This week’s cocktail couldn’t be simpler, all you need is the finest rum you can get your hands on and some excellent sweet vermouth like the recently-landed Agora Rosso which comes from Suffolk.
The Palmetto is part of a family of simple cocktails consisting of an aged spirit combined with vermouth and a dash of bitters stirred over ice, and served straight up. The best known in the family is the Manhattan but there’s also the Rob Roy, made with Scotch, the Harvard, made with Cognac, and the Emerald, made with Irish whiskey. Palmetto is a type of palm tree so no prizes for guessing which spirit goes into it. Just to be clear, it’s rum.
Harry Craddock’s recipe in The Savoy Cocktail Book calls for equal parts Italian vermouth with St. Croix rum and a dash of orange bitters. St. Croix was a brand made at the Cruzan Distillery in the US Virgin Islands. The distillery is now owned by Beam Suntory but the brand is no more so what to use in your Palmetto? Well, the world, or rather the Caribbean, is your oyster. High ester Jamaican rums like Plantation Xaymaca make punchy explosively fruity Palmettos, the sweet vermouth just about taming the Jamaican funk. Using something smooth and sophisticated from Latin America like the Eminente from Cuba makes the Palmetto a completely different animal, taking it into Harvard territory. If you want just a little funk, Merser & Co is hard to beat.
For the vermouth this week we’re using a new brand that landed at MoM late last year, Agora Rosso. It’s made by an Australian in Suffolk, Arthur Voulgaris. He began his career tending bar in Melbourne where he picked up a love of Negronis before moving to London to work in the wine trade. It was, appropriately enough, in Manhattan where he really caught the vermouth bug. He was working for English wine brand Digby in New York and, he told us in an interview last year: “I drank Manhattans like they were going out of fashion.”
He tried every vermouth he could get his hands on but wasn’t always that impressed with the quality. “I thought, ‘could this category be a bit better? Could there be more finesse and balance within vermouth?’ I find that some of them can be incredibly bitter, and to counteract that and balance it out, a lot of sugar is added,” he said.
When he returned to England to work for Gonzalez Byass, he set about trying to make his dream vermouth. He began experimenting at his place in Suffolk, and the result, after much tinkering, was Agora, which means marketplace in Greek – Voulgaris’ family are from the island of Kos. Most rosso vermouths get their colour from caramel but Voulgaris wanted it to come from grapes, Cabernet and Merlot sourced from the south of France. There’s no added sugar, caramel or glycerol, all the sweetness comes from grape must. The botanicals include wormwood, rose, vanilla, lavender, star anise and cassia bark, and he uses neutral grape alcohol. “I didn’t want anything synthetic. I didn’t want anything that was too confected, cloying, bitter or simply sweet,” he said. It comes in at 120 grams of sugar which is classed as semi-sweet for a vermouth.
The finished product is made at DJ Wines in Monks Soham, Suffolk. For the next batch Voulgaris is going to use locally-grown Pinot Noir grapes. He’s also planning a bianco made with English Madeleine Angevin grapes and with, as he puts it, “sea coastal botanicals such as Maldon sea salt and samphire” plus “something a bit oriental like kaffir lime.”
How does the rosso taste? Well it’s very grapey and fruity, with the profile not unlike a fortified wine from the south of France like Maury with floral, fruity and bitter botanicals coming through harmoniously. We tried a batch last year which was a little bitter but he’s upped the grape sugar levels, and the balance is now perfect.
It’s extremely nice just served on the rocks with a slice of orange as they do in Spain. But it’s also ideal for a very vermouth-heavy cocktail like a Palmetto. I tried it with both a Jamaican and a Cuban rum with the Cuban probably nosing it as its elegance chimed better with the subtlety of Agora. The classic way to serve your Palmetto is straight up but this year I’ve taken to drinking mine on the rocks in a tumbler and enjoying how the flavours change as the ice melts. It’s the perfect instant cocktail.
Here’s how to make the classic version:
Add all the ingredients to an ice-filled shaker or jug, stir for a minute and strain into a chilled coupe or Martini glass. Garnish with an orange twist.