Commuter Belters 2: M&S Vermouth & Tonic

Here we are again for another instalment of COMMUTER BELTERS, my quest to find the booze best matched to the knees-rammed-against-plastic pleasures of southwestern railways.

This time, emboldened mayhap by our liaison with M&S gin-in-a-tin, let’s push the boat out a little further into the treacherous seas of M&S’s canned booze range — to their Vermouth & Tonic.

Now, to be a true commuter belter, a drink must have an affinity for the typical cuisine and ambience of the South Western Railways experience. Much as one might judge a restaurant’s wine list by its wines’ ability to punch at the level of the main dishes, one judges a would-be Belter by its resilience against whatever degradations a typical journey from Waterloo might throw its way.

Today’s degradation of choice? One carton of Pret’s Spicy Egg & Chorizo Omelette. What better foldable tray-mate for my tastefully duotone can of V&T?

In one sense, the omelette is an excellent match: the experience of consuming both it and the drink is purgatorial. One might argue that they thereby cleverly echo — satirise, even — the experience of travelling frequently by South Western Railways. But satire is no excuse for this miserable stuff.

I’ll tell you a little about the food first, shall I, since we’re both here and have relatively little else to do? Well, the egg has the texture of that expanding foam filler stuff they use to repair car bodywork. It is hideously, malignantly overcooked. Most of it is stuck to the bottom and sides of the cardboard container, and I’m certainly not tempted to scrape away at it to get my money’s worth. Pret’s hot snacks, while always touch-and-go, aren’t normally as bad as this. Small pellets of chorizo and enormous moist slugs of red pepper provide relief of a kind from egg-chewing, in the same way that being punched in the face provides relief of a kind from a bout of norovirus. A woeful effort.

As is the drink. You’re warned as much as soon as you pfft the thing open and take a sniff. Friend, it smells like making a terrible mistake.

It’s a mixture of bitter lemon and that horrible fizzy-sweet reek you get from godawful energy drinks. And that’s exactly how it tastes. Ye gods, it’s sweet. Horribly, horribly sweet. The best thing about it is the initial lemon taste (not because that’s what you wanted, but because it’s at least in the proximity of an honest flavour), but almost immediately the bombardment of sugar hits, hollowing out all other flavours but the quinine from the tonic (like the G&T-in-a-can, this does at least feature quinine-heavy tonic).

The most criminal thing about it all is that despite this pitiless assault upon my senses, I can barely taste any goddamn alcohol. I mean, there’s a vague whiff of medicinal grapiness lingering in the background, like the smell of the crap someone took in the stall five minutes ago, but nothing more. The can says it’s 5.5% ABV but the impression is less boozy than most alcohol-free beers. It tastes like the heartless trick you’d play on a gullible child in order to put them off drink for life.

In summary, our Commuter Belter is not to be found here. All change, please.

Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth Review

Well, it’s been a while since I hoofed a vermouth review in your direction, so let’s change that. Like Asterley Bros, it’s another English vermouth, but this time white not red: Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth.

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.

Bottle of Blackdown Vermouth alongside a squeezed lemon half atop a juicer -- prelude to making syllabub

Oh, and one more thing. It makes a bloody delicious lemon syllabub — pudding of kings.

Booze of the Week: Nordesia Red Vermouth

Nordesia Red Vermouth may initially get you a few weird looks at a party. But those looks will quickly turn worshipful when the buggers actually try the stuff, I’ll warrant.

I blame the Asterley Brothers.

Ever since I snagged that bottle of their English Red Vermouth, I’ve been mildly obsessed with seeking out new (to me) vermouths.

The obsession was further fueled by two charming chaps I met at a party who had brought along a bottle of Spanish vermouth. What a splendid drink to bring to a party, eh?

Stop staring at me like that. It’s disconcerting.

So I snouted and snuffled around the vermouthy category at The Whisky Exchange and turfed up this opaque-bottled charmer, Nordesia Red Vermouth (The Whisky Exchange, £22.25). It comes in a litre bottle (cue further party cred) and is made in Galicia from the Mencia grape.

So let’s crack it open.

Wow, blimey, it’s spicy. Cinnamon is the biggie — heaps of it — but ginger and vanilla too. Along with the cinnamon, the other thing that hits you in force is red berry fruit (sour cherries) overlaid with orange oils. Like Asterley Bros Vermouth, it’s built on a foundation of red wine not white, and you can feel it in the tannins. I enjoy the extra depth, the grab. It also has a fair old dose of well-integrated bitterness. I’d read that Spanish Vermouths tend to be lighter and more accessible than French or Italian, but I wouldn’t say Nordesia Tinto bears that out: it’s certainly not what I’d call light. Set aside a glass of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, this is clearly the more challenging to drink on its own.

That’s not to say it’s challenging in any kind of pejorative sense. It’s a bloody delight.

I’m drinking it neat over ice with a twist of orange peel and that’s how I’d recommend you drink it too, if you please. It’s an entirely different beast from your usual Martini-style vermouths, as you’ve probably gathered by now, and extremely well-suited to drinking in this way. I’ve experimented with Nordesia Vermouth in the context of various cocktails and haven’t yet found one in which it shines. In a Negroni, it’s tough to balance; none of the gins I’ve tried it with has harmonised well. It makes a pleasant enough — if rather spikey — Manhattan, but I’d say other vermouths fit that cocktail considerably better.

