Today, instead of flying above your heads, Cupid is likely standing behind long stretches of bar, polishing glassware, mixing drinks, and offering advice to the brokenhearted. Bartenders may as well don wings, draw their bow, and sharpen their arrows, as people ascribe an unusual power to alcohol as an aphrodisiac despite their real experiences with the precariousness of lovemaking under the influence.
Vermouth has become little more than a joke: pointed toward France or waved in front of a bottle of gin to consummate the Martini union. This is truly a shame.
It's not that alcohol holds no sway over libido; it's just that, as Shakespeare wrote, "it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance." In a love embrace, the least desirable of pre-game plights is that of dizziness, fatigue, and dehydration (that these should follow is something completely different). Yet heavy drinking can certainly induce all three indispositions. Not to mention, as Shakespeare also writes, "[drink]...makes him stand to, and not to stand." This will simply not do on love's most important holiday.
Therefore, let me suggest a few low-alcohol drinks for Valentine's Day made from a beverage purported to have an amorous appeal, vermouth. Vermouth was created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin to make the local wine more affable to the ladies, although its history may be a bit more complicated than the official story. Vermouth represents one of the world's oldest known spirits, if we're to count wormwood added to wine.
I know what you're thinking—that vermouth is the stuff you swirl and dump from your Martini. Led by drunken artists, mistreatment, and mimicry, vermouth has become little more than a joke: pointed toward France or waved in front of a bottle of gin to consummate the Martini union. This is truly a shame. A combination of wine, wormwood, various botanicals, and neutral spirit, generally around 18 to 20 percent alcohol, well-made Vermouth is highly quaffable on its own and sublime in cocktails.
The only problem is that vermouth is as much wine as spirit and requires a little extra care due to its limited life span. Vermouth is best refrigerated and checked for freshness after a week or so (although more particular palates may wish to check after three days). Yes, that means the bottle of vermouth you inherited from your grandparents has since turned, maybe twice.
There are different varieties of vermouth—ranging from vanilla to wild strawberry—but the categories we all know well, and I will limit to this discussion, are separated into dry and sweet (also called French and Italian after their place of provenance). There are many brands of dry and sweet available, including stalwarts like Martini & Rossi and Cinzano, but among my favorites is Dolin, which I tipped importer Eric Seed off to and have subsequently proselytized as though I got paid to do so. (For the record, I don't.)
Below are some of my favorite vermouth-based cocktails that will make quick work of your bottle and, thus, justify the investment. They will also leave you entirely capable this Valentine's Day, the rest of which is up to you—both the willingness and the ability to find a partner equally willing. If despite your best efforts you're still alone, we have the stronger stuff, should you wish to bend an elbow in consolation.
The Fancy Sour
The Fancy Sour was first brought to my attention by bartender Katie Nelson. It's both delicious and an easy landing.
• 1 ounce sweet vermouth
• 1/2 ounce Maraschino liqueur
• 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
• dash orange bitters
• dash aromatic bitters
Shake with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with orange peel.
The Chrysanthemum is among my wife's favorites, so this has the double purpose of being a great drink and buttering my wife up since I'll be working Valentine's Day.
• 2 ounces dry vermouth
• 1 ounce Benedictine
• Half barspoon of absinthe
Shake with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon peel.
Gents, this is your way of getting around that feeing of being an old lady ordering a glass of vermouth. Simply order a Manhattan with reverse proportions.
• 2 ounces sweet vermouth
• 1 ounce rye whiskey
• dash of aromatic bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with brandied cherry.