Often here, I’ll pluck a drink from a page of Pynchon based primarily on my ignorance of it. Tommy boy has introduced me to a vast array of new favourites thusly. (Hell, back when I started this, I don’t think I even really liked whisky). Sometimes though, it’s more like I’ll find the exact liquid I’m already most jiving with at that moment just waiting there in a character’s glass. This is one of the latter.
Vermouth is wine fortified with brandy and ‘aromatised’ with wormwood and whatever other botanicals the producer feels like throwing in there. I haven’t been able to get enough of the stuff lately. For a long while, I had an old housemate’s bottle slowly leaking out into occasional negronis. When that finally extinguished itself, I read that vermouth is really best treated like wine and drunk reasonably fresh. This in mind, I picked up a little bottle of Australian Maidenii sweet red vermouth. And quickly discovered that the stuff was really wonderful. Delicious over ice, magic in cocktails.
Against the Day brings me the perfect drink for this moment. In the book’s final section, Kit is in Torino sulking while Dally has dinner with Clive Crouchmas:
Kit stalked away into town and took refuge as usual at a riverfront bar in I Murazzi, near the Po bridge. His friend Renzo was there already, drinking some vermouth concoction.p. 1069, Against the Day
Cheers Renzo, you’ve left me some nice latitude on the exact specs. Here’s what I concocted:
4 parts sweet red vermouth
2 parts kombucha reduction (see below)
1 part campari
A splash of absinth
Shake ingredients with ice, then pour over a big ice cube and garnish with a lemon twist.
The kombucha reduction was around 400 mL of homemade kombucha that I boiled down to 100 mL, an idea I got from a Punch article I can no longer locate. It creates a tart, complex syrup. And what says ‘concotion’ like boiling down some weird home-fermented sour fizzy tea.
As for the other ingredients, the dominant proportion of vermouth ensures that this remains a “vermouth concoction” and not just a generic concoction concoction. Everything else complements flavours already ticking around in the vermouth. The campari also cements the Italian connection, and it’s not Against the Day without some absinthe.
My concoction actually worked out really rather well I’d say. The vermouth is well and truly to the front, but filled out and deepened pretty gorgeously by everything else. The absinthe shares wormwood with vermouth, and adds an aniseed spice that complements very nicely. The kombucha reduction builds this rich tart syrupy layer of honey and citrus underneath it all. It does come off a touch overly sweet. If whipping up another I Murazzi, I might try to up the bitterness with more campari, make things sourer with some fresh kombucha or citrus, or replace some of the sweet vermouth with dry.
Vermouth also pops up in the story “The Small Rain” from Slow Learner. The narrator there describes a scene of military and medical personnel embalming corpses after a hurricane as smelling “like vermouth … after you’d been drinking it all night,” (p. 44). Not so fun. I can’t say I’ve ever drank vermouth all night. I may carry on stopping at one.