In my booze-writer version of the 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” in which Bill Murray gets stuck living the same winter day over and over, waking time after time to his alarm clock blasting lines from “I Got You Babe,” the tormentors are not Sonny and Cher, nor aggressive insurance salesman Ned Ryerson nor even warm, glowing, irritating Andie MacDowell.
No, my Groundhog Day is hearing old stories about how geniuses such as Alfred Hitchcock or Winston Churchill preferred their martinis, how some pearl of wisdom that once dropped from their lips dictates that the best possible martini is the one with the least possible vermouth. That so-and-so’s martini technique was to pour a glass of gin and glance at a bottle of vermouth, or bow in the direction of France, or whisper “vermouth” above the surface of the drink.
It’s not that the stories are annoying as stories — in fact, it’s almost the opposite: They’re so appealing as anecdotes, as glimpses of the wit of the people involved, that their charm has given them unmerited credibility as advice about how to cocktail.
Generally, bias against vermouths and other fortified wines has declined in savvy cocktail quarters. For one thing, we now have access to a range of better vermouths. Early in the cocktail renaissance, bar guru Audrey Saunders of New York’s Pegu Club made her Fifty-Fifty martini, placing vermouth on equal footing with gin and inspiring many a cocktailer to reconsider the short shrift they had been giving the wine. More broadly, many bartenders have fallen in love with sherry or a particular aperitif wine, and have tried to preach away these lingering biases.
Yet more than a decade into the cocktail renaissance, you still encounter people arguing that a good martini has a mere atomic particle of vermouth in it, or referring to sherry as sweet grandma wine.
Those clinging to these old notions are missing out, especially as fall finally saunters in. These days, the best liquor stores are laden with beautiful new vermouths, dry and complex sherries, rich ports, bittersweet quinquinas. More producers are using better base wines in these products, too.
Skip the pumpkin-spice trend — for fall cocktails, fortified and aromatized wines carry a wide range of autumnal flavors, some subtle and suggestive, other big and spicy.
Fortified wines comprise a huge group of beverages, so a high-speed dash around the category might help. A fortified wine is one whose alcohol content has been beefed up via the addition of a spirit, a process that was originally done to keep wines from turning to vinegar in their casks during long ocean voyages. As people grew to like the results, the addition came to be made for its own sake, creating a new category of spirit-enhanced wines.
There’s now a massive range of fortified wines — ports, sherries, Madeiras, Marsalas and so on, and within that broader category, there’s also a diverse subcategory of “aromatized” wines, which have not only been fortified with spirit, but also flavored with herbs, spices or fruit.
This huge range results in plentiful sources for the flavors people tend to gravitate to this time of year. In tawny ports, you can often find notes of caramel, spiced citrus, nuts, raisins, figs. Dry amontillado and oloroso sherries can bring a nutty richness, and a teaspoon of Pedro Ximenez sherry can serve as a more intriguing sweetener in drinks.
The Columbia Room’s bar manager, Suzanne Critchlow — whose Salted Lime Rickey is among the finalists in the annual U.S. sherry cocktail competition — says some of the richer sherries are great for fall and winter drinks. They’ve even done wine-on-wine in the past in a drink called the Harvest Cobbler, which added a mulled-wine syrup to oloroso sherry.
When you’re working with these ingredients, one of the most critical things is to taste your wine, says bartender Andrea Tateosian of Urbana. Not all wines are created equal, and you won’t be able to make a good cocktail from a bad wine. Urbana’s current cocktail menu is all wine-based, which Tateosian says was a way “to incorporate something lighter proof but with some of those familiar warming fall flavors as well.” She also loves a port-bourbon flip during the winter, “just two ingredients plus an egg, so simple, warm and rich.”
Some fortified wines are so delicious on their own that you don’t want to hide them. Take the intriguing Vermut Lustau (a luscious blend of sherries that’s been aromatized with classic vermouth herbs and spices) and Cocchi’s Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro, which amps up a classic Torino vermouth with a bitter botanical boost. Both of these aromatized wines can make delicious Manhattan variations, but they’re so good solo that I had a hard time “sacrificing” them to cocktails.
With drinks that have a larger proportion of a lower-proof ingredient, you’ll want to be careful about your mixing process so you don’t water them down too much. Chill the wines in advance if you can, and then give them at most a quick stir with ice.