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Straight up with a twist of time

Decadent vintage cocktails made with older spirits are becoming increasingly popular as a way to rediscover and reconnect with a glittering bygone era. Clinton Cawood talks to the mixologists spearheading this retro trend

Words by Clinton Cawood

vintage cocktails
The Collection
At Seattle's Canon, vintage cocktails include this take on the Pegu Club cocktail featuring Cointreau from the 1930s

It’s a tense thing, dusting off a decades-old bottle and pouring its contents for the first time, not knowing how it’s weathered the passage of time or what rigours it might have undergone over the years. Some vintage cocktail ingredients turn out to be perfectly preserved, showing only slight signs of age, while others have evolved significantly, sometimes in unexpected ways. And there are, inevitably, those that are beyond repair.

Whether it’s a liqueur from the 1930s or gin from the 1960s, it’s always a gamble. When it comes to vermouth, the stakes are particularly high. Without the preserving alcoholic strength of spirits, vermouths are more likely to have changed over time, with a greater chance of having transformed into something sublime – or to have succumbed over the years.

The greater the risk, the greater the reward, according to those bartenders choosing to source vintage vermouth and mix rare, historical cocktails with them. These bottles each offer something unique and a rare glimpse into a former time. An ingredient of so many classic cocktails, vintage vermouth should be a feature of any respectable booze collection.

bar nouveau
New to Le Marais, Bar Nouveau in Paris pairs its throwback aesthetic with drinks inspired by another era and filled with amari, liqueurs, spirits and vermouth from its vintage collection

One such collection resides at the Beaufort Bar at The Savoy Hotel in London. As senior bartender Dimitrios Ferfelis puts it, ‘These vintage vermouths carry historical value, connecting us with the cocktail culture of bygone eras. Incorporating them into cocktails evokes a sense of authenticity and nostalgia, and it is crucial for mixing historically accurate drinks.’ The passage of time, he adds, results in ‘refined and intricate flavours, offering a smoother and richer taste profile’.

For Isabel Graham-Yooll, director of whisky.auction, a prime source of vintage bottles of all descriptions, ‘When a vermouth has matured well, it retains all its original sweetness and character but it has mellowed and integrated. The fresh fruit almost disappears, making way for dried fruit, and it can be earthy, nutty and mushroomy too.’

‘Vintage spirits are steadily disappearing. I’m concerned about our ability to keep offering these cocktails’ – Jamie Boudreau

The botanicals in vermouth also play a part, says Jamie Boudreau of Canon bar in Seattle, much like they do in vintage bottles of liqueurs like Chartreuse and St-Germain. And as they evolve, some ‘could fool one into thinking that you are drinking a Sherry, which I find quite delightful,’ he says.

Canon offers a variety of vintage cocktails made with ingredients going back to the 1930s. According to the menu, they ‘will transport one to an era when socialising with cocktail in hand was a magical yet everyday occurrence.’ Prices range between $245 and $750 per drink.

canon bar
At Seattle’s Canon bar, bottles of gin, Campari and vermouth from the 60s and 70s are stirred down to form a vintage Negroni that costs over $300

The variation between bottles is a challenge, says Boudreau, but perhaps a more pressing issue is availability, not just for vermouth but also for vintage spirits and liqueurs. ‘Due to their very nature, they’re steadily disappearing,’ he says. ‘There may have been larger collections 20 years ago, when I started coveting these bottles, but I’m starting to get concerned about our ability to keep offering these cocktails.’

Fortunately, says Graham-Yooll, old vermouths don’t necessarily command high prices – relatively speaking: a recent auction saw bottles from the 1990s go for as little as £12, while a bottle of 1960s Carpano Vermouth went for £85. Useful when, ‘just like the wines they are based on, they evolve in a variety of different ways and some do better than others.’ That, at least, is certain.

Three bars serving decadent vintage cocktails

Beaufort Bar at The Savoy Hotel, London

Steeped in cocktail history, The Savoy Hotel is a fitting home for cocktail ingredients from bygone eras. Its Beaufort Bar boasts a collection of old spirits – whiskies, rums and more – alongside other ingredients, such as vintage bottles of Pimm’s.

This diverse selection allows bartenders to make a vintage version of just about any classic cocktail. A White Lady, or a Daiquiri, is a popular choice, says Anna Sebastian, previously the Beaufort’s bar manager and now a consultant for The Savoy. Another client of hers, Raffles London, has an enviable collection of vintage ingredients at The Guards Bar & Lounge.

‘When it comes to showcasing these types of cocktails, the fewer ingredients, the better,’ she says, suggesting drinks like the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac. ‘The addition of vintage absinthe is a really nice touch.’

