We sat down with Stacey Swenson of NYC’s Dante to chat about her work, vermouth, and her cocktail for April’s Vermouth: Never Uncouth Box, the Tidy Martini!
S&S: Have you noticed a change in awareness or appreciation for vermouth over the last few years? Have your own views of it changed in that time?
SS: Yes, for sure! Home bartenders and even dive bars are starting to use and store vermouth properly and give it the respect that it deserves. I used to look at vermouth as just a modifier but now I often drink it on its own, on ice or with soda or as the base spirit.
S&S: To what do you attribute that—because there seem to have been many decades where it had a less-than-stellar, grandparents’-liquor-cabinet-type reputation?
SS: I think we were conditioned to think of vermouth as a less-than-superior product because we are used to bars not treating vermouth properly in the past. Getting people to care about vermouth at all at this point is a feat of its own, even if it’s only convincing people not to be afraid to use vermouth in their martinis (as opposed to some people’s idea of a martini of just shaken vodka or gin in a martini glass) or to store opened bottles in the refrigerator. But I see small changes in attitudes toward vermouth, especially amongst people in the industry as you can see with the rising popularity of the 50/50 martini.
S&S: What types of flavors or ingredients do you reach for to pair with dry vermouth?
SS: Botanical-driven spirits are lovely with dry vermouth—the most obvious being gin—but I love to pair aperitif-style liqueurs with dry vermouth, like gentian-driven Suze or Salers or spiced liqueurs such as Becherovka or Benedictine. When pairing dry vermouth with nonalcoholic modifiers, I usually think of more delicate flavors like chamomile or fresh apricot rather than hard citrus and bold flavors. Dry vermouth is delicate, and if it’s the main ingredient, I’m sure to pair it with care so that it can shine.
S&S: How did you come up with the Tidy Martini?
SS: I’m always looking for an alternative to the dirty martini. I used to despise it, but I’ve realized that it’s not my place to hate a cocktail that a guest is ordering. They don’t care and I shouldn’t either. So, I wanted to come up with the drink that can scratch the itch of the dirty martini drinker but with a little more thought and elegance.
S&S: Were you confident that dry vermouth could stand on its own as the base of this martini? Was there much tweaking along the way?
SS: I was confident that this would be a drink that I would want to drink, but I needed to consider that most people don’t drink vermouth like I do. But with the rise in popularity of low-ABV cocktails, it’s apparent that people want lower-proof cocktail alternatives of their favorites, and this is for someone that wants something savory and salty like the dirty martini. They can have three and still feel refreshed.
S&S: Yes! What is your creative process typically like during recipe formulation?
SS: I typically start by asking myself what the purpose of the cocktail should be. Who is the cocktail for? How does it fit on the menu? Is it filling a void of some sort? Then I will usually build the cocktail around a central nonalcoholic ingredient like an herb or fruit or spice and go from there. I’m a big fan of The Flavor Bible and my cocktails tend to be very culinarily driven.
S&S: Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
SS: I use a lot of shrubs. It’s a great way to incorporate salt, acid, fruit/herb in one ingredient. Vinegar is so often used in food recipes to excite the appetite, balance salt and sweet, and to make other ingredients’ flavor pop. Used properly, it can work this way in cocktails as well.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Tidy Martini?
SS: I think this drink is best enjoyed before a meal with little salty snacks: olives, nuts, pretzels, hard cheese, a light salad, or finger sandwiches.
S&S: Yum! What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
SS: Coltrane, or Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools.”
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