Consumers in general and journalists in particular have a penchant for seeking out “the next big thing,” hoping to get the earliest possible seat on a bandwagon.
For those thus inclined, I give you … vermouth. Not as an ingredient, but as the star of the sippin’ show.
Already, the cool crowd on the coasts is there. At three Spanish restaurants in New York City owned by Twin Cities native Alex Raij, vermouth on the rocks with some club soda and a twist is among the most popular libations. “People have really seized on it,” Raij said. San Francisco eateries such as State Bird Provisions have offered it by the glass for several years.
Here in the Twin Cities, the craft-cocktail movement has fueled interest, said France 44’s Tom Schneider. “The first step in the door is a cocktail,” he said, “and then ‘Hey, this is good enough to sip.’ ”
The whiskey-based concoctions such as Manhattans and Rob Roys have been a bigger entry point than martinis, which often contain little or no vermouth. “Vermouth has seen its newest rise very much aided by the interest in rye whiskey and bourbon,” Schneider said.
The nascent movement fits squarely in the “if you wait long enough, everything comes back in style” aphorism. In late-19th-century America, vermouth-based drinks found great favor but, after Prohibition, vermouth devolved to a secondary role in cocktails. Little changed until well after the turn of the 21st century.
“Vermouth still has a stigma,” said Nate Harnisch, beverage specialist at local importer/wholesaler Breakthru. “People still think of the big jug on their parents’ shelf.”
Breakthru brings in a wide array of vermouths, including the benchmark Carpano Antica, and most bars and restaurants still use it primarily for mixing, Harnisch said. But he added that several factors are emerging to change that.
“Aside from being a tonic to cure malaria and other things, vermouth really gets the palate going. It’s one of the best aperitifs you can have,” he said, noting that it fits squarely in the low-alcohol-cocktail craze. “It’s great for people who want to still feel like they’re drinking a cocktail and can then drive around.”
P.J. Zavada, spirits maven at the Wine Thief/Ale Jail in St. Paul, cited the same pattern. “We’ve gotten more responsible with our drinking. We’re just getting better at drinking,” he said, chuckling. “Spritzes and things like that are huge now.”
That seems especially true for those who have traveled to Spain and experienced the vermouth culture there, said Eric Seed, a Twin Citian who heads to Europe frequently to seek distinctive alcoholic beverages for his company, Haus Alpenz.
“In Catalunya, it’s an easy, pleasing drink for everyday people,” said Seed, whose vermouth imports include the increasingly popular 187-milliliter bottles of Miro. “They drink it in a big glass with ice, often as a noontime drink with no concept of a cocktail.”
Schneider is among those who have noticed the ramifications. “When people go to Italy, they come back talking about the wine, and when they go to France, they come back talking about the wine,” he said. “When they go to Spain, they come back and say, ‘I had a great vermouth in some small town. Do you have it?’ Of course I don’t have it, so I carry five Spanish vermouths with distinctive flavors.”
Those range from “jammy and plummy” Yzaguirre to “herbaceous” Axta and several in between. Schneider is especially enamored of Priorat Natur for its complexity. And that’s what will make sipping vermouth a “thing”: its wide-ranging amalgam of flavors and aromas, a result of (no surprise) what goes into the bottle.
Vermouth emerged in the 18th century in Turin, Italy, as a medicinal elixir. The base is a wine or wine must to which alcohol (not too much; it usually comes in at or under 20 percent alcohol) and an assortment of dry ingredients is added. These might include aromatic roots, barks and herbs — vermouth takes its name from wermut, the German word for wormwood — plus some cane sugar or caramelized sugar, depending on the style desired.
For most of its history, vermouth just came in sweet and dry versions, but the recent upswing in popularity has brought the likes of extra-dry white, sweet white (bianco), amber (ambre or rosso), rosé. Variations include quinquina (from cinchona bark, which provides quinine) and Americano (from amaricato, Italian for “wine made bitter”).
An exemplar of the latter category is Cocchi, a favorite of both Zavada and Schneider (who strongly touts a mix of 4 ounces Cocchi Americano and a 12-ounce can of Lime LaCroix sparkling water).
Even U.S. wineries are getting on board. Matthiasson from California and Brovo Spirits Pink from Washington have become mainstays with some local retailers and restaurateurs.
Still, it’s Spanish vermouth that “is going to be the gateway to people sipping vermouth,” Schneider said, “because it’s cheap and comes in so many styles. I just want people to dig into the glass and drink it.”
Count me in.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Twitter: @billward4.