In Vermouth Veritas
Schillinger, Liesl, Newsweek
Byline: Liesl Schillinger
How bitters became the cocktail flavor of the moment.
To Dushan Zaric, a Belgrade-born mixologist who presides over Manhattan's Employees Only speakeasy with a piratical air (his cufflinks are silver skulls), "a cocktail recipe is like a sheet of music." As Zaric mixes a Mata Hari--a spicy, rose-hued concoction that blends cognac, pomegranate, and lemon with a spill of house-made chai vermouth--he explains, "You give a sheet of music to different musicians and they will all perform it in different ways. The secret of a cocktail is not in the recipe, it's in the heart."
Zaric is part of a wave of thirsty purists whose passion for hand-batch vermouths and creatively engineered bitters is changing the American happy hour. When you think of vermouth, you may picture a dusty bottle that's trotted out on rare occasions for an elderly uncle, to make a Manhattan (sweet vermouth, rye, and a cherry), a bare-bones martini (gin or vodka with dry vermouth), or a Negroni (sweet vermouth, gin, and Campari). And it's true that the drink's origins are venerable. Vermouth and its bitter companions have roots in the Middle Ages, when monks fortified leftover wine so it wouldn't spoil, flavored it with wormwood (Wermut), and sold it as a pungent tonic.
But vermouth acquired a glittering makeover in the New World as the chosen quaff of bright young things in the jazz age, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's flappers and "slickers"--"good-looking or clean-looking" men with "brains," who sought to "get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble." Bars at the Savoy and the Ritz looked to Europe for vermouth and bitters recipes to stretch their wines and spirits and add depth to the innovation they called the "cocktail." Today's barmen pay homage to this history with ingenious updates that draw on gourmet tastes to perfect the harmony of flavors. "Americans are still rediscovering food," Zaric says. "We've been obsessed with farm-to-table for a while, and now you have cocktails that are farm-to-glass, with people planting their own herb gardens to flavor their drinks. …