It has been a go-to brand for countless cocktail lovers, the vital supporting act in the venerable dry martini. Now Noilly Prat, the 200-year-old French vermouth, is gone. Or, more accurately, nearly gone. There are still a few bottles left in Canada, but after current supplies dry up they won't be replaced.
Bacardi, which owns Noilly Prat, has decided to pull it from the Canadian market, citing a slump in sales. "We are transitioning out of it," said Rob McPherson, Bacardi Canada's president. "The [provincial] liquor boards have quotas and if they're not making the quota, the shelf space goes to someone else."
Judging by my inbox, the news is being greeted with the sort of gut-wrenching panic that one might associate with finding a "Dear John" letter on the kitchen counter.
"I've discovered that my favourite dry vermouth, Noilly Prat, has been discontinued by the LCBO and SAQ," one reader wrote. "It's not available in B.C. and my home province of Nova Scotia continues to stock it but I'm not going there any time soon. I'm mystified why it's been discontinued." Another reader, lamenting the disappearance of various other brands as well, beseeched me to take up arms against the vermouth sea of troubles: "Please HELP!"
I'm not sure I can help – however, for the record, the LCBO plans to introduce three or four other brands in Ontario by the end of the year. Despite hues and cries from drinkers who feel as though they've been left high and not so dry, consumers by and large have spoken. Many simply bailed from Noilly Prat, switching allegiance mainly to Martini Extra Dry from Italy, another Bacardi offering, which controls more than 75 per cent of the dry vermouth segment in Canada. One might ask why. Did tastes suddenly change? On the contrary, it was Noilly Prat that changed.
Though few people had been aware, the brand used to come in two formulations, the classic original and a drier, paler style that had been exclusive to North America since the sixties. In 2008, Bacardi took a gamble, discontinuing the lighter style in favour of the European version. In contrast to the "New Coke" boondoggle of the 1980s, the change was made quietly, though the company did switch to a new bottle.
For those who noticed a taste difference, the European recipe came across as sweeter, with an essence slightly akin to the bruised tang of, say, Madeira.
Technically a wine aromatized with various herbs and spices and sweetened with sugar, vermouth can vary significantly from brand to brand. In the case of Noilly Prat, located in Marseillan, France, on the sunny Mediterranean shore, white wine is left to mature in Canadian oak casks outdoors. A combination of heat and slow oxidation through the wood's pores imparts that subtle cooked flavour, which stands in contrast to the more delicate Martini Extra Dry.
It might be just the thing for a pre-Prohibition martini, a relatively sweet cocktail dominated by vermouth and often nuanced with a dash of orange bitters. But the flavour can be jarring if what you're after is the sort of ultra-bracing sip favoured by people who feel it sufficient merely to pour cold London dry gin into a glass while nodding in the direction of France (sometimes called the Winston Churchill recipe).
"Unfortunately, the European taste profile hasn't connected with the Canadian consumer," McPherson said. "The good thing for us is that we still have Martini Extra Dry."
One professional mourning the loss is Justin Taylor, head bartender at Yew Seafood and Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver. He also likes the profile of such robust (though hard to find) brands as Vya from California and Atsby from New York. "When I first started bartending, a martini was a drink that consisted of chilled vodka or gin with a twist or an olive," he said. "No one ever argued, for what did they know? It wasn't until I started working at Centro [restaurant] on Yonge Street in Toronto that I learned the art of a proper martini." In other words: Don't skimp on the good-quality vermouth.
Call me a Churchill man. Lately I've been sparing the vermouth altogether in favour of a dollop of fino sherry, such as Tio Pepe. The bone dry, fortified Spanish wine imparts the slightest salty tang to the gin (or vodka, if you prefer), while steering clear of added sweetness. Sometimes I merely add a dash of celery bitters to straight gin for extra zing.
Over the past week I've also been enjoying a trick favoured by Bacardi's McPherson. He pours a small splash of Scotch into a martini glass and swirls to coat the inside. Then – "sacrilegiously," he says – he dumps the whisky down the drain. (Easy for a liquor executive who also markets Dewar's Scotch, I suppose.) The result: a whisper of added spice from the oak-aged whisky and not enough pigment to muddy the clear drink. "If you like a very dry martini, it actually hardens up the edges," he said. It even works well using rye or bourbon instead of Scotch.
Sic transit gloria dry martini? Not in my house.