But that’s fine by me. The joy of having a bottle of red vermouth open is that you can happily pour yourself a glass on a week night — and keep to just a glass. That’s a feat I find near-impossible with a bottle of wine, so conscious am I of the perils of oxidation. With your red vermouth, you can keep it happily enough in the fridge for a week or two and it holds onto its flavour and freshness pretty well. It makes for a simple and self-contained aperitif, no faffing with shakers or fumbling for multiple bottles, and a mid-week-friendly ABV of 15%.

But you and your mates are going to down the bottle in one sitting anyway, aren’t you? You goddamn sophisticated party animals.

Booze of the week: Asterley Bros Estate English Vermouth

Many things are nicer than a bout of labyrinthitis-induced vertigo. Asterley Bros English Vermouth is one such thing. You possibly shouldn’t drink this until your room spins, but far be it from me to dissuade you… It’s bloody good.

What’s worse than a hangover? I’ll tell you: the symptoms of a hangover (the absolute worst kind), lasting for days, without the benefit of actually having been drunk beforehand.

Reader, welcome to the world of labyrinthitis.

Thanks to questionable goings-on in my manky old inner ear, the world has been spinning in a decidedly unpleasant manner lately. Needless to say, the beast alcohol has taken a back seat during this nausea-wracked time. Along with work, the outside world and anything beyond the most rudimentary forms of motion.

Labyrinthitis isn’t all that fun.

Anyhow, this weekend the good ship Parn seems to have steadied. And I’d like to celebrate that fact, if I may, with a generous glassful of the subject of today’s post: Asterley Bros English Red Vermouth.

I mentioned this vermouth before (in my post about the Negroni Manzanilla, remember?), but only as a footnote. It’s better than a footnote, though. It deserves the spotlight.

There aren’t many English Vermouths knocking about, as far as I can tell. Asterley Bros (they actually are brothers, I believe) leapt with typical Forest Hill panache into the breach. What is it, incidentally, about Forest Hill and alcohol? I’ve only been there once or twice, but you have the Asterley HQ, you have Robert McIntosh (patron saint of UK wine bloggers), you have Forest Hill Gin Club, whose virtues a friend of mine extols… None of these things, mark my words, do you have in Petersfield, Hampshire.

Anyhow. The bros Asterley knocked up a vermouth (alongside, intriguingly, an Amaro and a Fernet, neither of which I’ve yet tried). Unlike lots of red vermouths, the Asterleys’ isn’t made from a base of white wine (the colour of red vermouth normally comes from caramel, not the original wine). Asterley Bros Vermouth, though, is made from a base of red wine (in this case, pinot noir from Gusbourne Estate in Kent). It’s instantly evident, both in terms of the drink’s appearance (darker, tending more towards opacity) and its taste: the grip of the tannin and heft of darker berry fruits is unlike the more herb-led Italian vermouths (Martini Rosso et al).

Which is all frightfully interesting, of course. But you don’t come here for facts, do you?

(Please tell me you don’t come here for facts.)

Let’s taste, then. Starting with Asterley Bros Vermouth unadulterated (well, except for the obligatory twist of orange peel): neat, over ice.

Glass of English Red Vermouth alongside a table lamp

It’s indecently full and sweet in the gob to begin with, but a very nice catch of bitterness steps in fairly quickly, handing over to a bunch of spicy, rooty characters to escort you out. Considerably less sweet than some of its ilk (I’m looking at you, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and rather delicious to sip when you want something without the hefty ABV of a whisky (or a Negroni) but with some depth and complexity to it. I know it’s customary in Spain to drink Vermouths neat in this way, and I raise my glass to our Iberian friends in approbation.

And in a Negroni, too, it’s excellent — so long as you’re not after a classic Negroni. Because of its depth and bitter edge, it certainly muscles into the drink. My preference is not to put it up against Campari, but instead pair it with the mellower Sacred Rose Hip Cup (£27.95, The Whisky Exchange), against which I don’t feel it competes to the same degree.

Oh, and it’s sodding blinding in a Manhattan. Really extremely good, anchoring the drink superbly. I put it in a 1:2 ratio with Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey (£27.75, The Whisky Exchange) and a couple of dashes of Angostura Bitters.

Now, sorry in advance. I’m going to talk dirty.

I’m going to talk (urgh) marketing.

I don’t know whether the Bros have a natural grasp of the dark arts or whether they’re superbly well-advised. But they’ve done a couple of pretty intelligent things with their drinks. Firstly, by the look of it, they’ve spent a decent amount of cash on the packaging design and sourcing, and have accomplished the two most important goals: it looks expensive and it looks different (bear in mind this will sit alongside bottles of Martini Rosso, Punt e Mes and the like).

Bottle of Asterley Bros Estate English Red Vermouth

Secondly, they did some rather clever ‘beta testing’ whereby those registering early interest in the company were sent samples of alternative blends before the product was finalised and asked to confirm their preference. An alcoholic A/B test, in other words. What a fabulous, low-cost way to build an engaged base of customers and advocates (and do market research at the same time). Well done, chaps.

I’m not going to write loads more about the Asterley vermouth now — you’re a busy person, I know, and I have another English Vermouth post planned. In any case, I’m too busy drinking.

I have a week of lost labyrinthitis time to make up for…

Asterley Bros Estate Vermouth is available from the Bros own website (£23.95 for 500ml) and is also stocked by The Whisky Exchange, if you want to buy it alongside a host of other booze. It’s 16% ABV, if you’re interested.