What’s all the fuss about vermouth?

Vermouth’s popularity is continuing to rise not just as a cocktail ingredient, but as a drink in its own right. I meet the producers and bar tenders fortifying their drinks lists – and learn how to make my own melt in the vermouth cocktail

It’s not just the traditional ragu that is slowly perfected at Soho trattoria Mele e Pere – something else is being mixed and muddled in the kitchen too.

Using ingredients more akin to a meaty Italian sauce ­– spices, herbs, roots and shoots – the bar team, led by general manager Edward Scothern, steeps a good Italian wine with leaves of lemon thyme, a drop of marjoram essence or stems of lemongrass (or whatever is seasonally available) in vats in the kitchen every week to create the secret recipe for their citrus-dry white and bitter-sweet red vermouth.

And it seems they’re not alone. Once famous for being an ingredient in classic Martinis, Manhattans or Negronis, vermouth has now begun to trickle on to the lists of London’s trendiest bars – not only shaken and stirred but also served on its own over ice.

“For decades Vermouth was that bottle stuck at the back of the cupboard collecting dust,” says Scothern. “But now it’s finding its feet in Britain again as a wonderful aromatic and ‘medicinal’ drink for a whole new generation.”

More than a mulled wine

Named after one of its key botanicals: ‘wormwood’, from the German word ‘vermut’, this fortified wine must be made up of at least 75 per cent wine to be classed as a vermouth. And while the quality of the base wine or ‘must’ can vary, so can its profile. Like that of premium gin, this can be uniquely tweaked with a pot pourri of 400 different ‘botanicals’ such as seeds, herbs, barks and flowers.

The dry white variety (think Noilly Prat, Martini Extra Dry or Dolin de Chambery) first appeared in France and is generally the main player in martini cocktails, while the sweet red variety (such as Dubonnet, Cinzano Rosso, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) has long been associated with Italy, where it was made famous in the cafés of Turin in the 18th century as an aperitif. But both versions are thought to have been around since the 16th century.

“You take a good wine base and simply complement its bouquet,” says Ian Hart, from the Sacred Spirit Company, one of a handful of UK vermouth producers who are answering the demand for vermouth by producing their own British versions. “Essentially, you’re dressing up wine for a night out at the opera.”

Following on from his success with his award wining Sacred Gin, which he makes at his Highgate house – the UK’s smallest commercial distillery – Hart hit upon the idea of a vermouth after experimenting with mulled wine.

“I’d been making mulled wine for almost 35 years at Christmas, fiddling about with wine, cloves, orange peel and cinnamon,” he says. “One year, after popping it into the fridge to chill, I tasted it and thought ‘this is very like vermouth, I’m not sure what kind, but I like it!’”

After the 23rd recipe, and a successful stint on the bar at his local pub, Ian teamed up with cocktail master Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Bar, Mayfair, to refine his Amber Vermouth blend, where it has proved to be an increasingly popular homegrown twist on Lillet Blanc.

“The new generation don’t want to drink what their parents drank, they want to drink what their grandparents did – the Old Fashioned, the Martini and vermouth cocktails.”

And with its use of botanicals, the parallels between craft vermouths and the recent craft gin revolution cannot be missed.

“It’s definitely come on the coat-tails of the gin phenomenon,” says Scothern. “Gin was an easy sell in London as it was seen as a London drink but vermouth is quickly gaining pace because it was always so familiar in cocktails – and it also answers the call for less sweet drinks with a lower alcohol content.”

Home truths for vermouths

For Palazzi at Dukes, vermouth also taps into people’s interest in traceable food and local sourcing.

“People don’t want to pile their plates high anymore, they want simplicity and quality foremost and this extends to their drinks,” he says. “Customers are now challenging us to create more and more interesting cocktails with craft ingredients.”

Even the big boys are at it. Pop over to a Polpo restaurant, or High Water bar in Stoke Newington, and you can tuck into the recently launched “small batch”, handcrafted Cinzano 1757. And at bars such as the London Edition, Fitzrovia, Worship Street Whistling Shop, Shoreditch, or Three Sheets, Dalston, you can enjoy the latest edition to the Martini clan – the Martini Riserva, designed to honour the traditional methods used by the first Martini master herbalists.

“People no longer mind paying more for a drink as long as they feel the product has true heritage and authenticity,” says Martini’s Jessica Leuty.

