It’s hard not to feel casually urbane stepping into Orson’s Belly café, the sort of neighborhood hang-out that makes San Francisco what it is. Vintage films play silently on one wall as locals engage in spirited conversation.
The house specialty is vermouths and apertifs. Café proprietor Cem (pronounced “gem”) Salur invited Airows for a tasting and lesson about vermouth, a perfect segue into warmer months and longer days at hand.
- “In Italy and Spain or France, vermouth hour is 5 to 9,” Cem advises. “It’s a way to open up your appetite.” Some of the botanicals in vermouth, like gentian, a mountain flower, stimulate the appetite.
- Vermouth is wine that has been infused with botanical ingredients and fortified with additional alcohol. “The main botanical is wormwood, which is a tree bark.”
- Italian vermouths are sweeter and darker in color; French vermouth is dryer and clear. There are a lot of different tasting profiles depending on which botanicals a particular brand contains.
- The fact that vermouth has a lower alcohol content than, say, gin, is what makes it amenable to sipping several over an extended social hour.
- The flavor profile changes a lot when you garnish it with zest. “Garnish a dry or white vermouth with lemon; garnish a sweet vermouth with orange,” he advises. “A good technique is to squeeze the juice out of the zest, then toss it in. It will open up a lot more.”
- When diluted with ice, vermouths take on a different profile. “You can have vermouth straight, on the rocks, with soda, with tonic, with Prosecco, shaken… whatever you want, it will fit and will have a different taste each time.” This means more bang for your buck from one bottle of vermouth.
“This is a popular French dry vermouth,” Cem says. “It’s great for an aperitif but also pairs well if you’re having fish for dinner.”
Miro is a well balanced sweet vermouth. Good for mixing.
“The Italians saw how the French made a dry vermouth, and the Italians counter-attacked with what they call Vermouth Bianco. It’s a little different from the sweet vermouth. Try it with a garnish. This would pair wonderfully with some olives on the side.”
Antica is a sweet vermouth with hints of vanilla. “This would make a fantastic rye Manhattan,” Cem says. “But just drinking neat is great, or with a splash of soda. “
“Not quite a vermouth, not quite an aperitif, it’s right in the middle," Cem says. Punt e mes translates to one-and-a-half which means it is one point sweet, half point bitter. This brand contains quinine, same as in your tonic water.