Behind the Bar

How Three Bars Built a Vermouth Menu That Sells

Cocktails next to bowls of snacks and cherries.
With an effective, versatile vermouth menu, your bar can introduce guests to the spirit they've been missing. (Photo: bhofack2/iStock)

Bars with extensive craft vermouth programs are onto something. But you don't need to dump your hard liquor and fill your shelves with aromatic wines. Stocking up on high-quality vermouths can diversify your bar’s cocktail program (including low-ABV offerings and pairings). A bonus: vermouths are relatively inexpensive, making them a savvy investment for any bar.

We chatted with three bars to see how they build and sell their vermouth menus:

Donostia Taverna, New York City

Jorge de Yarza and Melissa Miller own New York City's Donostia. The bar is rooted in their time spent traveling, studying and residing in Europe, where an appreciation of vermouth is very much alive.

Miller remembers her time living in Madrid. “In La Latina, Sundays, it's a bacchanal where everyone is drinking vermouth on tap in a dozen tapas bars in one plaza.” It's a nod, Miller says, “to a tradition we have in Catalunya, where — for a hundred years, at least — families would gather at the vermouth bar in the afternoon.” There, they'd drink vermouth on the rocks, with a twist and eat and socialize.

These days, Miller says, “the grandkids are opening their own vermouth bars. It's becoming a very hip trend.” That's a hip trend with deep roots. De Yarza, whose father's family is Basque, grew up in a world where vermouth was part of the culture.

Vermouth is an integral part of Donostia's service. “It's the classic pairing with conservas that drew us to do a whole vermouth service,” says Miller. Conservas are the elegantly jarred and tinned Mediterranean foods Miller and de Yarza import, and they're a central part of Donostia's food menu. Vermouth was a natural choice as an accompaniment.

Donosita always has one vermouth on tap. “At the moment,” de Yarza says, “we have nine by the glass. That has gone up to twelve in the past.”

“The one on tap is generally a thick red,” Miller says, “and then we have a number of whites from different regions, and other reds that might be more obscure, also by the bottle.”

It isn't all Old World. There's the hyper-local: Bianca Miraglia's Uncouth Vermouth. “Her stuff is limited availability and extremely seasonal,” says Miller. Those fleeting bottles balance the more constant presence of larger-scale producers.

Training staff isn't as big an issue as you might think; mixology professionals come with some knowledge. “All these people have something in common, when it comes to indigenous Spanish products, such as vermouth and sherry,” de Yarza says, “because they've used them as tools in order to enhance these hard-liquor-driven cocktails.”

That said, “Most people aren't aware that you can just have vermouth on its own,” Miller says. That's unless the bartender has spent time in Spain, where the vermouth culture is immersive.

“A lot of this stuff is about demystifying. We definitely have to deal with that with the category of sherry. When you break it down, people will allow themselves to appreciate it. With vermouths, it's the same thing. We're dealing with infused wines. We're dealing with something served as a digestive, as well. Every major food and wine culture in Europe has some sense of digestivo representation. Italians have amaro; the Spaniards lean toward vermouth.”

For bartenders and patrons alike, Miller sees a sort of “aha” moment. “The product speaks for itself. They take one sip and see that it goes down, perhaps, a little too easily — and that it makes a great pairing for a lot of seafood and pickled items.”

On its own or as the base for a cocktails, vermouth is a smart thought if you're making cocktail pairings for menus. De Yarza emphasizes the importance of serving vermouth, “as it should be served. The first time someone is drinking it on its own, when you're dealing with just ice, a proper citrus rind garnish, and at times just a little bit of homemade seltzer from a siphon — they're going to get it immediately. There's a roundness to these products, a complexity, and something that's very, very fun to drink.”

Just as important, “vermouth, you can have at any stage of your wine-knowledge development. It's very user-friendly. People get surprised by how lovely it pairs with food items, particularly complex items ... that have more of that umami happening.”

Octavia, San Francisco

At Octavia, wine director Joshua Thomas oversees a craft vermouth program that keeps San Fransciscans sipping. The kitchen is driven almost exclusively on market-fresh seafood and produce, which means matching drinks with a menu that changes each day.

Octavia does not have a liquor license, which is one of the reasons Octavia has an extensive vermouth program. “There's definitely a craft cocktail program in San Francisco,” Thomas says, “and it's becoming part of the culture to have a drink before starting with your wine and dinner.”

Without hard spirits on the back bar, Octavia had to be creative. Research led to vermouth: “with some very cool boutique, small producers in California and Oregon, as well as all of the fantastic ones coming from Italy.”

“We're a small restaurant,” says Thomas. Vermouth gives them a chance to explore something beyond the ordinary.

From a bartender's perspective, Thomas says, vermouth is changing. “When I started in the restaurant business 15 ago or so, I don't think anybody was thinking about what vermouth was behind the bar.” Now, it matters. “Everyone's concentrating on each component of the cocktail.”

Octavia's program focuses on serving vermouths on their own. “We have only one cocktail, so to speak. We kind of sell it like a Negroni, but it's all vermouth-based.”

The vermouth program is simple: “Would you like it straight, would you like it on the rocks, with bitters and orange, or with tonic, bitters, and orange? It's a very easy sell here. People are like, 'I”ll have a Negroni.' We say, 'Unfortunately, we don't have a liquor license, but we do have this.'”

Vermouth appears in the wine list, with brief descriptors underneath: Ransom, — dry brisk melon; Imbue Petal and Thorn Organic — bittersweet lemon lilac; Alessio Vermouth il Torino Rosso — dark dusty chocolate cherry. Each line is a conversation-spark.

People request vermouth throughout the meal, proving that these flavorful wines partner well with food.

