Katherine Martinelli: What inspired you to make vermouth?
Jackson Cannon: I was inspired to do rosé vermouth by the fact that Martini & Rossi make one that’s not available in the US. It’s clarified using a high technology process and I wanted to do something that’s more artisanal. The variety in Italy is just crazy—one house has five or six vermouths to choose from. I’m fascinated by the Italian aperitif culture. At 4:30pm or so, the office buildings empty out and everyone comes down to have a light beverage. They do a lot of self blending whether Americanos with a splash of soda water, or just a dash of Campari in their vermouth.
JJ Proville: How long have you been working on making vermouths?
JC: I‘ve been totally fascinated by the commercial stuff since I started to come alive as a mixologist. I was working in a small bistro in the mid 90's and was inventorying the same bottle of vermouth that nobody wanted. I read about it and tried it, and found that it was actually really good. In these bars where i wasn't using much of it I started keeping it refrigerated and in small bottles to ensure that I had fresh. Even here [at Eastern Standard] whenever it’s possible I buy commercial vermouth in a 375ml format instead of the 750ml. By buying it in the smallest possible bottle each of the three stations at the bar is changing out its vermouth bottles a night. Some stations will go through 2 bottles of sweet and a bottle of dry. It’s not uncommon for us to go through 6-8 bottles a shift. Our house vermouth we keep refrigerated behind us. I have a very funny thing about the martini. Everybody thinks it’s important to have gin in the martini instead of vodka. I don’t think it’s nearly as important as is to have vermouth. That’s what a martini is to me. The biggest problem is that they don’t use sweet vermouth. To me, half gin and half sweet vermouth with a dash of bitters is the ideal martini.
I love wine and I love bitters and vermouth is both. To me, it’s the soul of wine. Its an example of the tinkering human desire to preserve things. Egyptians were adulterating wines with bittering elements to try and keep it through the summer and the Italians have been doing this for thousands of years. I look at modern vermouths as a more complex thing—they have distilled spirits as an element of their construction. I really look at Carpano's Antica vermouth from the late 1700's as the first and greatest modern vermouth. I'm a huge fan of Maritini & Rossi's modern operation and Noilly Prat's anachronistic, more old school operation and I love making the stuff on the stove myself.
KM: What’s the basic procedure to make vermouth?
JC: You choose a base wine that you’re going to use, you choose what you’re going to fortify the product with, cognac, port. Then you choose the balance of bittering agents—the herbs, botanicals, and fruits that will make up the flavor of your vermouth. Then you can do a hot, cooked extraction of those flavors, or do a cool infusion. Then you combine the fortifying liquids with the sweet wine, which is the volumizer. You can put your fortifying agent into that stock or you can put it in afterwards. There’s still a lot of creative experimentation going on.
JJP: How do you know what spirits to use? How do you know what strength and amount of spirit to add?
JC: You just get started. This is a perfect application for a very inexpensive brandy, for example. You could go into this process the first time expressing yourself on those choices. I use port because that’s what we have here. Your favorite liqueur could really create some interest in your vermouth. Why just brandy and grappa? There are a lot of things you could try. The key element is the fortifying nature of the spirits. They’re being put into a stasis with the sugar so their balance is being radically adjusted. You’re getting the fortification quality of the alcohol with some interesting overtones from the spirit. I think once you get into the upper 90 proofs I would start to pull the amounts back a little bit. But you might want to have the strongest vermouth in which case go for it!
JJP: Do you have a standardized way of coming up with a formula for vermouth?
JC: These are kind of common formulas that have been bandied around by different mixologists. We've done small modifications to the technique here and there and if wormwood is hard to find you can increase the gentian. If you don’t want to do oregano thyme and sage, you want to lean heavier on something out of your own garden you can do that. There’s a guy called Mayur Subbarao who did a master class up here who was able to show us a speed method. He’d done a lot of experimentation on trying to hit a certain style and studied how it’s done at Noilly Prat. He was kind enough to share his recipes which ours are slightly modified versions of.
