Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth: Still the Original

Noilly Prat in Marseillan, France

© Guilhem Canal

Noilly Prat in Marseillan, France

Noilly Prat in Marseillan, France

© Guilhem Canal

As luck would I have it, I arrived on my pilgrimage to the southern French town of Marseillan at six thirty on a sunny Tuesday evening. “It’s apéro time!” exclaimed my host. “Let’s go for a Marseillanais on the port.”

Sighting mecca

As we sipped our drinks (two parts Noilly Prat’s Original Dry white vermouth to one of their sweeter, spicier rouge, served simply over ice in a tumbler with a slice of orange), modest pleasure boats bobbed on the water where once cargo ships carrying casks of wine would be docked, while on the opposite quay lay a low-slung, cream-coloured building bearing the smart green livery of Maison Noilly Prat. I was, literally, within spitting distance of my final destination. I had made it to my mecca.

Bottles around the globe

Noilly Prat’s Original Dry vermouth is found in nearly every bar in the 150 countries in which it is sold and, despite the many other vermouths now on the market, it still is the go-to choice for millions of mixologists to make the perfect classic Martini cocktail, and so many others. The company is coy about its actual production figures, but conservative estimates put it at many millions of bottles annually, and it is still made in this pretty port town, as it has been since 1859.

Herbal healing

But Noilly Prat goes back further than that. Like all vermouths, it has its roots in herbal medicines centuries ago when plant extracts were mixed with wine and taken as tinctures. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) was thought to cure and prevent various gastric ailments, which must have been common, given the hygiene standards of the time, so it often found its way into these, and it became vermouth’s defining ingredient – the German term for wormwood, Wermut, lent its name.

Dry original

Vermouth is classified as a fortified and aromatised wine. Antonio Carpano was the first to commercialise its production, in Turin in 1789, when he launched what we now know as Antica Formula, a sweet vermouth infused with botanicals and coloured dark red with the addition of caramel. Over in eastern France, around Lyon and Chambery which, like Turin, were then part of the Duchy of Savoy, they preferred their vermouths lighter and drier, more herbaceous and less spicy. Joseph Noilly launched his dry white vermouth in Lyon in 1815, passing the business down to his son Louis who then set up in partnership with his son-in-law Claude Prat. So successful was the Noilly Prat vermouth they moved production to Marseilles (closer to the all-important spices traded in the city) and then to Marseillan.

Noilly Prat's cellars: where the magic happens

Photo provided

Salty air and nutty tang

The secret of Noilly Prat’s unique flavour profile is the proximity of its production to the coast. The base wine, locally made from Picpoul and Clairette grapes, is aged for a year in old wooden barrels lying in the open courtyard or l’Enclos, at the back of the building. One thousand two hundred barrels stretch in seemingly endless rows before us, cracked and greying and showing their considerable age, as squiffy-looking seagulls perch beside the cloth-covered bungs in the top of each one. Previously used to age Cognac or whisky, these barrels are exposed to the elements, most particularly the salty sea spray from the Étang de Thau just metres away, which impart a vibrant saline quality to the wine, as well as a degree of gentle oxidation which gives concentration and a pleasingly nutty tang. This wine is then blended with mistelle - grape juice fortified with neutral grain spirit and aged on-site for twelve months in vast 40,000 litre wooden vats – and infused for three weeks with 20 different botanicals including bitter orange peel, gentian, coriander and elderflower, before being filtered and bottled and sent on its way.

Going red and amber

Noilly Prat launched Rouge in 1955 as post-war Europe rediscovered the joys of cocktail drinking, then in 1979 came their Extra Dry exclusively in the US. With only 21g/l residual sugar against Original Dry’s 35g/l), it was targeted specifically at the cocktail market, un-oaked and very light. Their Ambré, a floral, gently spiced, semi-sweet style completed the family in 1986, but it is the Original Dry that has the most enduring appeal to so many drinkers.

A well-loved classic

“In a way, vermouth is the first-ever bottled cocktail, in that it is playing with wine, spirits, bittering and sweetness agents,” says Richard Tring of The Aperitivo Co., one of a slew of new vermouth producers riding high on the current trend for vermouths and other aperitif-style drinks. Richard’s range of three vermouths - Lyon, Reus and Turin - are named after the cities for which their styles are most famous and Lyon, their dry French-style, is very much inspired by Noilly Prat. “The balance in vermouth is absolutely critical, and their Original Dry gets it bang on,” he says. “That’s why it’s become such a well-loved classic.”

Essential agent

Essential in a Martini, wet or dry, as well as in a Marseillanais, Noilly Prat can be enjoyed in many other ways, too. Substitute it for the red vermouth in a Negroni to make a Cardinale, or in place of Aperol to make a really refreshing Spritz, but I really like it by itself, chilled or with a little ice and a lemon twist, or as Ian Fleming’s James Bond ordered, on the balcony of a hotel in Cairo, in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me: “‘Noilly Prat and tonic,’ he said, hoping that the French influence would prevail sufficiently to make this delicious long drink available. ‘With a squeeze of lime if you have it.’” If it’s good enough for James Bond, it’s good enough for me. À votre santé!

Maison Noilly Prat is open to visitors all year round. Details are here: 

www.noillyprat.com/plan-your-visit 

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