As far as vintage vermouth goes, senior bartender Dimitrios Ferfelis is partial to Martini Rosso, describing it as an ‘enigmatic elixir that seamlessly bridges the gap between vintage allure and the contemporary scene.’

beaufort bar savoy
‘Recreating Savoy classics in an iconic setting where these drinks were first made is pretty special' - Anna Sebastian

Vintage bottles of this vermouth are invariably used to recreate a particular classic cocktail that has its origins at the hotel: the Hanky Panky. Created in the early 20th century by Ada ‘Coley’ Coleman, a bartender at the Savoy’s American Bar, it combines gin and sweet vermouth with another ingredient that’s highly sought after in vintage form: Fernet-Branca.

Ferfelis describes a vintage Hanky Panky as ‘a journey through time’, one that ‘connects the past with the present, crafting an experience that captures the essence of both eras.’

‘Recreating Savoy classics in an iconic setting where these drinks were first made is pretty special,’ adds Sebastian.

While vintage bottles of existing brands like Martini link the past and the present, others offer a glimpse of a history that would otherwise be lost forever. Ferfelis gives the example of Kina Lillet, an essential component of the original Vesper cocktail of James Bond fame. Discontinued in the 1980s, the liqueur is hard to come by nowadays, though vintage bottles do turn up on occasion.

Bar Nouveau, Paris

Despite the name of this recently opened Parisian bar, the only bottles on display are decidedly old, a line-up of vintage spirits and vermouths from yesteryear, their labels distressed and faded. This diminutive Art Nouveau-inspired spot has room for only a dozen guests – all the better for giving those vintage bottles the attention they deserve.

‘The unpredictable nature of vintage vermouths certainly makes them fun to work with. Unlike other ingredients, it’s very difficult, or impossible, to know what to expect,’ says co-owner Remy Savage. ‘Opening each bottle is like opening a treasure chest. You can have the most exciting liquid but also the weirdest one.’

He remembers one in particular: an extraordinary bottle of Punt e Mes from the 1950s. His tasting notes include soy sauce combined with fruitiness – although he points out that they don’t always end up like this.

bar nouveau paris cocktail
‘Opening each bottle is like opening a treasure chest. You can have the most exciting liquid – or the weirdest one’ – Remy Savage

With every bottle of vintage vermouth so distinct from the next, cocktail recipes need to be adapted to each one. The team at Bar Nouveau tend to use their collection to recreate classics such as the Martini, Adonis, Negroni and Manhattan, all excellent showcases for vermouth, vintage or not. Consisting of nothing more than sweet vermouth, dry Sherry and orange bitters, the Adonis, in particular, is an inspired way of putting vintage vermouth front and centre.

Bar Nouveau features a compact menu of just six cocktails, with vintage ingredients reserved for those guests that request them. ‘Since they’re the only bottles you can see, we do get asked about them quite a lot,’ says Savage.

He has plans to get these vintage ingredients in front of more people in the near future, though. Starting soon, one day a week, the bar will serve a specific vintage cocktail, sold at cost price.

Mordecai, Chicago

In addition to being the general manager of Chicago’s Mordecai, Kris Peterson is also the venue’s spirits archivist, overseeing its considerable collection. Spanning decades, not to mention all four corners of the globe, the cocktail bar and restaurant’s spirits list covers everything from whisky and rum, to amaro and agave spirits. And vermouth, of course.

A good place to start, says Peterson, is Punt e Mes from the 1960s and 70s, with complex bitterness alongside dried cherry notes. ‘Part of the appeal is that wine-based vintage spirits deliver a clear sense of age and time passing in the drink,’ he says. ‘These are notes that require time to emerge. You can’t cheat the authenticity of that – you’ll taste it.’

A recently opened bottle of Vermouth di Torino from the 1970s – a private label from the now-shuttered Zimmerman’s Cut Rate Liquor Store in Chicago – was proof of this. ‘It managed to hang on to some of its lemon acidity and tons of herbal spice notes – the nose was like a quality pizzeria,’ he says.

bar mordecai chicago
Chicago's Mordecai boasts a spirits list that spans the decades

When it comes to vintage cocktails, a standout for Peterson is the Martinez, with its combination of gin, sweet vermouth and maraschino liqueur. Made exclusively with 1970s ingredients, it features on his cocktail list at Mordecai. He pairs Plymouth Gin with both Rosso Antico vermouth and Amaro Viparo, which together ‘preserve all the notes that convey the passage of time, while adding some layers.’ The finishing touches are 1970s Stampa maraschino and cherry bark bitters.

Peterson hopes his vintage cocktails, with recipes updated for a contemporary palate, will help guests to rediscover classic drinks. Alongside the Martinez, he offers a brandy Stinger with Jean Grosperrin Cognac from 2001, 1970s Monte Penice amaro and Hiram Walker crème de menthe, also from 1970; and a vintage Singapore Sling made with 1980s Beefeater gin, as well as Cherry Heering and B&B (Bénédictine and brandy) from the 1970s. Cocktails are priced between $25 and $75.

Offerings like these form part of a rotating menu of up to eight vintage cocktails at Mordecai, alongside vintage cocktail specials on weekends.