Dressed up vermouth is kind of a rare thing in the states, and in the cocktail world in general. The Chrysanthemum is a fairly unique drink that marries dry vermouth and Benedictine with a splash of absinthe, which yields a simple and sophisticated herbal cup with a light body dominated by fortified wine. With no base liquor, this golden yellow drink is a gentler option than many of its contemporaries, ideally suited to afternoon sipping, as an aperitif, or any time when a low ABV drink is a good look.
We decided to revisit the Chrysanthemum after stumbling across it in Cocktail Codex, where we were intrigued to see it categorized as a member of the old fashioned family. Their recipe employs a 5:1 ratio of vermouth to Benedictine— proportions that allow the drink to fit their thesis (“there are only six cocktails”)—but also make for a significant shift from the pre-prohibition one. Hugo R Ensslin first documented the drink in his 1916 Recipes for Mixed Drinks, calling for equal parts dry vermouth and Benedictine. This is definitely a sweeter option; likely too sweet for modern tastes. Fourteen years later the iconic Savoy barbook mentioned a modified ratio of 2:1. This version was popularized at the American Bar on the SS Europa, a German ocean liner that provided escape from prohibition for U.S. tipplers. However much a departure the Cocktail Codex recipe is from past formulas, it is an excellent drink, and our favorite variation.
The nose is full of grape from vermouth, a lot of absinthe, a bit of Benedictine and a slight hint of orange. The wine provides a delicate base that kindly carries the heavier, more herbaceous qualities of absinthe and Benedictine, which play very well together and bring complexity in what is otherwise essentially a glass of vermouth. For such a delicate drink the absinthe surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm its bedfellows. A garnish of orange peel adds a lot in terms of presentation even if it isn’t huge on the nose.
The Chrysanthemum is an excellent choice any time you want to experiment with an interesting variety of vermouth, though stick to dry as opposed to blanc vermouth, because it is pretty sweet even with the dry vermouth base. We used Absinthia Blanche, which is an absinthe from California, and we were absolutely in love with the results. Absinthia is fairly mellow for an absinthe and avoids the firewater profile of some alternatives. This makes it a good choice for a more delicate cocktail like this one. Give it a short stir: otherwise this delicate, light drink could just become water.