Drink This Now: Sampling Affäre’s new vermouth program and cocktails

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Most of us know vermouth as that key ingredient in our martinis, Manhattans and other craft cocktails. But in Europe, the fortified wine — which originated in Italy in the 18th century — has long held a slightly more noble position: as an aperitif, to be consumed on its own. This is the spirit that Affäre hopes to resurrect with its new vermouth program.

“We brought on the vermouth because we’re a European restaurant, and we wanted to bring vermouths back to the popular drinking palate,” Chelsea Almeida, Affäre’s bar manager, tells me. “It’s really common in Europe to just drink some vermouth on its own or on the rocks. It’s really flavorful, and it’s got a low proof. And there are so many types. There’s not just Martini & Rossi. There’s really great stuff out there.” 

There are seven different vermouths that Almeida and Affäre’s co-owner Katrin Heuser have chosen to feature on their menu, with an emphasis on red (sweet) vermouths rather than white (dry) vermouths. The selection is, indeed, a far cry from bargain-shelf brands. (“We wanted to find things that people haven’t seen before or aren’t super familiar with,” Almeida tells me.)

Almeida stocks both the Bianco and Rosso from Contratto, a winery in Italy with a vermouth history dating back to the 19th century; today’s products are based on the company’s 1930s recipes. There’s the Rojo and Reserva Acacia (sweet vermouth aged in French oak) from Lacuesta in Spain, which has been producing vermouths since 1937.

Almeida pours a sip of the Lacuesta Reserva Acacia — it’s thick, almost syrup-like. “I think it kind of tastes like a marshmallow,” she says, “with coffee and brown sugar notes.” 

I observe the rest of the list. There’s Antica Formula, from Carpano, is one of the oldest vermouths on the market; the recipe hasn’t changed since 1786 (the company touts it as the first vermouth ever produced). Mancino’s Chinato is a hybrid vermouth, deeper and darker than any other red.

The Chinato is one of Almeida’s favorites: “It has a big flavor to it that coats your whole palate and makes you salivate a little bit, which makes it a great thing to start your meal with,” she says. “And it kind of has tobacco and chocolate notes, which I love.” 

And then there’s Petal & Thorn, a new product from Imbue in Oregon, is a bittersweet rose-colored vermouth that is unlike anything I’ve tried.

“I really like this one,” Almeida says. “It’s pine-y and has honey notes and a little cinnamon.” There’s a subtle sweetness to the Petal & Thorn that I like, along with an earthiness — it smells like a forest, and it kind of tastes like one, too.

Each of these vermouths is poured neat or on the rocks for $8 each (a two-ounce pour), or offered in a flight of four for $12 (one ounce each pour). 

“It’s a great way to get some flavors without having to drink a lot,” Almeida says. “You get to try some unique stuff, and it’s a nice way to end a meal or start a meal.” 

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Of course, Almeida isn’t one to shy away from using these products in her cocktails. When I stop in, she’s offering a new drink called Both Sides of the Border, featuring the Imbue Petal & Thorn and Tequila Ocho 2015 Reposado. 

“So the Petal & Thorn feels like an in-between sweet and dry vermouth, with notes of chamomile and orange,” Almeida says, “and I thought that would pair well with the 2015 Reposado, which has some caramel and pineapple notes. I also used an apricot brandy and just a bit of Bitter Cube Boliver bitters, which are made with cassia, chamomile and dried fruit, so there are these rosy, medicinal flavors going on.” 

Almeida’s Border cocktail looks pale and dainty, but it is potently stiff. I’m a little unprepared for the flavors at first — Almeida laughs and reminds me that “it’s literally all alcohol” — but I quickly warm to it. The tequila comes through loud and clear, but the Petal & Thorn gives it some herbal balance. I kind of feel like I should be wrapped up in a falsa blanket, watching a desert sunset. 

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Almeida’s next cocktail, Across the Atlantic, is similarly alcoholic, though the flavors change entirely. 

“I basically made a Perfect Manhattan, which is a Manhattan with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth,” she tells me. “I used High West Rendevouz Rye Whiskey, which is kind of spicy, with the Contratto Bianco and the Mancino Chinato. So instead of doing two ounces of bourbon to one ounce of vermouth, this is one and a half ounces of bourbon to three-fourths ounces of two kinds of vermouth, plus some Peychaud bitters.” 

I prefer this kind of Manhattan, one that’s heavier on the vermouth. The Contratto Bianco carries nutmeg and tea flavors, and Almeida’s use of Peychaud bitters (rather than the bar standard Angostura) means that there are notes of anise. The Chinato lends a heaviness, reminiscent of wine. 

“I think of this as a little glass of holiday cheer,” Almeida tells me. I agree. 

Affäre has recently extended its hours. The Crossroads restaurant is now open from Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to  9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. For contact information and menus, go here

Categories: Food & Drink