Amber is really a sweet vermouth and a color hue between rosso and bianco. Rosé stands out a little bit more on its own to give you a more herbal-berry and uses rosé wine to give you color. Then there's existing commercial flavor profiles. The Carpano Antica formula was not available in all markets so people tried to replicate it. My former station manager Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli makes a marvelous Antica replica that he’s departed from trying to copy. He’s making something that functions like that vermouth but that’s more evocative of his personal style and desire to refine it to fit the culinary aesthetics of his establishment, which is awesome. I think we're still in the early stages of that. People are refining their ability to technically execute vermouth more than there is an explosion of creative interpretations of vermouth. I think that’s coming but I don’t think that’s here. We still generally communicate with each other in the same sort of replicant terminology. We'll say things like ‘This is my Noilly Prat amber but I intensified the caramel with a cold wash and put it through a filter system to make it look like this’.
JJP: How are you selling it to your customers?
JC: We serve it straight for $8/glass and $10 in cocktails. We’re cocktailing the heck out of it and putting it anywhere that makes sense—into the Martinez, the Fifty Fifty with different gins and whiskies. The Bronx cocktail that uses both our rosé and our amber is stunning.
We do a lot of amuses from the bar and we have a beverage equivalent. We have a large collection of small glassware and I’ll often start off a party with miniature, fun aperitif style cocktails. Right as we launched our current vermouth program people we have been doing in the post-dinner, pre-dessert and we’ve been demonstrating most of the vermouths almost as a shot in a very delicate, chilled glass and let it speak for itselef. Its been a real turn on for people and the next words out of their mouths are what do you make with this? Serving it straight has really captured people. When someone asks that we try to make sure that the recipes are very heavy on the vermouth.
KM: Are you getting good response from the customers?
JC: It’s awesome how much response we’re getting. It’s exciting. If you take a cross section when the bar is full with six or seven people someone will be excited about it and then it’s on display for everyone else in earshot. And that gets them going. It’s the only reason it’s working out.
JJP: Do you have any practical tips on making vermouth?
JC: You have three things going on the stove at once but it’s not complicated. The hardest part about making vermouth is getting a scale that lets you weigh a gram or a .7 of a gram. You need it to go under a gram. Once you have that you can get started. What we do is pre-weigh little satchels of dry ingredients. The first time you make vermouth and it takes you a day, you're excited. The next time you run out and you're busy and you want to make it again in one hour it’s nice to know that you can prep a few batches and have the right herbs in the right proportions ahead of time.
JJP: Do you keep it in the small 375ml format bottles?
JC: It’s never around for very long. Right now I have a lot of vermouth expression on the menu so we’ve been bottling it off in small bottles, but it’s been running out during the shift. It’s all based on usage and functional necessities for the bar.
JJP: How about for a bar that’s just trying to introduce it?
JC: I would bottle them off in 750ml formats and keep them capped and refrigerated.
JJP: How long can it stay refrigerated?
JC: Vermouth is fascinating because you’ve preserved the wine but it does evolve and change. It will technically keep for a very long time. I don’t like to keep them around past two weeks but I love tasting the difference between two days and eight days. I find that thrilling. I have a couple bottles of commercial vermouth that are over two years old and that I taste every five weeks. I wouldn’t be able to make consistent cocktails if one of the bottles of vermouth at the bar were that old, but I like it so much that I can drink it past the point.
JJP: According to your recipe you let the vermouth sit in the walk-in for an hour at the last stage. Why do you do this?
JC: The cold is slowing down the extraction. If you left it out at room temperature a lot more would be happening. As the temperature is going down, the ingredients are marrying together and there are some textural effects that are going down. I taste this at this stage to make sure I’m comfortable where it’s going flavor-wise.
JJP: Is making your own vermouth economical?
JC: It’s excellent for the bottom line. I requires an upfront investment to get all the bittering agents and but the rest of the stuff—especially if you’re a restaurant bar—is just coming and going and its pretty easy to get. It’s actually better to use wines that wouldn’t be so great in the glass by themselves. It’s better to use obvious, affordable wines. We had to go through the process of costing it out and it’s very good.
JJP: Why is it that people have steered towards homemade bitters before vermouth?
JC: What’s funny is that you can do the vermouth faster. Maybe it’s because there are some pretty good commercial vermouths out there and although there is this explosion going on in the bitters realm right now, that wasn’t true 2 years ago.