Long taken for granted as a component of classic cocktails like the martini and negroni, vermouth is about to get the attention it deserves. By Madeline Woolway.
Everyone knows vermouth. It’s ubiquitous on drinks lists around the country, but hardly on its own terms. Despite being consumed neat or on the rocks as an aperitif in its native Europe, vermouth has yet to be given a starring role in Australia – until now.
“The popularity of the negroni has kicked off a love of good vermouth, but people are catching on to the idea that [it’s] best drunk neat,” said Rebecca Lines, co-owner of Bar H in Sydney’s Surry Hills and Banskii, a vermouth themed bistro, which will open in late September in Barangaroo.
“Once upon a time you may have seen Noilly Prat listed separately on an aperitif menu. It all but died out and languished on shelves to oxidise. From then on they were relegated to the cocktail only category, but today more and more restaurants are starting to list vermouth with the intention that it be drunk as an aperitif or degistif, and rightly so,” Lines said.
Andrew Margan, owner and winemaker at Margan Estate wines agrees vermouth’s popularity as an aperitif is set to continue growing.
“It will become more popular. Every style of vermouth is different but they’re all very good as an aperitif or digestif because of the botanicals, plus they’re only 16 to 20 percent alcohol, so lower than a lot of spirits,” he said.
Ollie Margan mixing a vermouth cocktail at his Adelaide bar, Maybe Mae.
Wormwood and beyond
There aren’t a whole lot of rules about what can and can’t go in vermouth. The base is fortified wine, to which aromatic herbs and spices are added. Which aromatics are chosen is up to individual producers, however, wormwood, the plant from which vermouth takes its name, is compulsory.
“In the world of vermouth, wormwood is part of the drink, otherwise it shouldn’t be called vermouth,” said Margan.
Given the flexibility of ingredients and its long history, it’s unsurprising that there are several styles of vermouth.
“The different styles are the most important thing to understand about vermouth if you are just starting to get to know the category. Most producers today have a dry, bianco and a rouge style,” said Lines.
Bianco vermouths are white, rounder and semi-sweet, while rouge ones are sweet and spiced. Styles are often aligned with either a French or Italian origination.
“Where a cocktail calls for ‘French’ vermouth it refers to a dry style, which was first introduced in France and was often used for cooking. In a cocktail like a Manhattan, ‘Italian’ vermouth refers to the sweet rouge style historically linked to Turin, Italy – the birthplace of modern vermouth,” said Lines.
Sweeter styles often have added sugar syrup, giving them a sugar content of 10 to 15 percent, while dry vermouths contain less than four percent. Along with these classic styles, new variations are beginning to pop up.
“Rose is a new category of vermouth and linked to the popularity of rose wine. It’s a delicious drink that’s perfect over ice on a hot summer’s day.”
Negroni made using Maidenii vermouth
From aperitif to cocktail
At Banksii, vermouth will be front and centre, with the botanical liquor informing the drinks list and the menu. Although the use of vermouth as an aperitif or digestif will be encouraged, the fact Australians are already familiar with vermouth thanks to its presence in classic cocktails won’t be overlooked.
“It’s an exciting category, I love the romance of a good aperitif or digestif at dinner and think the categories are a wonderful way to enhance the dining experience,” said Lines. “I’m looking forward promoting it as a beverage in its own right, but the fact that vermouth is a common ingredient in the most famous cocktails of the world is an added bonus.”
As such, Banksii will have a focus on those classic vermouth-based cocktails.
“Along with a vermouth menu, you’ll find an extensive list of gin and vodka so that we can perfect the art of martinis. I like the idea that you can choose your favourites to make a negroni that suits your personal preferences,” said Lines.
Maidenii sweet vermouth with cider.
Bespoke vermouth for bespoke use
In a category that’s centuries old, it’s very much a case of old is new, with traditional consumption patterns, like those seen in Europe beginning to trend as new boutique producers pop up around Australia. Crafting classics like martinis and negronis according to personal preference relies on the harmonious interplay of vermouth with other ingredients.
“I didn’t really like negronis. My wife Lisa is half-Italian and she couldn’t understand why. It was the sweet side. I finally had one that had a decent dry vermouth in it, and I recognised what an interesting drink it can be,” said Margan.
“So I looked at what I had available [at the Margan estate] in terms of grapes and base wines, and though Semillon would be a great place to start for a dry vermouth, then we planted some wormwood and found the right botanicals from our garden to go with the spirit we made from the Semillon wine, put it all back into the Semillon base and there you go: single vineyard, single variety, single region, single vintage vermouth.
“It took about 18 months to get through that process.”
Although Margan made the off-dry Semillon vermouth with negronis in mind, he’s happy to let bartenders work their magic.
“The particular style of vermouth is quite different to others and bartenders will look at it and decide what they want to put it with.
“It’s very aromatic, and I’ve called it off-dry, but in fact it is more on the dry side.”
With the popularity of vermouth building, Margan will continue making the off-dry Semillon, while also adding to the winery’s catalogue.
“We’re making the 2016 vintage. It’s a great project for us here at the winery, because it’s an interesting thing for us to do and we’re getting an enormous reaction from the market.
“Now we’re actually beginning production of an off-sweet style, which will be more like a rouge vermouth.
“If you think about artisan gin five years ago, everyone was saying ‘wow’ about Australian made gin. Now there are a so many available, and there are bars devoted to gin. The same thing has happened with bourbon and vodka. Vermouth is an integral part of many cocktails, yet as a category it has gone largely undiscovered here,” said Margan.
“That’s going to change, clearly. There’ll be a lot of different styles of negroni and martini, let alone bespoke cocktails, based on different styles of vermouth.”
Being a fortified wine, vermouth will last longer than other wines, but not as long as higher-proof spirits. It’s best kept refrigerated once opened, and Lines even suggests using an inert gas to help keep it from oxidising. Generally, vermouth kept in the right conditions should last three to six months before dulling.
However, when it comes to his vermouth, Margan said, “You wouldn't want to have it open for more than a month because the bottle will lose its aromatics. If it’s in the fridge then you’ll get two months. Unopened you can store it forever thanks to the wax seal.”
30ml Margan off-dry vermouth
30ml Four Pillars navy strength gin
Serve in a short glass with crushed ice topped with aranciata and garnish with a twist of orange peel.
45ml Margan off-dry vermouth
45ml fresh orange juice
10ml sugar syrup
Build in a tall glass with crushed ice and garnish with a citrus wheel.
30ml Margan off-dry vermouth
30ml aged rum
30ml lime juice
15ml rosemary honey (heat equal parts honey and water by volume, with rosemary to taste)
Shake and strain into a cocktail coupette and garnish with a rosemary sprig.