Meet the Vermouth Sleuths Changing the Way We Drink

Eric Seed and Ellen Oglesby
Eric Seed and co-owner Ellen Oglesby near Chambery, where Dolin is produced.

Vermouth was a crucial building block of the American bar scene. Early versions of the Manhattan and martini were made with twice as much vermouth as either whiskey or gin. But World War II cut off access to imports and squelched demand for European brands. More than 50 years later, the classic cocktail revival inspired bartenders to seek out high quality European vermouth once again. And when they couldn't find it, bartenders turned to Haus Alpenz.

Haus Alpenz founder Eric Seed has helped shape American expectations of vermouth. Instead of thinking of vermouth in terms of only whether it's "dry" or "sweet," bartenders create recipes based around a particular vermouth's distinct profile. And guests have come to expect it.

"Perhaps the most striking and positive change has been the recognition of the nature, character and varieties of vermouth," says Seed.

The Minnesota-based importer of spirits and wine is responsible for bringing three distinctive (and indispensable) European vermouth brands to the United States: Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, Cocchi Americano and Miro Vermut de Reus.

In 2008, Dolin was the first of these the company imported to the United States. Seed says bartender Derek Brown of the Gibson in Washington, DC was the one who pitched him on the idea of importing Dolin vermouth.

"Bartenders were seeking better qualities of vermouth," says Seed. "Those that could find Dolin discovered it [stepped up] the quality of their drinks."

Dolin's dry, blanc and rouge are made from herbs and aromatic plants from the French Alpine meadows above Chambéry — France’s only protected designation of origin for vermouth. "Provenance matters to many of our buyers," Seed says of the "de Chambéry" designation, which is similar to how Champagne is a protected designation of origin for sparkling wine.

But Seed didn't isolate his vermouth sleuthing to France. Around the same time, he was working with Giulio Cocchi of Asti in Italy to bring Cocchi Americano back to the states. Seed asked if they'd prepare a batch of the old recipe of the Vermouth di Torino they'd produced for centuries. Like Chambéry in France, Torino is a protected designation of origin in Italy.

"This vermouth had rich palate from the Moscato wine base, and full rounded spice profile unlike any other vermouth on market," says Seed. "It brought new depth to our Manhattans and Negronis."

In 2011, Haus Alpenz re-launched Cocchi Americano bianco and rosa in the US. Last year, the importer added a vermouth with Barolo Chinato wine base stateside: Cocchi Dopo Teatro.

For decades, Americans thought of vermouth as a French or Italian cocktail ingredient. But vermouth is also an ingrained part of the drinking culture of Spain. Haus Alpenz started importing Miro vermouth in 2015 in tandem with Rancio Sec of Catalunya, a nearly extinct style of dry-aged wine that's oxygenated in the sun. Seed explored the town of Reus, home of Miro and "the historic epicenter of Spanish vermouth."

"It's common across all ages to have a generous glass of sweet red vermouth, just on ice with olives," Seed says. "This style of easy-drinking vermouth makes for broadly appealing mixed drinks."

Beyond its role as an ingredient in classics such as the Manhattan, martini and negroni, vermouth is also the star of trendy low-alcohol cocktails and sophisticated drinks with an herbal and bitter flavor profile. After decades in the shadows, vermouth has founds its way into the limelight.

Marcia Simmons is a freelance writer and the author of "DIY Cocktails." She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and would really like a Pimm's Cup right about now.

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