Sugar is rare in nature, yet is a vital part of our diet. So we humans evolved a sensitive taste for the sweet stuff. In previous posts I have talked at length about the concepts of sweetness, sourness, and how the two can be balanced in cocktails.
In fact, “Sweet” seems like such a universal concept there should be no mystery in it. But there is. In fact there can be quite a lot of confusion.
Don’t believe me? Try going into a good cocktail bar and order a Sweet Manhattan. When made properly this will be an alcoholic powerhouse of a drink. A true classic which well deserves its high accolades in the cocktail world.
But one thing it is not is sweet. Tall or short, you’ve tasted sweet cocktails. You’ve also tasted actual sweets (or candy), ice cream and other desserts. You know what sweet means.
But the Sweet Manhattan is not sweet.
So…wtf is going on here?
The simple answer is that this meaning of the word “sweet” is the opposite of “dry”.
But as usual, this simple answer maybe raises more questions than it resolves. Let’s start with…
Certain beverages are often referred to as being dry. Good examples of this include Champagne, tea and some wines. But how does this make sense? Doesn’t “dry” mean an absence of liquid or water? The Sahara desert is dry. A bottle of Champagne is clearly wet. And bubbly.
All true. But dryness doesn’t refer to the properties of the beverage itself but how we perceive it. If a certain beverage makes our mouth feel dry, then that’s how we’re going to describe it. This occurs in two major ways.
The first is what happens when we drink tea, some red wines or fruits like quince or sloe. As well as “dry”, these are often described as being “astringent”. This is due to their high tannin content. Tannins are polyphenols widely found in plants which deploy them in their leaves as deterrents against their being eaten. Tannins bind proteins in saliva, causing them to precipitate. This results in the “dry” or “astringent” taste sensation. For most insects and animals, this equates to a bad taste and may cause them to leave the plant alone. But for us humans…well some of us really like that dry sensation. As evidenced by our long term cultivation of tea.
The other way that a liquid can taste dry is due to the complete absence of sugar. Note that it is not the absence of sugar alone which causes this dry taste sensation. Else pure water would taste dry. Instead it is when our taste buds are stimulated by flavours which *should* be accompanied with sugar, yet the sugar is missing. This is the case for dry white wines. We taste the various fruity flavours and our taste buds “expect” to also taste the sugars that *should* accompany them. But they are mysteriously absent, and we describe our perception of this absence as Dryness.
Sweet vs Dry
It is from this second reason for dryness that people refer to the opposite of dry as “sweet”. On the one hand it makes sense. If dryness is caused by an absence of sugar, then add some sugar (sweetness) and you will reduce the dryness.
But on the other hand, adding a small quantity of sugar to a dry beverage doesn’t make it sweet. Not sweet like sugar syrup. It merely makes it a little less dry. True, if you add a lot of sugar to a dry beverage you will make it sweet. Just like if you added a lot of sugar to any other type of beverage. But the quantities of sugar we’re talking about adding here are not that large.
If I were able to come up with a rational, systematic scale, then I would not call this axis Sweet vs Dry. Instead I would merely describe the scale as one of dryness. Perhaps running from slightly to very dry. But history and convention has taken this choice out of my hands. Like the rest of us, I’m stuck with the confusing nomenclature and can only do my best to explain it all.
As a practical matter there are quite a few cocktail ingredients we could use which impart dryness into a cocktail. Some are very dry. Others only slightly dry. All also impart other flavours too. It is only when we choose to use one of these ingredients that the Sweet vs Dry axis of my Axes of Taste model comes into play. Otherwise it provides no useful information, so I exclude it.
Key cocktail ingredients which impart dryness include Champagne; certain liqueurs such as Maraschino; and various aromatized wines, most notably…
Vermouth is a class of alcoholic beverages with a range similar to that of gin. Gin has certain core aspects which make it gin: method of production; % of alcohol; use of juniper etc. But then there is a huge variance in the range of other botanicals used to flavour it. These days I work with gins flavoured with anything from pink peppercorns to a very Mediterranean mix of olives, rosemary and basil.
Similarly, vermouth is an aromatized wine. A fortified wine infused with a variety of herbs and spices. Given the origins of its name this may originally have included wormwood, in the manner of juniper for gin. However, I am unsure whether this is an enforced convention anymore. Either way, aside from being wine-based with increased alcohol there seems to be little coherence in different vermouth’s ingredients.
This is enough, however, to give all vermouths a distinctly dry undertone to them. This can range from bone dry to quite sweet. So as soon as we introduce vermouth into a cocktail the Sweet vs Dry axis comes into play.
There are two broad categories of vermouth – sweet and dry. Dry vermouths have little to no sugar; a delicate, slightly nutty flavour; and range in colour from pale gold to colourless. Sweet vermouths are generally sweeter and darker.
Nowadays sweet and dry vermouths are produced all over the world. But in the past this was not the case. Originally, sweet vermouths came from Italy and dry vermouths from France. So that’s how they entered the jargon of the cocktail world. If you see an old recipe ask for “Bourbon and Italian [vermouth]”, then it means sweet vermouth.
The Impact of Vermouth
So why does all this matter?
Well, it is often hard to imagine what you know as the old when it was new. Like trying to imagine your grandmother when she was a teenager. But just like granny may have been stunning when young, vermouth had a huge impact on the cocktail world when first introduced.
Vermouth was yet another Italian immigrant which came to America in the 19th century and took time to assimilate. But when it did it revolutionized the cocktail world. Before vermouth there were Slings and Fizzes, Cocktails and Collins, Daisies and Rickeys. Very little variety or imagination. But with vermouth came first the Manhattan, one of the true cocktail greats. Then the Martinez and Martini, the Bronx and the Brooklyn, the Rob Roy and the Vesper.
But more than that came the concept of experimentation and innovation. The drive to create new concoctions rather than stick with the old classics. It was around this time that the venerable Whiskey Cocktail became Old Fashioned.
It took me a long time to appreciate the importance of vermouth. I’ve never much liked the stuff, giving me little incentive to experiment with it. They were the dusty old bottles at the back of my parents’ liquor cabinet that managed to survive the teenage years of all three of my sisters untouched. Quite an achievement, but for the wrong reasons.
The Legacy of Vermouth
But as I was coming up it was reaching the lowest point of a long decline. Proportions of gin or whiskey to vermouth were once as high as 1:1. By the time I was learning the trade, only a splash of vermouth was being used. And then only grudgingly, by bartenders who didn’t know why they were using it other than because their old books told them to.
Things have changed. Just as the cocktail world has pulled itself out of a dark era, so appreciation for vermouth is reviving too. Like with gin, “interesting” new vermouths are popping up all over the place. No longer are we limited to only French or Italian. A renaissance of vermouth-heavy cocktails is already underway. And with new products on the market I expect to see significant experimentation going forward.
A couple of further points of interest.
Firstly, you may sometimes hear cocktails (usually Martinis) described as being “wet”. Please note that this is not the opposite of dry. That is sweet. Instead, “wet” is a technical term for leaving the vermouth in the Martini rather than discarding it before adding the gin. So effectively a wet Martini is one with more vermouth content than usual.
Second, the term “perfect”. As in, a Perfect Manhattan. This does not mean the best Manhattan known to man. Instead it means using equal proportions of both sweet and dry vermouth. A Sweet Manhattan uses sweet vermouth. A Dry Manhattan uses dry vermouth. And a Perfect Manhattan uses both. A better word than “medium” I suppose. Though if I were coming up with a name for something between French and Italian I might have called it Piedmont…