MARTINI A LA MAISON
The pre-dinner cocktail in the comfort of your own home is one of life’s great pleasures. Here a well made cocktail is rivaled only by very good champagne. If you follow me on social media you will know that my own personal preference is the Martini. I’ve often said that by the time one reaches forty a man should know his own mind and that a defining part of this self-knowledge is how he enjoys his Martini: shaken or stirred, which particular gin (or vodka), which brand of vermouth, whether to employ a dash of bitters. My desired taste at home however differs greatly to my taste in a fine hotel bar. In a good bar—and why frequent any other—I’m distracted by the surroundings and the other guests. Un-distracted, in the familiar environment of home, I’m wont to drink quicker, as a result it’s very easy to despatch three Martinis in quick succession which, given that in bars I often take my martinis very dry and therefore very potent, may not make for the best dinner. A similar factor in play at home, particularly if entertaining, is that—despite what my self assurance and large ego might sometimes tell me—when it comes to mixing cocktails I’m not the world best bartender—that particular title is currently held by my own reckoning by Daniel Stępień of the Ritz London. Serving a guest a Martini is a brave venture as is likely to go either of two ways: If they are fond of Martinis and if your guest makes them at home they will have their own well-refined technique particular to their own palate and preference; if they enjoy them in hotels then unless they frequent bad hotels or you’re Daniel Stępień himself then your attempt at home-brewing is likely to be worse than they are typically used to. Alternatively of course, if they are not regular Martini drinkers then there is a high likelihood then your Martini, if made in the dry style, will potentially simply taste like a hooker of cold gin. After a considerable amount of time, investment, research, potentially enough ice to replenish the ice caps and many, many many Martinis I have however discovered a secret weapon to elevate the home made Martini to a high art form—the silver bullet in this instance is Dolin Dry vermouth.
At the other end of the spectrum to Noilly Prat which is aged in oak and madeirised in the hot Mediterranean sea-sprayed coastal climate of Marsaillan (and is evocative of that environment too—and to my mind perhaps the reason it pairs so well with that Martini staple the saline briny olive), Dolin, made in Chambéry, ensconced into a mountain valley and close to some of the best skiing in the world, evokes the extreme freshness of an alpine stream and the scent of fresh mountain herbs and pines. Simply unscrewing the cap on a bottle of Dolin is an enticingly aromatic experience—the scent of those herbs refreshing the senses. The alpine aromatics continue to the palate too, perfectly complementing juniper in gin. Dolin is so good that it converts me, a lover of the Dukes Martini, to take on a considerable less dry Martini particularly at home. Whilst Dolin can be, and indeed is, regularly used by professional bartenders with wonderful results it is equally as efficient in the hands of an amateur—indeed it is so enticing a vermouth that it can enrich and redeem even the most poorly made Martini.
Given my obvious love for Maison Dolin I was extremely excited then last week to find myself surrounded by those same mountains that look down on Chambéry and in turn was kindly invited into to visit Maison Dolin at their premises. Under the extremely warm and kind welcome of Pierre-Olivier Rousseaux myself and a friend were provided with a personal overview of the history of Dolin and a rare glimpse into their archives and production process. Utilising the wonderful collection of original documents held by the family owners, Pierre explained to us the 200+ years of Dolin’s past. Dolin is very much a regional product—the region in which Dolin is based was once part of the Kingdom of Savoy. This encompassed much of northwest Italy and South-Eastern France. and so shared many cultural similarities with Turin, that great centre of Vermouth, just across the Alps. Dolin’s founder Joseph Chavasee originally developed his own licquors based on the herbs he would find locally. The Dolin archive includes labels and the original copper plates from this period with drinks boasting names such as “Elixir d’Amour”. The artistry is an obvious pre-cursor to Dolin’s current labelling which itself betrays the brands own rich history and still very artisanal nature. In 1821, inspired by the increasingly popular vermouth, then being produced in Turin, Chavasee would create his own unique version using a blend of fresh alpine herbs. In 1830 he moved to Chambéry where his daughter Marie Rosalie was born and focused his business efforts on the production of his unique blend of vermouth. Marie grew up learning her father's art and upon marrying local Louis Ferdinand Dolin she would with her new husband formally found Maison Dolin in 1843. When Louis Ferdinand passed away in 1869 Marie Dolin established herself in the great tradition of French widows. Like the famed Widow Cliquot before her and Lily Bollinger after, Marie’s energy, passion for the product, and entrepreneurship would launch Maison Dolin on the global stage. Under her supervision Dolin entered and won their first international gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Marie steadfastedly guided the company until her death in 1919. With no heir the company was secured by the local Sevez family who who continue uphold the traditions and to run Dolin with the same dedication and respect for Joseph Chavasee’s formula and Marie Dolin’s enduring passion. It was under the Sevez family’s custodianship that Dolin was awarded France’s only Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée for Vermouth in 1932—a feature which remains to this day. In an age where big brands and conglomerates often dominate the bar shelf it’s wonderful to see Marie Dolin’s legacy intact and the brand in family hands.
Outside of the archive room Pierre introduced us to other members of the small twenty-something staff as we were given a very kind tour of the complete Dolin facility. We were even welcomed in the incredibly perfumed herb store where Dolin keep the raw natural materials so vital to production given that no synthetic herbs or sweeteners are used. Tellingly given that Dolin’s calling card is freshness Pierre even took a bottle off of the bottling line to explain to us how you might identify when an individual bottle might have been produced. In the tank room we noticed that the vermouth itself is stored in steel to maintain the purity and freshness too.
Back in my own home with vermouth in general I’ve often found that refrigerating bottles once opened and that using half bottles, to limit the amount of air and risk of oxidation, works well for any vermouth.
In case you're interested in how I take my own Martini I personally recommend the below but would suggest if you haven't already done so embarking on your own experiments to come up with something that suits your taste.
4 parts Plymouth gin
1 part Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambéry
Ideally use a frozen Martini glass but otherwise ice the glass before and during mixing if not possible
1 large lemon (from Amalfi if possible)
Gently stir gin and vermouth over ice in a mixing glass for thirty seconds until very well chilled
Remove ice from glass (if not pre-frozen) and carefully pour into the glass through a strainer
Peel a good thin piece of zest from your lemon and fold this, zest side out, over the glass hopefully achieving a fine spray of oils onto the top of the Martini. Rub the zest around the rim of the glass and then drop this into the drink