Features The Vermouth Also Rises
The Vermouth Also Rises
July 2009

With the revival of old-school mixology, many bartenders across the country are returning to the roots of the craft—manufacturing bitters, infusing fruits, herbs, and vegetables into spirits and syrups, and integrating them into their cocktail programs. For the well-rounded mixologist who isn’t afraid to dabble in house-made concoctions, making one’s own vermouth brings the artisanal aspect of the bar full circle.

Vermouth—hardly a stranger to the world of classic cocktails—is part of the larger family of aromatized, fortified alcohols that includes aromatic bitters (Angostura, Peychaud’s), herbal bitter liqueurs (Averna, Fernet Branca), fortified wines (port, sherry), and other aperitifs or digestifs. While some form of artisanal vermouth has probably been around since the Egyptians, commercial varieties of vermouth have been bottled and marketed since the late eighteenth century.

The concept of making vermouth evolved from a need to extend the shelf life of leftover wines or to salvage a bad grape harvest by modifying the alcoholic content with spirits and the aroma with herbs. The word “vermouth” is actually derived from the German word for wormwood, a commonly used ingredient in vermouth.

With bitters, there’s no one way to make vermouth, which makes it the exciting project for the creative mixologist. In Boston, Mixologist Jackson Cannon has been sneaking his beloved house-made vermouths into more than just the martini for several years now.

A vermouth lover inspired by Hemingway, Cannon started making his own batches after he couldn’t find the wide selection of artisanal vermouth available in Italy (amber and rosé vermouths aren’t imported into the US). As bar manager at the wildly popular American brasserie Eastern Standard, Cannon is trying to get patrons genuinely interested in vermouth by offering cocktails made with six commercial varieties and two types of house-made formulas. The vermouths have a dedicated section on the menu and are also offered by the glass. Along the way, Cannon has mentored other talents and has become one of the senior mixologists on the Boston scene.

It’s worth mentioning that the 205-seater Eastern Standard is a money-making machine, racking up a staggering $8 million in sales—nearly half of which is attributed to his beverage program. Cannon’s team of four mixologists are stationed behind a long bar and sling up to an average of 800 cocktails a dayand the vermouth is gaining popularity.

“Once you say ‘try my house made artisanal vermouth’ people are all over it” says Cannon. He frequently sends out complimentary pre-dinner or pre-dessert “amuse-bouche” shots of vermouth to diners. His delighted customers take interest in the added-value of a home-made product and usually end the meal by ordering Cannon’s vermouth cocktails. While Cannon isn’t big on pairing cocktails with food, he points out that the flavors in a vermouth cocktail present a lot possibilities for pairing.

Making your own vermouth allows the mixologist to get creative with the various methods of infusion, as well as the constituting elements: the wine, spirit, and aromatics. 

Mayur Subbarao is an environmental lawyer (and partner at New York’s Mayahuel) with a background in wine. His passion for mixology brought him to Boston to host a seminar on vermouth-making. He’s collaborated with Cannon and his protégé Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli of Craigie on Main in developing their vermouth recipes.

“Different methods are good for different vermouths” says Subbarao, who has studied and tasted enough vermouth to become an expert at reverse engineering commercial recipes. When it comes to the choice of A base wine for making vermouth, Subbarao recommends using the lightest possible dry white wine, such as a Trebbiano (for making a dry vermouth). That being said, “Everything I’ve come across is a usable base” he affirms. Cannon and Schlesinger-Guidelli use dry un-oaked chardonnay and clairette (a light southern French white wine) for their slightly darker amber varieties.

Bittering agents can be used in virtually any combination. Subbarao suggests wormwood, angelica, gentian, coriander and bitter orange peel as a core group of aromatics. Cannon stresses that there are no hard rules to follow: “If you don’t want to do oregano, thyme and sage, and you want to lean heavier on something out of your own garden, you can do that.”

When it comes to the spirit, the differences are considerable. Grappa will provide a good bite to the finished vermouth and play nicely with herbs that have high bitter notes like wormwood. If you’re making sweet vermouth, Subbarao recommends fortifying with a dark brandy to bring intense woodsy notes to the final product.

Cannon suggests that mixologists be bold and develop a following by branding their own house-vermouths with their favorite flavor profiles. The key is to play around with the wine, herbs, and spirits, keeping in mind what flavor you are trying to achieve.

The craft of artisanal vermouth is still in its infant stages in cocktail bars across America, and mixologists are still referring to their recipes in “replicant terminology” according to Cannon. An exchange among vermouth geeks might go something like: “This is my Noilly Prat-style amber, but I intensified the caramel with a cold wash and put it through a filter system to make it look like this”.  

Any mixologist who’s made aromatic bitters knows that developing that kind of concentration of flavors can take days or even weeks. Vermouth—once you've collected the botanicals (which are easily found online)— can yield results in a matter of hours.

When a homemade vermouth has been sufficiently developed and is ready to be offered on a cocktail list, it’s worth planning a production schedule and thinking about the storage format. Cannon, who goes through multiple bottles of both house-made and commercial varieties each day, bottles his home-made vermouth in 750ml format (which he keeps refrigerated) and keeps the commercial stuff on the bar as fresh as possible by purchasing small 375ml bottles. With any kind of vermouth, freshness is the key to consistently-made cocktails. Still, Schlesinger-Guidelli advises that “If your vermouth is any good, even open for a month it will still be better than commercially available vermouth, which begins to alter as soon as you open it.”

Not only is implementing a vermouth program an affordable enterprise for the working mixologist, but it’s also a recession-friendly marketing strategy as Cannon’s experience proves. Once the upfront investment for the botanicals has been made, the rest of the materials are common to any bar setting.

So what’s not to like about house-made vermouth? It’s cheap to make, customers love it, and it's sold with a great profit margin. Home-made vermouth also has its place on the romantic, spiritual level of the artisan-mixologist. As Jackson Cannon puts it: “To me, it’s the soul of wine. It’s an example of the tinkering human desire to preserve things.”

Read the interview with Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard to find out more about his in-house vermouth program, and find out nine valuable tips from Cannon, Schlesinger-Guidelli, and Subbarao.