Oh, poor vermouth. It’s been the brunt of an ongoing joke in the United States for some time. It was once an essential cocktail component but, following the lead of writers and statesmen from the mid-20th century, it was either swirled and dumped or left out all together, until finally, vermouth was relegated to a sad, crusty old bottle, abandoned on the shelf. Then, with the second coming of cocktail culture in the mid-2000s, it returned in spades. Bottles of Carpano Antica Formula, Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry and reformulated European varieties began populating the shelves. But, until recently, American vermouth had yet to stake its claim.
Despite a once-burgeoning American vermouth industry that dates back to the 1890s, which found itself blossoming during World War II with over 200 producers, vermouth was unable to make itself a long-lived native industry. While there may be plenty of blame to go around, the greatest may lie in the fact that the larger American brands became more focused on creating replicas of their European brethren than innovation — a most un-American of traits. Now, a new wave of craft American vermouth makers such as Vya, Imbue, Ransom and Atsby are not just creating quality vermouths, but are at the forefront of what may become a new style of vermouth, distinct from its European counterparts. But these vermouths are forcing us to ask bigger questions: Are they vermouths at all? And, what is vermouth anyway?
Vermouth — a beverage crafted of wine, botanicals, sugar and unaged brandy — is often cited as having originated in Italy during the 18th century, but its predecessors may be over 3,000 years old. One of the main flavoring agents of vermouth is wormwood, a bitter plant from the artemesia family. In fact, the word vermouth itself likely comes from the Germanic word for wormwood, wermut. Biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern, from the University of Pennsylvania, has used chromatography to identify the remains of ancient vessels and has found evidence of a wormwood-derivative found in a rice wine from the Henan province in China dated to approximately 1200 BC. While that may be the earliest discovery of a wormwood beverage, there are also plenty of examples dating back to classical antiquity including Hippocratic wine, which contained wormwood, honey and spices, and mentions of wormwood wine by both Pliny the Elder and Pythagoras.
Wormwood remained a constant in vermouth’s production until the demonization of the plant, along with the demonization of absinthe, in the beginning of the 20th century. Wormwood, and a specific terpene contained within wormwood — thujone — were thought to cause hallucinogenic effects and lead to wildly erratic behaviors, including bloodlust. Since then, scientists have determined that the amount of thujone contained in absinthe was incapable of causing its supposed deleterious effects. The same goes for vermouth. But the damage was done, and to this day the FDA requires testing for thujone.
This has caused many in the American vermouth industry to eschew the bitter plant. Testing for thujone can be costly, and many start-up producers, who began more out of passion or interest in the product itself and without extensive capital, may not be able to afford the additional expense. One of the pioneers of contemporary American vermouth, Andy Quady, who owns Vya vermouth, admits that he started out with samples of wormwood and used it in test batches. He even planted it. But, he found that it didn’t add any “positive organoleptic properties,” or flavor and aroma characteristics, that enhanced his version. That, along with the added expense of having his product tested, quelled the idea.
Wormwood is not required in the United States, according to Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) regulations, as long as the product still tastes and smells like vermouth. While the European Community (EC) requires that vermouth contain flavoring from wormwood and defines it as an essential part of European vermouths, even in small quantities, the TTB defines vermouth as “A product which is compounded from grape wine, with herbs and other natural aromatic flavoring materials, and which possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth….” A tautology, no doubt, but one that opens the possibility of both nixing wormwood and using new, complimentary flavoring agents.
“So,” Quady admits, “we don’t have it in there.” But, he also adds, “Why would [vermouth producers] have it in there? Because of the history, because of the origins of it as a medicinal product?” It’s unnecessary, he believes, in light of what vermouth is today. For him, the central character of wormwood is to add bitterness. But bitterness, he argues, is easily achievable by other means.
Fellow American craft vermouth producer, Neil Kopplin from Imbue Vermouth, agrees. He uses another ingredient to imitate the bitterness from wormwood in his Bittersweet Vermouth. Although he refuses to reveal the ingredient, calling it a trade secret, he admits that the ingredient is a relative of the gentian family (a bark used in both vermouth and bitters). He also challenges the need for wormwood on grounds of innovation: “When they created American whiskey they didn’t call it scotch. They didn’t create exactly what they created in Europe… If we’re going make vermouth, how do we apply a new environment to an old world product?”
Of course, the question remains for American vermouth producers, despite the cost factor, regulatory acceptance, and relative ease of providing bitterness through other means, should the wormwood be left out? And, if it’s left out, is that really vermouth?
