On Making American Vermouth: Riding Mule-Back, Shaving Your Tongue, and 'The Worst Tasting Ever'
Those who produce any kind of spirit generally want to show off their creation—to have X Bourbon or Y Gin listed prominently in a cocktail description, or on a spirits menu. But vermouth?
"Even in cocktail bars, you can't put vermouth on a menu," says Neil Kopplin of Imbue Vermouth. "You can call it a fortified wine, you can call a vermouth-heavy cocktail a 'reverse martini,' you can go by brand name. You can call it a 'bittersweet aperitif.' But saying 'vermouth' will still sink a cocktail."
Few spirits are so stigmatized, especially in our cocktail-adventurous age. Vermouth's problem is that it's something drinkers think they know, even if they have pretty limited experience. "People think of it as 'martini vermouth' or 'Manhattan vermouth' and that's about it," said Andrew Quady. "And most drinkers here just have a dusty bottle of something that's been in the back of their liquor cabinet for 5 years. Of course it tastes terrible."
At Tales of the Cocktail, four vermouth makers—Andrew Quady (Vya), Carl Sutton (Sutton Cellars), Neil Kopplin (Imbue), and Jackson Cannon (the Boston bar and restaurant Eastern Standard), in discussion with Paul Clarke—came together to discuss their love for vermouth, why they've dedicated so much time to making it, and what they've discovered along the way.
What drew several panelists to making vermouth was their experience behind bars and familiarity with its elements. Vermouth comes from a base of wine, brandy, and steeped botanicals—ingredients well-known to anyone behind a cocktail bar. "It's kind of like batching a huge cocktail," says Kopplin. "Balancing those elements, the herbal, the fruity, the alcohol —it's very much what we already do."
What's more, there's "little competition," says Quady—"it's such a new American industry." And it's easy to improve upon the vermouth many drinkers know. "You can tell by how cheap it is—and most mainstream vermouth really is cheap—that the base wines it's made from must be cheap, too. So there's room for improvement there. Vermouth should have some sort of wine character."
To be sold under a certain liquor category, spirits often have to follow strict criteria. Bourbon, for example? It has to be aged in charred new oak (and meet a number of other regulations). But vermouth? According to American federal regulations, it's simply "a type of aperitif wine compounded from grape wine, having the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth." Sounds a bit circular—vermouth is a wine-based aperitif that is, well, something like vermouth?
That's a lot of room in a definition, and those who produce vermouth see that as a huge plus. There's space to experiment and innovate. The vermouth we tasted ranged from sweetly floral, to sharply aromatic, to rich and warming with notes of cloves and cinnamon. Some are based on Chardonnay, others on Pinot Gris or a rosé. Some are intended to drink alone, others to complement spirits; but in this new-to-America category, there's space for all of it. "We're cowboys in America," said Kopplin. "We don't want rules keeping us back."
Diverse Blends of Botanicals
Given that "anything goes" mentality, the panelists differed hugely in their formulations and approaches. "Vermouth has aspects that are fruity, floral, and herbal," said Carl Sutton; "I wanted to express the first two." Andrew Quady, in his drier style, took the opposite approach: "I want an aromatherapy experience—an afternoon in the mountains."
And Quady means afternoon in the mountains in the most literal sense. "I didn't quite know what I wanted at first, so I would just get on my mule and roam around the Sierra Nevadas, looking for plants I didn't know and collecting them." *
* A pause in the seminar at this moment—really? Yes, a mule. "I think the awesomeness level of this seminar just bumped up a notch," laughed moderator Paul Clarke.
And with the freedom to incorporate unorthodox elements comes the freedom to dispense with traditional ones—like wormwood (in German, Wermut, for which vermouth is actually named)—that don't necessarily appeal. Vermouth started out as a medicinal drink, so botanicals were originally intended to cover up the deeply bitter taste of wormwood. Several panelists found that they couldn't quite stomach it; as Kopplin put it: "It was horrible. God-awful. It's hard to get past it. You just have to, like, shave your tongue and move on. It's just the deepest darkest bitter down and down and down."
Trial and Error
It took plenty of tasting for the panelists to come to these decisions—because you can't know how an herb or other element will express itself in context until you try it. "You end up making some of the most God-awful extractions. The thing is, you end up having to taste all these." Jackson Cannon concurred, calling the time he sampled his various extractions "one of the most brutal tastings I've ever done."
With such lax regulatory restrictions, the only real question for vermouth makers is how far they're willing to go. "I researched more than 60 different botanicals before I ended up settling on less than 10," said Kopplin. "It wasn't a short process."
Sense of Place and Terroir
What seemed most to excite many of the panelists—in particular, the West Coast ones—was the ability to produce a vermouth that spoke to a sense of place. "Since vermouth involves wine, and brandy, and herbs," said Kopplin, "there's such an opportunity to express a sense of place." In his case, that means Willamette Valley Pinot Gris as the base, fortified with Oregon brandy that's actually distilled from the same wine.
In Sutton's case, he wanted something that spoke to his sense of California. "Usually when people hear California-style in the context of wines and spirits, that means too big and overdone, but I mean it in the sense of fresh and seasonal."
In keeping with that goal, Sutton aims to get his vermouth into the hands of customers within three weeks of bottling—"I don't want it hanging out in a warehouse somewhere." Jackson Cannon, making vermouth in Boston, believes freshness is a huge selling point at his bars: "As soon as people see that it's not just coming from an old bottle, and see the clarity, that's when they're willing to try it. We might not have a lab, or a winery... or a mule... but seeing that freshness gets people interested."
Room to Grow
It's in getting customers interested that all the panelists felt was their most exciting opportunity. "The thing about vermouth is that it's all about stimulating the palate, all about having something to sip slowly," says Kopplin. "And that's still a very European concept. Over here, it's usually about pounding three $5 margaritas in the 90 minutes before happy hour ends." And even in the wine and beer side of things, that's often true. "There's an I can do whatever I want, high-proof ballistic mentality that's hard to let go of. Vermouth isn't about getting drunk as quickly. It's the opposite."
But these American vermouth-makers saw this as a welcome challenge. "I think bars are such a natural way of introducing drinkers to the idea of vermouth," said Cannon. "The what's-that curiosity that comes with seeing something made at the bar —it really brings the barriers down."
And they were quick to remind us that American vermouth is still in its very early days. "In the States, this industry is 10 years old. In Europe, more like 230."
"We've come a long way pretty quickly."