Anthea Gerrie Visits Maison Noilly Prat For A Bittersweet Taste Of The Original French Vermouth
I am in the Mediterranean fishing town of Marseillan adding a new chapter to my history of Spirit Tourism, a growing travel trend for drinks enthusiasts who have had their fair share of winery visits. The trade body Spirits Europe has estimated that half of all travellers to Europe are motivated by the possibilities of exploring local food and drink when booking a trip, and the big attraction of this unsung but charming little harbour on the banks of the Thau lagoon is the Noilly Prat distillery, where the original French vermouth has been made for close on two centuries.
We’re talking alchemy here, as infusing wine with herbs and spices to produce exactly the right combination of sweet and slightly bitter to make the perfect aperitif or cocktail mixer is a complex art this company has spent more than 200 years perfecting since herbalist Joseph Noilly produced his first vermouth in 1813. The Italians may have started earlier with the sweeter red variety, which is an essential component of a negroni, but Noilly created the dry white without which James Bond’s martini would simply not exist, either shaken or stirred.
The distillery, which arrived in Marseillan in 1859 by way of Lyon and Marseilles, may be coming up for its bicentenary, but it’s been given a dazzlingly modern face with fretwork cladding as dramatic as the great hall visitors see first on a guided tour of the interior. Here huge vats hold the “mistelle”, a rich distillation of wine liquor from muscat grapes which is added to ongoing infusions of new wine after they have finished fermenting in the sunshine for a year in scores of barrels – previously used for whisky and sherry to imbue extra aromatics – lying in neat rows in the yard.
While the production side of the factory is off-limits to visitors, the charming “chais” – ground-level cellars – tell the story of how Noilly Prat in all its iterations – original dry white, extra dry, red and amber – are made. Each is distinguished by its own particular herb infusion; the diverse selection, which includes chamomile, gentian, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg, saffron and lavender, is drawn from all over the world.
The Original Dry White, which was the first produced by Noilly Prat, is a true aperitif – made to be drunk neat as an appetite stimulant – while the Extra Dry was added in the cocktail age specifically as a mixer. While the bitter-sweet red is enjoying huge growth around the world since negronis overtook martinis as the world’s favourite cocktail, the French prefer Noilly’s uniquely vanilla-scented Amber with its aftertaste of roses, sweet orange and cardamom.
The most fun part of the tour at Maison Noilly Prat is undoubtedly the cocktail-making experience in which a semi-circular bar is opened, elegant glasses and mixology tools come out and we are shown how to make the perfect dry martini, among other drinks. Despite the Queen being partial enough to the pale stuff to have given Maison Noilly Prat a royal warrant to make it for her in 1959, Churchill did his best to put the company out of business with his assertion that vermouth had no place in a martini beyond showing the bottle to the glass.
Quite a shift from1922, when the cocktail was created with one part of white vermouth to two of gin or vodka, and in an effort to put things to rights we are taught to make our own martinis with a 1:1 ratio which would have made Churchill turn in his grave. First, we learn, it’s de rigeur to chill both glasses and shaker before vigorously jiggling the mix before decanting into the inverted triangle of a traditional martini glass and garnishing with green olives.
Personally, I prefer the Original Dry White served neat over a giant spherical ice cube with a twist of lemon; it makes a great accompaniment to a plate of the oysters for which Marseillan is equally famous, along with the local cheese and charcuterie wheeled out by the distillery kitchen.
To experience the spectrum of vermouth cocktails, an initial visit to the town’s fine dining restaurant, La Table d’Emilie, is recommended, in conjunction with an overnight stay at the nearby Residence Demeure Terrisse. The restaurant Table d’Emilie serves a fine Marseillanaise, the local libation of half red, half white vermouth known elsewhere around the world as a Half and Half, while more complex drinks lie 50 minutes to the east in Montpellier, France’s most renowned centre of cocktail culture outside Paris.
Here, at Aperture, the most awarded bar, Le Quatrieme Tiers, the funkiest, and the Nectar Bar of the Belaroia Hotel, the most accessible, a soupçon of Noilly Prat was paired by mixologists with France’s favourite fruit spirits, Calvados and Poire William, in various combinations.
For food and drink tourists, Montpellier is a must-visit for one more very important reason – it’s home to the legendary Jardin des Sens restaurant, presided over by multi-Michelin-starred twin chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. If their tasting menu and a sleepover in the five-star hotel Richer de Belleval are too rich for your blood, do visit the elegant and colourful L’Elytre inside the hotel for one more taste of spirit tourism in the most elegant of all Montpellier bars before flying home from this international gateway to the region.
Distillery gates pic (C) Sara Essex Bradley.
Tell Me More About Visiting Maison Noilly Prat
Distillery tour €9.50, mixology masterclass with cocktails and vermouth tasting €25.00