According to vermouth producer Ted Seestedt from Ransom Vermouth, that’s a matter of opinion and one that is subject for debate: “Personally, I would say yes. Obviously, as time goes by certain things may evolve and change, and certain things may not. It would be similar to making gin without any juniper, or a Denver omelette without the ham. It can be done, has been done, and might even taste great. But is it really comparable to the original idea?”
His vermouth does use wormwood. And many bartenders agree with him, especially those who are making homemade vermouths. Award-winning bartender Jackson Cannon of Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne in Boston makes his own rosé vermouth. For him, wormwood is an essential ingredient. He admits that he is going for a more European style, but also admits to using American vermouths in his cocktails. Let’s call this the pluralist point of view.
American vermouth tends to showcase non-traditional flavor profiles; I don’t think it’s another category but it’s definitely a new style.
When asked about the differences between European and American vermouths, Cannon suggests that it’s really more than wormwood. He also lists the small batch, handcrafted nature of American vermouths, along with them being “more delicate and less bitter.” Lastly, he notes “the quality of the base wine is objectively better… than the major [European] brands.” This was a point echoed by the American vermouth producers I interviewed. European brands use a light, almost neutral wine made from either muscat or Trebbiano grapes. Kopplin said, “Instead of creating a carbon copy, we created it around largest component of that vermouth: wine.” That includes heretofore-unused varietals in vermouth such as Pinot Gris or Orange Muscat.
Does the optional nature of wormwood, craft production, and emphasis on quality base wine equal a new product all together, or is this simply a new style of vermouth? Renowned bartender and bitters authority Sother Teague of Amor Y Amargo in New York City says that it’s the latter. “It seems that American vermouth tends to showcase non-traditional flavor profiles; I don’t think it’s another category but it’s definitely a new style.”
Maybe so. In the meantime, the sensible point of view may be the pluralist approach, embracing both European and American vermouths. After all, it’s far better for bartenders and drinkers to have a slew of choices than to return to that lonely bottle left behind the bar. That way, everyone can enjoy the vermouth renaissance and make their own decisions. Hopefully, putting all bitterness aside.
Below are some drink recipes that highlight vermouth as a principal ingredient, including Jackson Cannon’s recipe for vermouth (you can add or subtract the wormwood as you like). If none of these appeal to you, I encourage you to enjoy vermouth on the rocks with an orange slice — a near perfect cocktail itself.
Eastern Standard Rosé Vermouth
2.25 liters rosé wine
250 milliliters ruby port
2 grams wormwood
1 gram gentian
1 gram oregano
1 gram sage
1 gram thyme
.5 grams rosemary
1 gram vanilla bean
5 grams bitter orange peel
.7 grams dried ginger
Zest of ¼ orange
600 grams sugar
500 milliliters un-aged brandy or grappa
Slice strawberries and place in a jar or bottle with brandy. Fruit must be completely covered by brandy or it may spoil. Let stand for 2 days.
Bring herbs and spices to a boil with 750 milliliters of the wine. turn off heat and let sit 10 minutes.
Add port to wine with herbs and spices.
Dissolve sugar with 1-2 teaspoon of water over heat and bring to a caramel that is the color of peanut butter. Carefully remove from heat and add infused brandy. Mix thoroughly until sugar is dissolved in brandy, using a heat safe spatula and not a whisk.
Pour remaining 1.5 liter wine into large container and add herb-spice-wine-port mixture. Add sugar-brandy mixture and stir until all ingredients are thoroughly combined.
Microplane orange zest into container.
Let sit in refrigerator until cold.
Strain and bottle. Your vermouth is now ready!
by Jackson Cannon, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne (Boston)
Vin Amer Fizz (#1)
2 ounce Eastern Standard Rosé Vermouth (recipe above)
1 ounce apricot brandy
1 ounce sparkling wine
½ ounce lemon juice
1 egg white
Begin by dry-shaking ingredients (except for sparkling wine) without ice. Add ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass and top with sparkling wine
by Jackson Cannon, Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and The Hawthorne (Boston)
The Orchard Cobbler
3 ounces Atsby Armadillo Cake Vermouth
½ ounce Cognac
½ ounce Laird’s Apple Brandy
½ ounce rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar : 1 part water)
Dash of Peychaud’s bitters
Shake with a bit of crushed ice to aerate and chill. Pour over crushed ice into a julep cup. Mound more ice on top. Dash with Peychaud’s Bitters and garnish with fresh grapes and apples.
by Sother Teague, Amor y Amargo (NYC)