dinner,” Matt said. “There’s a time and a place for a Manhattan, but sometimes you want something a little lighter.

“I like to drink this after dinner (too), if you’re still going out and having more drinks. I want something that’s not going to push me over the edge.”

The simply named Vermouth Cocktail is a crowd-pleaser, made with a little sweetness from Luxardo maraschino liqueur and simple syrup. At Papavero, the cocktail was balanced by lightly bitter flavors in the Del Profesore (a sweet vermouth) and a few drops of Angostura bitters.

The Chrysanthemum is one of Matt’s favorite vermouth-based cocktails, combining bianco vermouth, Benedictine and absinthe. With a translation assist from Alessandro Monachello at Papavero, Matt dubbed her latest riff on it the Crisantemo.

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A “Crisantemo” at Osteria Papavero in Madison.

Matt began with a bianco vermouth from Contratto, adding an herbal liqueur called Strega with flavors of saffron and honey and green chartreuse, an herbal digestif.

“The fun thing about this cocktail is it’s all herbs,” Matt said. “It is totally springy.”

Matt recommended tasting as you go if you’re mixing at home to get the right balance, maybe adding a few more drops of bitters, a touch more spirit, or even a splash of sparkling wine to give the cocktail some lift. Perhaps start with a classic cocktail like a martini that usually includes dry vermouth and substitute a blanc for a “juicy martini,” maybe with a finishing splash of Aperol.  

“When you get into vermouth, buy something that’s a step up — Dolin, Cinzano,” Matt said. “I recommend starting with a blanc or a sweet vermouth. Try a few basic recipes with it. Have it on the rocks, have it just chilled.

“From there, you can learn. The blanc is really good in a cocktail, and it’s really good on its own. I drink this all summer long, if I’m hosting a party, and keep filling it.”

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Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.