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French and Italian at the Hotel Del

French and Italian at the Hotel Del

French vermouth-Italian vermouth-Gin-Twist of lemon

Mix French (dry white) vermouth and Italian (sweet red) vermouth into a cocktail glass, favoring the French. Add a shot of gin. Garnish with a twist of lemon.

José Palma’s the only guy I’ve found in Diego’s fair city who’s ever heard of my favorite drink. So where he serves it, I drinks it.

Fortunately, that’s at the Hotel Del Coronado, on the terrace, at cocktail hour, watching the sun collapse into the ocean. Unfortunately you pay through the nose for it (around $14); on the other hand, your nose is the first to appreciate the aromatic wines, gin, and lemon in this little piece of Mediterranean magic.

Before you put your lips to it, you feast your eyes on the amber-ruby nectar. It’s not hard and brittle like a gin and tonic or even James Bond’s Martini — gin with a whiff of French vermouth. My French and Italian’s the opposite, warm wines with a little gin to give it a bit of snap.

I’ve never been a hard-liquor man. Beers, wines have been it till our neighbor Linda awakened a memory that rushed back into my mind, all the way from childhood.

A group of us were at the Del one Sunday night, sitting round a fire ring. Linda was drinking a Level — Absolut — Vodka with soda water and a splash of cranberry. I’d come late and was umming and aahing over what to have. “You can ask for just about anything here,” said Linda. “Just go for what you love.” That’s when it came to me. How about the cocktail I grew up with? French and Italian.

Let me explain about French and Italian. It’s what my English daddy drank. Every cocktail hour at our place in New Zealand, overlooking Whanganui a Tara (Wellington harbor), he’d go to the wine cupboard and pour us all a French and Italian, and we’d sit, sip, talk, joke, and hack out B-grade philosophy till dark. That’s where Dad told me about how vermouths — “aromatized wines” — were steeped in everything from fruit peels to roots, herbs, spices, even medicinal digestive aids like quinine. The French created the name “vermouth” after the German word wermut, which means wormwood, which is the wood used for the casks these wines were stored in and derived a bitter twang from. Italians were the first to produce vermouth in big numbers, in the 1700s. In the 1800s, the French came up with a drier type, and ever since, some folk have called the sweet vermouth “Italian” and the dry “French,” even though both countries have long since produced both versions.

My introduction to vermouth was at around 12, 13, when Dad hauled us off to France. My brother and I spent our formative years learning to love Noilly Prat (the French dry vermouth) mixed with Martini and Rossi (sweet Italian), sip by sip from our parents’ glasses.

But would anyone know how to make one here? I asked the barista at the tented bar in front of our fire-ring seats. “Have you heard of a French and Italian?”

The guy shook his head. So I explained.

He tried. Except, two things: he strained it through ice so much it came out watery, insipid. Plus, a previous customer’s lipstick was printed round the lip of the glass.

“Yuk,” said Linda. The barista poured my French and Italian into a new glass, but it didn’t help the dilution problem.

So, hey, 14 bucks. I was ready to cut my losses and go for a beer when this bright-faced server, Amy, came up. “French and Italian? If anybody would know, José would,” she said. So I followed her to the back bar of 1500 Ocean, the hotel’s flagship eatery.

“Yes,” said José. “I know of it. But in the 20 years I’ve been barman here, I’ve only had one request. But it’s a little like the Perfect Manhattan: equal parts dry and sweet vermouth, except with a shot of Tanqueray gin [instead of whiskey]. Don’t worry. I’ll get it right.”

I left him to it, and when it came and I sipped that fruity-spicy-junipery warm taste, the exact right balance of sweet and tangy, I wanted to shout “Eureka!”

Since then, I get back to the Del whenever I can. Or, actually, whenever I can afford it. But only on the days I know that José Palma’s going to be working, because, as they say, when it comes to cocktails, there’s nothing worse than getting it almost right.

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