Serious Eats: Drinks

The 'New' Noilly Prat Vermouth Draws Fire

20090119-noillyprat.jpgLock the doors and bar the windows--the new Noilly Prat dry vermouth is coming, and, according to Eric Felten in the Wall Street Journal, your martini will never be the same again, and that's terrible news.

Or maybe not. While Felten praises the aperitif qualities of the new style of vermouth--which isn't new at all, but rather the European blend of the wine that has been sold pretty much everywhere except the United States for decades--he dismisses the vermouth's qualities as a mixer in cocktails such as the dry martini, going so far as to call a martini made with the European vermouth "a mess".

Which is strong language, considering Noilly Prat's history with vermouth. The dry, or French style, of vermouth was created by Joseph Noilly in the early 19th century, and his descendants and their partners went on to produce and distribute the vermouth worldwide. In all likelihood, the dry martini was developed using Noilly Prat, and it's this vermouth that has graced many of these cocktails - in ever-decreasing amounts--for more than a century.

But how big a deal is this change? I'm a big fan of Felten's column and typically find them spot-on, but this breaking news seems a bit overblown. True, when tasted on their own, side by side, there is a discernable difference between the old American bottling of Noilly Prat and the new European bottling; the American style is lighter in color and flavor, whereas the European style is golden and carries a more vibrant botanical character. But considering that most martinis are made with miserly amounts of vermouth, and that most drinkers only venture into the vermouth aisle for this particular drink, in all likelihood almost nobody will notice the difference. And for those who like a much wetter martini (I count myself in this camp), or who utilize vermouth for a wider range of cocktails? Still, the differences will be mostly minor, and as I discovered several years ago while playing around with bottles of Noilly Prat I brought home from France, not at all unpleasant.

It's tempting to compare the "new" Noilly Prat to the disasters encountered in the '80s by "New Coke", but aside from a different recipe in new packaging, the similarity ends there. This European style of vermouth has been enjoyed on its own as an aperitif for generations, and as a cocktail ingredient has been served in bars around the world - with the notable exception of the United States - at times when vermouth was a much heavier hitter in popularity than it is today. I won't deny that some recipes may need to be tweaked, while others may not work out as well, but for the most part a backlash against this vermouth is a tempest over trivialities.

The new bottling of Noilly Prat dry vermouth is starting to appear in liquor stores and bars now. Have you had it, or have you sampled the European version while traveling abroad? How do you think it stacks up against the soon-to-be defunct American version?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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