I'm dangerously devoted to wormwood. Where will this obsession land me? On the side of Route 29 in handcuffs watching a cop drag boxes of obscure booze contraband from my car? At a midnight ATF raid of my home in the sleepy country hollow on the outskirts of town? Will that be enough to dam the river of booze I’ve carried across state lines and relegate me to sipping the rotgut likes of Martini & Rossi the rest of my days? I know too well from a few dodged campus police bullets back in the day that loose lips sink ships. Yet lately I rant in public about my illicit booze runs from Washington, DC to Charlottesville, VA. The way I see it, I’m a smelt hardly worth a roll in batter, let alone a plunge into that glorious hot oil. There are bigger fish to fry, so surely the authorities can’t be bothered by someone's elitist taste in vermouth. So I reload every couple of weeks when back in DC for business and act out this fantasy of being an old-timey bootlegger because, for better or worse, drinking these spirits has become a passion play.
Where did it begin? Not pointing any fingers, but I can trace it cleanly back to the hands of my friend and favorite cocktail pioneer, Jeff Faile. In the early days of a sterling career on the stick - Jeff is now beverage director for two of the top spots in DC, Pineapple & Pearls and Rose’s Luxury - his signature Manhattan at (recently shuttered) Palena has to be included in the rising tide of quality booze that elevated DC’s taste for legit cocktails. It was early 2011, winter, when I first saddled up to his bar. I was so impressionable, winging everything, including my drinking ethos, looking for the bottom rung of any sophisticated ladder to grab. Words like curate and craft were just beginning to elbow their way to the table. I was a little skeptical but knew it was time to grow up, to graduate from Jack and Coke.
That first sip changed everything - the lush, smoked cherry cola and vanilla layers of the Carpano Antica Formula vermouth seduced me with a strip-tease that sparked pleasure so rich that I welcomed, practically begged for, the sting of whiskey to cut it. The garnish of bar-made boozy cherries, Jeff’s trademark back then, so dark and sweet, rounded out an experience that frankly felt carnal. When I snapped out of the trance I felt a blush wash over my face, as if I’d just engaged in some lewd act of public indecency. I was a new vampire and here was my first taste of fresh blood.
Eventually it made all the sense in the world for my Carpano consumption to pull a Beyoncé and go solo. With layers of character and a parade of flavors that leave me guessing as to what’s next, it no longer needed the flank of brown liquor and bitters to elevate its stardom. This epiphany would turn out to be my exercise in moderation. Cocktails have always been my jam, but mixologists these days are slinging drinks so kind on the palate that I find my thoughts fogged and my words slurred way too early in the night from throwing them back with ease. (Related: self control is not my jam.) Maybe it was how I swayed in the stool or the tinge of trouble in my eyes that Jeff noticed. Either way, when he set this drink before me one night, it added a charming wrinkle to my cocktail playbook that I embrace today:
Carpano Antica + Soda
2 ounces Carpano Antica Formula
4 ounces sparkling water
1 orange (or lemon) peel
Pour Carpano, then sparkling water over rocks. Drag the peel along the rim before giving it a gentle squeeze over the booze then drop it in.
Here’s the rub - which begs the question of why I’d write an ode to this 'nectar of the gods' in the first place - I have yet to find it at a retailer in Charlottesville. With fall and winter around the corner, my favorite seasons for sipping rich dark vermouth, it seems another mule run is in the cards. I'm fine with this because I miss the endearing gruff personalities of my favorite DC liquor store clerks at Ace Beverage and Schneider’s. With an arm’s-length dose of helpful charm, they’ll walk the aisles dispensing shots of knowledge about classic liquors and indie small-batch brands along with anecdotal gems that make you feel like a booze insider. This complexity of character mirrors the very spirits they sell you. Meanwhile, a trip to any local ABC brings all the nuance and luster of an errand to the DMV. I hear some ABC stores will special-order liquor for you, so I'll look into that and report back. And it's definitely worth mention that Greenwood Gourmet in Crozet offers a fantastic vermouth selection, including Cocchi di Torino, a lovely colleague of Carpano that will do in a pinch.
But wait, there is hope. I've found it at select watering holes in Charlottesville such as C&O, Oakhart Social, Lampo and Alley Light, to name a few. You can reasonably judge the caliber and class of a bar by its vermouth game. If you spot Carpano Antica on the cocktail list or see it on the top rail behind the bar, breathe easy and imbibe away. (At the very least they should have Dolin, a lower grade yet very solid vermouth.) If you have a drop of taste or pride and the only vermouth in the house is Martini & Rossi, you should bounce immediately. This is all regardless of whether you drink it. I'm just saying that's your litmus test.
To those who know their way around a sophisticated cocktail list, I'm not breaking booze news here. Carpano Antica has been holding court on the scene for a stretch of several years now. For me it's the original gangster in a long line of wormwood players that have happily cluttered my home bar. It's my first vermouth love, hence a fitting genesis for this series.
Tasting Notes: Before you taste, take a deep whiff of this gem and you'll get dreamy hints of root beer and vanilla on the nose. On the palate. I find an initial bold wave of vanilla and dried citrus fruit that gives way to a second act of cherry cola and cloves and finishes with a pleasant herbal sting that is rounded out with a hint of toffee.