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.

Waitrose Solera Jerezana Dry Amontillado Sherry

… is more rough-hewn oak than IKEA pine veneer

Waitrose Solera Jerezana Dry Amontillado

What better to write about on Christmas day than sherry? Yes, sherry. Allow Old Parn to add his voice to the loud (yet probably still largely ineffectual) chorus of those who castigate the British public for their indifference to sherry.

Sherry is fucking brilliant.

It’s also pretty much hands-down the best value wine you can buy. Really good sherry is ludicrously cheap. Put a random £6 bottle of sherry up against a random £6 bottle of wine if you don’t believe me.

Anyhow, this here is Waitrose’s Dry Amontillado. With Amontillado, you give up some of that saltwater bite of Fino (and especially Manzanilla) sherries, some of that tastebud-awakening zap of bracing dryness.

But you’re repaid. Oh yes, you’re repaid.

Because the wonderful thing about Amontillado is the nutty, toasty, creamy exhale. The smooth, supple woodiness that lasts and lasts. With a hint of fruited sharpness up there in the eaves.

Waitrose’s offering is on the heftier side of the Amontillado spectrum: it sits on a deep, dark foundation like that of a big Old World red, and in the mouth it bristles with an invigorating spiky coarseness. It’s woody like a rough-hewn oak table, not a veneered pine worktop from IKEA.

There’s a sugary, chocolatey smoothness, though, to the smell. And when you first chuck some into your mouth, you’re greeted by a marzipan sweetness.

Verdict

Very nice indeed. Like I say, this is a relatively gutsy Amontillado, so if you’re more into smooth, creamy goings on, you may prefer others. But I like gutsy.

To get top marks, they’d need to eliminate that slight catchiness at the back of the throat, the barely perceptible roughness that intrudes on the finish. But that degree of pickiness is hardly justified by the price.

If you don’t already, drink sherry. If you like sturdy red wines, this would make a very good introduction.

Oh, yeah — happy Christmas, too.

Rating ★★★☆☆
ABV 19%
Price £7.78 from Waitrose