As often as not, we’re likely to see vermouth poured into a martini glass, swirled around and then unceremoniously dumped. The “vermouth wash” is a disdainful way to treat a beverage that is, in fact, delicious in its own right. Fortunately, there is a vermouth revival of sorts right now, and brands such as Cocchi, Dolin and La Quintinye Vermouth Royal are helpful reminders that the fortified wine works well as a cordial, too.
J Mays, managing partner of Café 7 and Venue 7, often applies a playful curiosity to ad hoc projects. When the mood arises, he might Uber around town to find “the best Mint Julep” or “the best Old Fashioned” in the metro, sampling cocktails from six or eight of the city’s bartenders along the way. Recently, he turned his curiosity to vermouth, and not just the kind you buy off a shelf.
“I wanted to make my own vermouth,” he says.
If you think “Why?” is the obvious response here, you might suffer from a deficiency of curiosity, or you might not like to cook, but to hear Mays talk about it is suddenly to become fascinated with what Europeans have long known is a wonderful aperitif.
Essentially, vermouth is wine – usually white – fortified with botanicals that have been macerated (softened) in neutral spirits. The botanicals are strained out, and then the mixture is added to wine along with sugar – either syrup or caramel. Caramel works best, but it’s the most tedious method of adding sugar.
Mays decided he wanted to make homemade vermouth. The Internet is a wonderful resource for such endeavors, and Mays quickly found a couple of recipes and lists of possible botanicals.
“It was much easier than I expected,” he smiles. “Not the actual making of it, but the discovery of how to make it and what goes in it.”
BUILDING YOUR BLEND
With the exception of wormwood, the botanicals most commonly associated with vermouth are easily found. We sent the list to Able Blakley, owner of Savory Spice Shop, and he confirmed that he had everything in-house. Kyle Fleischfresser, managing partner of The Hutch on Avondale and a bartending expert, said the wormwood is an easy fix, too.
“You can grow your own,” Fleischfresser says. “Many people in Oklahoma have it growing in their yard and just don’t know it.”
You can also order it from the Internet. That’s what Mays did, as it’s not illegal. Fleischfresser also said the maceration process would give greater character to the homemade vermouth.
In addition to serving the tippler as a cordial, sweet vermouth can be used to make a Negroni, a Rob Roy or a Martinez, thereby creating a cocktail with your own signature blend.
In typical fashion, Mays intends to experiment with wine varietals. Ordinarily, a dry white wine is sufficient, but he intends to broaden the scope of flavors.
“I’m wondering what other varietals, even rosé, will impart in terms of flavors,” Mays says. “I also want to use local honey in place of sugar to see what that will do.”
To get started, choose between dry and sweet vermouth as your target, since the list of botanicals is radically different. Savory Spice can work with you on herb/spice combinations to suit your own flavor preferences. In fact, Mays said the most difficult part is getting the botanical mixture right.
“You have to macerate each one in its own jelly jar,” he explains, “but that allows you to taste them individually after they have soaked for a couple of weeks. You can build your own flavor combinations that way.”
As for neutral spirits, both Fleischfresser and Mays said vodka will do just fine. Blakley recommends being adventurous with ingredients, such as using rosebuds for dry and allspice or kaffir lime leaves for sweet. Other commonly used botanicals include vanilla pods, marjoram, gentian root, juniper berries, sage, rosemary, orange peel, lemon zest, bay leaves and many, many more. The variety allows for nearly unlimited combinations to create a personalized vermouth. Here’s to possibilities.
► Find your own mix
Your preferred flavor profile will determine what type of botanicals you should collect.