A sniff of vermouth will always make me think of Christmas. It’s a nostalgic thing: a drop of one of the big brands of herb and spice-infused fortified wines, mixed liberally with R Whites lemonade, was the tipple that my usually abstemious elderly female relatives preferred at the one time of the year they allowed themselves a drink.
Each aunt or grandmother had a preference, and coming across various hip young bar-tending things talking up each of them in turn – Cinzano, Martini, or the vermouth-based, quinine-laced aperitif Dubonnet – has been one of the more amusing features of vermouth’s reinvention as a fashionable drink in recent years.
It’s the rise of the cocktail that has inspired vermouth’s return to favour, just as it has the renaissance of other vintage aperitif brands such as Campari, Aperol and, my current favourite, the wincingly bitter, gentian-based French classic, Suze, with is dazzling colour like old-school yellow French headlights. Not that this trend is entirely retro. The crafty turn in gin and ale has informed a whole new wave of high-quality bitters and vermouths: from the UK’s Sacred English Amber Vermouth to the superbly refined, multi-flavoured German bitters brand, The Bitter Truth.
In this odd, confined year many of us have become home mixologists, and at Christmas we (well, I) won’t need much excuse to get out our newly bought shakers and those long, twisted cocktail spoons to play with vermouths and bitters both vintage and brand new as we perfect our new-found knack with negronis and manhattans.
For those with a lower tolerance for bitter compounds, another 1970s drinks-cabinet staple enjoying a decidedly modern, cocktail-inspired makeover is the fruit liqueur. I imagine the vast majority of recent sales of favourites of mine such as Dijonnaise classic Gabriel Boudier crème de cassis or Gloucestershire’s Bramley & Gage raspberry liqueur are destined to provide the fruit kick in kir royales with champagne or other sparkling wines. But, at Christmas (or any other big feast) I like to treat them as an alternative to calvados in that great northern French tradition of the trou normand, drinking them neat as a between-courses digestif.
Another currently white-hot fashionable spirit, spiced rum, would do that job just as well. Its true festive purpose may lie elsewhere. The ingredients list for a brand such as the satisfyingly rich and warming Chairman’s Reserve spiced rum from the Caribbean island of St Lucia reads like a recipe for Christmas biscuits or mulled wine: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, vanilla, coconut, allspice, lemon, and orange. Combine all that with butter, brown sugar, hot water and spice and you have an extra-spiced version of that wintry classic, hot-buttered rum, and a Christmas cocktail par excellence.
Christmas spirits for mixing
The Bitter Truth Spiced Chocolate Bitters (from £15.13, masterofmalt.com; thewhiskyexchange.com; amathusdrinks.com)
Started by a pair of Munich bartenders who couldn’t find the right quality and style bitters they needed to recreate authentically classic cocktails, The Bitter Truth range is full of, erm, bitter, cocktail-lifting delights, from a superbly-zesty orange to the deep dark spiciness of this unusual chocolate-based recipe.
Lustau Vermut Rosé (from £12.99, 50cl, Waitrose; bbr.com; thewhiskyexchange.com)
Spanish vermouth has played a big part in the modern vermouth – or vermut – revival, with houses best known for making sherry producing some of the best around. Lustau’s rosé is winningly floral-herbal aromatic, with a hint of Christmassy spice on the refreshing palate.
The King’s Ginger (£23.50, 50cl, bbr.com)
Originally made by Berry Bros & Rudd for King Edward VII, this has become a bit of a Christmas classic, its pure gingery spiciness working very well in solo-digestif style or as the partner, with a good Scotch blended whisky, in lieu of ginger wine in a souped-up whisky mac.
Distillerie de Paris Batch 1 Gin (from £39.99, morrishandbanham.com; woodwinters.com; thegoodwineshop.co.uk)
Good quality gin is the beating heart of so many great classic and modern cocktails, and this decorously stylish bottle from Paris’s first working distillery in more than a century is beautiful inside and out: silky in feel, joyously zesty in taste and as aromatically complex as great perfume.
Kraken Black Spiced Rum (from £26, Waitrose; thewhiskyexchange.com)
Dark in colour, and uncompromisingly powerful and rich, this is a big warm bear hug of a spiced rum that fills the palate with sweet chocolate kirsch, cola and Christmassy baking spices for fireside sipping over ice, simple mixing with good cola or spicing up hot and cold rum cocktails.
Edmond Briottet Liqueur de Cranberry (from £18.79, masterofmalt.com; thewhiskyexchange.com; thedrinkshop.com; bottleapostle.com)
This Dijon firm has mastered the art of capturing the essence of a fruit in liqueur form. The range is extensive, from the classic cassis, to more outré fig, rhubarb and violet, but the cranberry is perhaps most seasonally apt, and it fairly pulses with vibrant, tangy fruit.
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