Thomas finds small producers in unexpected places, such as local organic markets. Thomas suggests asking around your region: a phone call from now, you might be the only bar in your area to feature a tiny-production, local, craft vermouth.

Aita, Brooklyn

The co-owner of Aita, Giulia Pellicioni, “always tried to work with vermouth, as much as possible.” It's understandable. Pellicioni grew up with vermouth. “The first time I had a martini bianco [white vermouth] with ice and lemon, I was probably 16. My friend was ordering that as an aperitif, and I was so curious. I tried, and I loved it.”

Pellicioni moved to the US when she was 19, but the love of vermouth stayed with her. Vermouth bianco and Americanos were her staples.

“We opened in the summer, so the main focus was on white vermouths — something to serve with ice, on a hot day. Slowly, because the weather is changing ... I am introducing the red ones, the amber ones, the darker ones and getting rid of the white ones.”

Pellicioni thinks in terms of seasons. “We do have about 12 vermouths, if not more, and a couple of bitters that could be considered vermouths, but they are amaro-style.” Most of Aita's vermouths are from Italy, but a few are from the U.S. That gives the recipes a spread that includes 21C New World and 18C very, very old.

With flavors that complex, you have to understand what you're selling — and there's a time limit. Vermouth doesn't last forever. “It's a little risky,” Pellicioni says, “having all of those bottles open, and not being able to sell the customers. If you want to work with them, you do want to make sure you know what you're talking about.”

Pellicioni chooses all of the vermouths, and tastes them — and sells them both on their own and in a cocktail. “We have a negroni section, and it changes often,” she says.

If you're hiring, look for staff members who are curious, who are thirsty for diverse knowledge. Vermouth has tradition, but it's also an expanding category. Education, Pellicioni says, is “a constant process.” Have your staff taste vermouths side-by-side. Bottles that might taste similar, if you had them hours apart, taste and feel very different when you sip them together.

For dinner, Pellicioni sees vermouth as a good choice for steering people away from heavier cocktails. “You don't necessarily need to drink a Manhattan or a martini ... You can drink something lighter, something that maybe will help open your stomach without the heaviness of three ounces of gin or vodka.” Your average patron can get through a few vermouths in the course of a meal; the same can't be said of three-ounce pours of high-proof liquor.

Americano, Portland

Carlton Dunlap, the bar manager of Americano, oversees a program focused on “all things bitter” — coffee in the morning and amari, bitters, Americanos, vermouths and aromatic wines in the evening.

Dunlap draws a line between vermouths and aromatic wines: “vermouth, according to the European laws, has to have wormwood in it, which is the bittering agent. After that, it can have any herbs or citrus peels and botanicals it wants. Aromatic wine is a broader wine [category].”

By those rules, just because a U.S. product says it's a vermouth, it isn't necessarily a vermouth by European standards. “Because we don't have those laws that the Europeans do, to designate it, we can label it vermouth, even though it wouldn't be considered a vermouth in Europe.”

After reflecting for a moment upon those American not-vermouths, Dunlap laughs and pegs what matters: “But they're delicious … We're having fun.”

Oregon winemakers are also enjoying vermouth. We already have the juice here, so why don't we try to play around with it? “There's a lot of good stuff coming out.”

In the U.S., there's a lot of diversity. “Ransom had a sweet and a dry that were almost like amari, how bitter they were ... Imbue did a Petal and Thorn vermouth, which had chamomile and rose petal and cinnamon — they were really fun to play with in cocktails, but also to drink by themselves.”

The times are changing. Clever expressions, foraged flavors, and Old World traditions are becoming strong American styles. “We're starting to see producers, like Imbue, going back to a more classic style. They released a classic dry vermouth that could stand up to Dolin or any of the other classics on the market … Initially, I guess, there's a want to be different.”

A local vermouth may — or may not — be great on its own. “Let's say you want to make a martini or a Manhattan,” Dunlap says. “A lot of these vermouths are on the edgy side, so you'll either have to augment it or use less. We're starting to see more cocktail-friendly vermouths come out.”

With an extensive list, Dunlap and his staff can pull a handful of bottles down, and sample flights: a single style (“to see what the style within a style — what the nuances are,” a region, or a varied selection. That opens conversations about what would be good in a negroni, what would work with a rye, what the possibilities might be.

For patrons, “we wanted to have a way for people a chance to engage with on by itself.”

Americano's vermouth list is separate from its cocktail list. “On one side, it has all of our producers, categorized by region ... We offer them by flights.” There are specific flights, so people can taste nuances — and all of the bartenders can talk about the wines. The West Coast flight showcases Pacific Coast producers. The Aromatique flight includes those non-vermouths that are wonderful, but free of wormwood. Customers can pick a style, a region, or whatever else intrigues them.

“We also offer them neat, on the rocks, or we serve a carafe of soda water with it, which is pretty classic over in Spain — and we'll offer it with an orange slice or a twist.”

One of the things Dunlap likes about vermouth is the low cost, which he can pass on to customers. “A lot of our prices are six or seven dollars.”

An asset to that is pure hospitality. “Let's sit and drink cocktails before we go out on the town, you want to be able to knock back a couple of them, without spending eight, nine, ten dollars on vermouth. We price our vermouth on the low side, and we have a vermouth happy hour, where any vermouth we have is five dollars.”

When you can buy a liter of liquid for fifteen bucks, you can afford to give your patrons a break.

If you want to start a craft vermouth program, then learning is imperative. Read. Adam Ford's “Vermouth” is a sound choice. Taste. Make good use of distributors; they love to talk about their products. And if your rent has always prohibited offering a happy hour, then take advantage of vermouth's low wholesale price. Get the patrons in for a conversation-worthy, unexpectedly delicious bargain — new, from around the corner, or ancient from overseas — and they'll be yours for many a vintage to come. There's no wormwood bitterness in that.

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