Meet the Man Behind America's First Craft Vermouth

A man leaning on a barrel.
Andrew Quady made it a mission to create a new, better vermouth. Photo courtesy of Vya Vermouth.

While on a trip to France in 1973, Andrew Quady had a vision. Like most people, his vision appeared in the presence of alcohol. Unlike most people, Quady dedicated himself to this idea and brought it to life — and that is why we have vermouth in America.

Quady didn’t invent vermouth, of course; historical references to vermouth exist as far back as the 1700s. However, Quady almost singlehandedly revived the vermouth market in the U.S. back in 1999 with his award-winning Vya Vermouth. At the time, neither bartenders nor customers had any real interest in vermouth — and as a result, none of the fine vermouth brands were sold here.

Vermouth is an important ingredient in several classic cocktails, so the market's ambivalence toward vermouth had a strange cyclical effect on the cocktail industry before the modern craft cocktail boom. When patrons only ordered the occasional cocktail, the bar’s bottle of opened vermouth would sit around for untold amounts of time. Bartenders would continue to serve it in cocktails, unaware of how oxidized it had become and how bad it tasted — causing patrons to think twice before ordering their next vermouth-heavy cocktail.

Vermouth is an aromatized, fortified wine blended with herbs and botanicals that comes in sweet and dry varieties. It was originally used in Europe for its medicinal properties. For Quady, the instant attraction to vermouth was more about its use in the European lifestyle, which he and his now-wife Laurel witnessed firsthand on a post-graduation trip to France in 1973.

“Everyone in the bars was having a glass of vermouth in an outdoor café. Always a sweet red vermouth on the rocks. We started having the same thing. It was really delicious — sort of a spicy, sweet drink that you could have as an appetizer wine because it would break up your taste buds. That was the view I had of vermouth, that it was a great little drink on its own,” Quady remembers.

By the late 1990s, Andrew and Lauren Quady had opened Quady Winery in Madera, California, which specializes in sweet wines. In passing, a friend who worked in the restaurant industry in San Francisco complained that his establishment’s main cocktail was a martini — but that customers always asked him to leave out the vermouth. He lamented to Quady that “the world needs better vermouth.” Quady accepted the challenge.

“I had in mind that we would make a sweet vermouth as well as a dry white vermouth. It took me a couple of years. I dug out my old notes and started assembling collections of plant materials,” says Quady.

A cocktail in a rocks glass in front of two bottles of vermouth. After immense efforts to create their vermouth blends, the Quadys enjoy their handiwork with a treasured vermouth routine (but it’s not one found on typical cocktail menus). They enjoy a mixture of sweet and extra dry vermouths with a little orange peel, on the rocks.

The notes Quady refers to go back decades, to a time right before his France trip. During a one-hour vermouth lecture as part of his masters degree in food science and enology, he took elaborate notes on the process, base wines and different botanicals that make up vermouth.

“I remember [the lecturer] saying to everybody — about a dozen of us — that one of these days we might find ourselves having to make vermouth. He felt that there was an opportunity for other wineries to make it in the business,” says Quady.

He was right. In 2000, Vya Vermouth came onto the scene. Vya’s Extra Dry is made from Orange Muscat and Colombard and Vya’s Sweet is made from Orange Muscat and Tina Roriz. Both are infused with secret blends of botanicals, which impart flavor and aroma, giving the vermouths their distinct tastes. Later, when Quady developed Whisper Dry (which has “a more elegant, fresh style”), he used botanicals that had more of an aromatic property and less of an impact on the palate.

Vya sold about 1,000 cases per year (primarily to the San Francisco market) up until the mid-2000s.

“At that point, practitioners and mixologists needed better ingredients to make more interesting cocktails. That’s when they got interested in our vermouth,” he explains.

It wasn’t just about being willing to take a risk at the right time for Quady — it was always about quality. The winemakers who make Vya don’t veer too far from its original formula, which Quady developed. The goal is to maintain a similar taste from year to year, which they accomplish through a lot of back blending of different botanicals. This can get tricky, because nature has its own variations. For example, the bitter orange peelings used for their sweet vermouth come from Morocco, and the levels of bitterness and orange are not always consistent. To combat this, Quady’s winemakers have learned to go with the flow — and to keep a stock of botanicals from different suppliers on hand, so they can pick and choose each ingredient individually.

“Flavors come from the botanicals, which have a very high molecular weight, so they’re not particularly volatile but they can be bitter, harsh, astringent and have a drying effect. Sweet vermouth is about creating a balance of bitter and sweet, with the bitterness coming from the botanicals,” Quady explains.

His favorite choice for cocktails? The Extra Dry, “because it’s more forward on the finish and it’s really nice to mix with gin.” Vya’s classic gin martini recipe is a customer favorite: 50 percent gin and 50 percent vermouth, straight up with one olive.

While vermouth as a standalone cocktail hasn’t yet caught on with the general public, Quady has high hopes for the Whisper Dry, which is more like a dry white wine with an exotic aroma. He believes in the future, white wine drinkers might favor a white vermouth straight up or on the rocks, “sort of bracing for dinner.”

In a nod to the scene that started it all, the Quadys have a treasured vermouth routine (but it’s not one found on typical cocktail menus). They enjoy a mixture of sweet and extra dry vermouths with a little orange peel, on the rocks — just like in France, but with a personalized twist.

Get the recipe for Vya's seasonal "Everything Nice" cocktail

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