As it happens, Blackdown’s vermouth (£20.25, The Whisky Exchange) is made not so very far from me, nestling in neighbouring Sussex’s portion of the South Downs. The titular reference to silver birch? It’s because the base wine is made from the sap of the birch trees growing around the distillery. Apparently, getting that sap is a pain in the arse, with each tree yielding a very small amount. According to Blackdown’s website: ‘In 2017 we tapped over 300 trees, with an average tree providing 5 gallons a day collecting over 1,500 gallons producing 15 gallons of pure syrup’.
So I shalln’t be setting out to make silver birch wine any time soon.
But I’ll happily drink someone else’s. So — how shall we do this? You can crack it into your martini in place of your regular Noily Prat/Dolin or what have you. Or you can drink it on its own, over ice, like the sophisticated metropole you are.
Let’s talk cocktails first, shall we?
Now, Blackdown Vermouth in the context of the martini is an interesting thing. As you may know from my burblings on the subject of the perfect martini, I like a martini with some hoof to it, albeit not at macho-dry ratios. My ur-martini is a lean, clean, deliciously spartan thing.
Blackdown vermouth makes for a fuller, rounder, sweeter martini. I’ve tried it with a variety of gins, at various ratios, generally pitted against Dolin vermouth for comparison. And what you’ll make of it, my dear, very much depends on your criteria. For me, y’know, it’s a touch OTT in most contexts. It’s so gentle that I find myself missing the bite, the sting of my regular vermouth. There’s not really that spiky mid-palate attack I expect. Instead, by martini standards, it ends up long and soft. Smooth, honeyed, unctuous, even.
Not what I’d go for as a standard martini, but if that sounds like your bag, more power to your elbow, I suppose.
I flung a tweet in the direction of the folk of Blackdown to ask their martini recommendations, one of which was a flamboyant 2:1 mix with Sipsmith. A good deal wetter (ie. more vermouth heavy) than most martini drinkers’ norm, and given Blackdown’s abovementioned qualities, the effect is of a different cocktail entirely. Apples, toffee, chocolate — sweet, accessible, richly autumnal flavours.
For an austere martini man such as myself, the above is all rather opulent. Personally, I was more drawn to drinking Blackdown on its own. In this context — over plenty of generous sized ice cubes, with a twist of lemon rind — it’s a fabulous aperitif for those occasions on which a martini (or other spirit-heavy cocktail) might be de trop. The same is true of some red vermouths, natch, but Blackdown is drier.
Removed from the martini, you appreciate its softness and touch of sweetness (contrast against Dolin Chambery, which isn’t great to drink neat: sharper, more one-note, squarely an ensemble player not a soloist). Arguably, what makes Blackdown such a pleasure to drink neat is what makes it less successful in a martini (where, I humbly submit, gin rules all and vermouth bends the knee before its sovereign).
Unadulterated, over ice, Blackdown is calm, so calm. For me, the defining essence is of apples. Not crisp, green apples, but rusty English apples in an old greengrocer, or in a brown paper bag at your grannie’s house. There’s bitterness there, alongside warm and woody spice (clove, cinnamon and the gang), but those play their hand with subtlety. The overwhelming impression is of mellow autumnal fruit and mellifluous honey. Really rather lovely. Wankily, I might call it nostalgia in a glass.
Oh, and one more thing. It makes a bloody delicious lemon syllabub — pudding of kings.