The Story of American Craft Vermouth
When you think of vermouth, a few names come to mind immediately: Noilly-Prat, Dolin, Cinzano, Martini & Rossi and the list goes on. All of these brands have been around for decades, serving up time-tested additions to martinis and Manhattans. Up until recently, you would be just as likely to see a bottle of vermouth behind a bar as you would see it gathering dust in your father’s liquor cabinet.
Here in the US, the vermouth scene has been slowly changing, though not for long at all. Quady Winery, located in California’s San Joaquin Valley, was the first U.S. winery to produce vermouth, and that was only in 1998.
“A colleague of mine thought that the cocktails could be better using more vermouth, if there was a better vermouth available. My feeling was that would be an interesting challenge,” Andrew Quady says.
After Quady released Vya in 1998, it took almost a decade for more American-made vermouths to start popping. Wine producers in California, Oregon, Washington and New York were looking to their own grapes and in some cases that recipes and techniques that were created and refined by the predecessors of the big name brands decades before.
Cocktail culture, in part, helped vermouth production along, according to Neil Kopplin of Imbue Cellars.
“Once the cocktail renaissance took hold in the mid 2000’s, bartenders and passionate consumers began to hunt for new and old products to differentiate their cocktail programs. That drove more brands into the U.S. and drove demand for new products from the US. We were right in the middle of the conversation. We honed in on the purity of the wine, the quality of the maceration and botanicals and made it in small batches. We still do,” he says.
It wasn’t necessarily an easy journey, though, as Tad Seestedt of Ransom Wine Company & Distillery explains. “Our guess was that, being wine, brandy and gin makers, the recipes would be fairly simple to work out. But, it was a much more challenging and intricate process than we had originally thought.”
Carr Biggerstaff, of Interrobang Vermouth agreed — he says his sweet vermouth alone took almost 50 different iterations before they settled on a marketable product. Their white vermouth? Seventy-three recipes to nail the right consistency and flavor profile.
So what, then, defines American vermouth alongside Italian, French or Spanish vermouths? For a little while, it was the inclusion of the herb that gives the aromatized wine its name — wormwood (wermut in German). It’d be easy to reduce the argument to that sole ingredient, but it shouldn’t, according to most of the American vermouth producers.
Two ideas emerged when discussing what really defined an American vermouth. First, according to Kopplin and others, was that American vermouths are terroir-oriented — pulling their flavors from the wines themselves. Second, according to Adam Ford of Atsby Vermouth, is the “small batch ethos” that allows for the creation of a wide variety of unique styles and flavor profiles.
“In terms of herb profiles, I think what set American vermouths apart was precisely the fact that they did not have similar flavor profiles, but rather were radically different from one another. I mean, if you line up Hammer and Tongs L’Afrique and taste it against Atsby Armadillo Cake, Uncouth Wildflower and Imbue Bittersweet they would all taste like totally different categories of drink. That’s what makes American vermouths so cool,” Ford adds.
P. Andrew Taylor of Hammer & Tongs Vermouth perhaps summed it up best: “Vermouth is a concept — a category — that goes far beyond the simple litmus of whether or not Artemisia absinthum is used. Vermouth's finest expression is a wine-based herbal aperitif (sometimes sweetened, sometimes not), that stimulates appetite and conversation.”
With so much innovation happening in the category, American vermouth is still very much on a growth trend as winemakers continue to incorporate more and different ingredients into their handcrafted products. Beyond the number of products available, though, growth of the category is going to come down to the consumers, according to many of the producers.
“How can the American vermouth industry teach Americans to drink vermouth? That question will affect the cocktail culture greatly as more and more people become serious about their home bars. Home cocktailing — that’s where it’s at,” Kopplin says.
“Vermouth awareness and production is helping to bring more vermouth driven cocktails to the cocktail culture, while at the same time, cocktail culture is helping to build and support a growing vermouth production.” He adds, “Still, education on vermouth in the U.S. is in its infancy and there is a huge segment of the drinking public that just needs to be exposed to it.”
Once the public learns more about American vermouths, Biggerstaff said, the category has an even greater potential to grow.
“People haven’t really tasted real vermouth, and when you put it in their hands, they go nuts,” Biggerstaff says.