À la recherche du vermouth perdu

Following on from the traumatic loss of the Noilly Prat brand of vermouth from my (everyone’s?) life, the search for a new thing to drop into some gin every night gradually shifted from frantic and desperate to resigned, cold and futile. To recap, they changed their formula in 2009 without telling anyone, reverting back to their original 1813 formula under the name Noilly Prat Original Dry. I kept buying it and drinking it, and never noticed the change until the vermouth was removed totally from the market in May of 2012 or so. I still have no word on the company’s rationale or reasoning, and feel quite betrayed by the loss of a beloved ingredient. Also, I felt quite stupid not to have noticed in 2009 that the taste of Noilly Prat had become quite different from what everyone now called vermouth. It was more like a very light fortified wine, kind of straw coloured and fruity tasting. Not like the jet fuel they made before.

So the search for a replacement went very badly, because all the other vermouths still tasted a bit like jet fuel. Eventually, I settled, more or less happily on the Dolin brand, from France, which is actually a great replacement and I’m happy to have found it. I still resent having been forced by Noilly Prat to crawl through the desert eating sand, hoping to taste something like the sand I had become used to, only to spit it all out disgustedly each and every day. Dolin, in my desperation, proved a nice oasis from all that sand for a good long couple of months.

However, I think we have a new winner. From Quebec, a “wine-based apéritif” called Les Folies du Vigneron from Vignoble de la Bauge hit all the right notes that my old Noilly Prat used to hit. It’s got a very clean, citrusy burn through on initial contact, with a nice bitter finish. And it makes a martini taste right, like it used to. The world is almost back to being complete. But I still don’t know what’s up with Noilly Prat. And no one else seems to care.

An Open Letter to Noilly Prat

It’s so long ago now that I don’t remember how Noilly Prat vermouth came to be the other ingredient, along with gin, that I use to make martinis.  But it has become indispensable.  I have never been one of these Churchill/Buñuel martini drinkers who talk about letting the light pass through a bottle of vermouth to infuse their gin.  It’s a charming idea, but that drink is not a martini.  It’s straight gin.  Now, to reinforce the slogan that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, Noilly Prat began disappearing from store shelves (in my part of the world, at least) in May.  And now the shop keeps a hole on the shelf where it used to be with a sign underneath that reads “Disponible sous peu”, rather than replacing it with something else.  I check the empty spot every time I go in and occasionally ask an employee, what’s up with Noilly Prat?  No one seems to really know.

Eventually, I found out from a blog on the internet (rather than any official source, which is baffling) that Noilly Prat is re-introducing its old-old formula sometime this autumn.  The story of the different formulas is a little confusing.  However, what frustrates and engages more than that saga is that the company simply decided to let its old supply run out months in advance of the new supply arriving, leaving nothing in the shops in the meantime.  So from May until roughly September (I think that’s their deadline), no Noilly Pratt, which has sent me trying out every other type of vermouth with very high and very low and extremely mixed results.

In capsule, the story of Noilly Prat’s changes involves switching out the New World formula for the Old World formula, which I noticed happening back in 2009 only because the shape of the bottle had changed.  I thought it was just a cosmetic uplift, and then eventually noticed that the colour and flavour of the vermouth had changed (for the better).  Now they’re going back to their old formula, in which it’s one vermouth for North America and another for the rest of the world.  The American formula was always cleaner and less characterful than the European, which was slightly golden in colour and could credibly pass for a fortified sipping wine.

I have to say that I’m going to miss the old Noilly Prat.  And now that I’ve had a few months off from its flavour, we’ll have to see how it stacks up against the sickly sweet likes of the Martini brand and its cousins.  It will have to win back its crown from Dolin vermouth, which is easily the most pleasant vermouth I’ve had to drink in the meantime.  Noilly Prat must be bargaining that its loyal customers will return, even after a long absence and the substitution of a “new” product for something that we’ve now had a couple years to get used to and enjoy.  I hope the risk they’re taking will merit the reward.


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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965