And without a specific history of production in this country, vermouth distillers and forward-thinking bar tenders have been free to create some very unique drinks.

At Sacred Spirit, Hart uses vacuum distillation at low temperatures to “capture the freshness of the ingredients” and is the only vermouth producer to use Three Choirs English wine and organic wormwood.

“Each bottle is unique due to the way the seasonal ingredients vary and you get a feel for the vermouth’s terrior,” he says.

Similarly, Sarah Thompson, founder and botanical wine maker at Blackdown Distillery in the Southdowns, has created the Silver Birch Vermouth, a unique blend of Silver Birch Wine – made from the sap of the trees surrounding the distillery – infused with a secret blend of herbs and spices.

“You wouldn’t add a mass produced tonic to your prized, handcrafted gin so why do the same with your vermouth?” she says.

Dinner drinks

Already the ultimate pre-dinner ritual in Italy, France and Spain – where vermouths have been hailed for their digestive and liver soothing properties for centuries – could the rise in popularity of vermouth in London signal the start of an aperitivo culture in Britain?

Musa Ozgul, bar manager at Quo Vadis Soho thinks so. “The desire for lower alcohol drinks is definitely forming the pre-dinner culture you’d see in Europe,” says Ozgul, who serves up a dedicated ‘Bitters & Vermouth’ list at the bar. “People are now comfortable with drinking Aperol, Campari and vermouths after work instead of a wine or beer.”

And after years of sickly alcho-pops, it seems the British palate is embracing the more grown up flavours.

“There’s always been this misconception that vermouths are bitter and unpalatable but I love seeing people’s reaction when they drink ours, and they realise there are so many more ways to enjoy a contemporary vermouth – on the rocks, as a martini or a cooler,” says Thompson at Blackdown.

Alessandro agrees. “In the 1970s, bar tenders were a bit snobby about cocktails and we all had to stick to the same 50 recipes. But now young mixologists are doing their own thing and so much more is allowed,” he says. “As a result, London bars are changing people’s views on how these most traditional drinks should be served – even the Italians!”

With daily vermouth ‘happy hours’ and monthly ‘Vermouth Masterclasses’ at Mele e Pere – which sees fans take home their very own mini vermouth making kit complete with botanicals – Italian owners Peter Hughes and Andrea Mantovani, and general manager Scothern, are keen to ensure vermouth is better understood.

“Vermouth has always been deeply respected but people are still unsure about how each one will taste – after all, no vermouth is ever the same,” says Scothern.

And, who knows, perhaps this handful of new London vermoutheries could trigger the rise of a new ‘vermoutherati’.


Make your own Vermouth cocktails

Classic Quo Vadis Negroni

25ml Campari

25ml Martini Rosso Vermouth

25ml Beefeater Gin

  1. Build in a rocks glass.
  2. Add cubed ice and garnish with a slice of orange

Daphne’s Half-Century Negroni

25ml Plymouth Gin Navy Strength Gin

25ml Cocchi Torino Vermouth

12ml Campari Bitter

12ml Cynar Digestive Liqueur

Spray Saffron Essence

  1. Daphne’s put all the ingredients, except for the saffron essence, into a cherry wood barrel to rest for two weeks – but you can infuse with cherry wood chips instead!
  2. Strain the mixture into a rocks glass with ice and stir well.
  3. Add a spray of saffron essence directly into the glass and garnish with a dry orange ring.

Balthazar’s Rosa Spritzer

50ml Cocchi Rosa

10ml Audemus Pink Pepper Gin

10ml Lemon juice

35ml Blanquette de Limoux or sparkling wine

Soda water

Add all the ingredients into a shaker filled with ice, except the soda water and Blanquette.

  1. Shake and strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice.
  2. Add the Blanquette and top up with soda water.
  3. Garnish with both a lemon and orange peel.

Three Sheets’ Raspberry Wine

30ml Martini Riserva Ambrato

20ml Fermented Raspberry Cordial

  1. To make the raspberry cordial, add 3g of brewers yeast to 500g of water and let it sit for a few hours in a warm place. Add 250g of raspberries and allow to ferment for 48 hours. Strain off the raspberries and yeast and add 450g of sugar and 2g of citric acid.
  2. Pour 20ml into a glass with the Martini Riserva and top with prosecco. Garnish with a slice of lemon.

This article was first published in Square Meal magazine

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