New World Vermouth

by Paul Clarke

Vermouth is a distinctly European creation, as iconic of the Old World as osso buco or cassoulet. But these are vibrant times in the culinary universe, and this kind of activity and innovation obviously extends to the bibulous realm. Now, just as American chefs have taken classic dishes from Europe and Asia and tweaked them into North American hybrids, winemakers and bartenders are adopting this venerable style of aromatized wine and freshening it up with touches of the New World.

Not surprisingly, the initial forays into contemporary vermouth came from adventurous winemakers in California. Andrew Quady’s Vya vermouth and Carl Sutton’s eponymous vermouth demonstrated to drinkers and bartenders that there was still a lot of life in this centuries-old category. Last year, Oregon entered the vermouth game, as Portland bartender Neil Kopplin and his partners at Imbue Cellars introduced Imbue, a bittersweet vermouth. This summer, Quady, Sutton and Kopplin are planning to meet for the first time to discuss their relative approaches to vermouth during a session at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans (full disclosure: I’ll be moderating this conversation), and Imbue and Vya will both be releasing new expressions of their vermouths. Recently, I got on the phone with Neil Kopplin to talk about what prompted him as a bartender to try his hand at making vermouth, and what potential he sees for bartenders and for drinkers in this revived category.

What need did you see for a new category of vermouth? What niche needed filling that was unaddressed by then-existing commercial styles?

I noticed there was a need in the amber category [in France, Noilly Prat produces an amber vermouth that is not widely distributed]—something that had a little higher residual sugar than a dry vermouth, but with a little more complexity than a blanc vermouth. There are some nice subtleties in the blanc category, but I wanted something between a dry and a blanc; that was the impetus for Imbue bittersweet.

Vermouth isn’t exactly a high-volume, high-profile kind of product. What made it worth your time and effort?

Nobody else in the Northwest was making vermouth. I also realized while looking around and getting to know the distillers and winemakers in the area, there was a lot of opportunity to create a hybrid product that utilizes them, while also understanding what bartenders and drinkers are heading toward; we just put the pieces of the puzzle together. The longer I work with vermouth, the more interesting the category becomes—we’re all thirsty for knowledge about what this stuff is and where it comes from, and why it’s been bastardized for so long. Vermouth was kind of forgotten about, and it was time to wipe the dust off and reinvent it in a way—make something with some culinary savvy behind it, rather than something solely rooted in the European tradition. I love traditional European vermouth, but we don’t have that same kind of wine here; the whole terroir is different. Our approach is to honor the place, and understand the flavor profiles of the Northwest; we’re adhering to the local winemaking principles, and making something for the modern-day palate. We’re using the kinds of herbs and spices that people gravitate to in this area of the country, like juniper, which has a piney-ness that’s reminiscent of the Northwest; clove, which makes me think of the sour-apple qualities in pinot gris and is a nice companion; and a combination of elderflower and chamomile, which is very relaxing and refreshing, and blended together the effect is very distinctive, kind of brown-sugar and tea-like.

Increasingly, more bartenders are trying their hand at making their own house style of vermouth—Nopa in San Francisco and Eastern Standard in Boston are notable examples of bars that have tried this. Why might it make sense for a bar to do this, from the business side?

It’s similar to making your own house bitters, but on a much larger scale, and I’m doing this right now [at Beaker & Flask in Portland], while developing a new product and nailing down the formula. I realized if you spend some time up front, doing research on extraction and so on, you can make a lot of it pretty cheaply. If you have the right wine supplier and you find the right base wine, you can do some work up front that saves the bar quite a bit of money. You can cook up some in a crock pot to potentially cut some costs, and not pay for bottling—instead, you put it in a five-gallon pony keg—and there’s some money to be saved there. In this way, you can reduce the need for some of the more expensive commercial products behind the bar; if you have four drinks on your menu that call for an expensive vermouth or bitter liqueur, you can spend $100 on that product, or you can spend it on making your own aperitif wine or liqueur with rhubarb and orange peel, and five gallons of it may last for three months. You can save hundreds of dollars in the long run, and you’re serving something unique and interesting to your guests at the same time.

Kopplin will be joining Andrew Quady from Vya, Carl Sutton from Sutton Cellars and Jackson Cannon from Eastern Standard to talk about New World and house-made vermouth at Tales of the Cocktail in July; watch the website for scheduling and details.

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