Mike Bennie rescues vermouth from granny’s cupboard and puts it at the heart of next-gen cocktail sessions.
“You drink it how?” asks a good friend.
“On the rocks, with all kinds of different citrus peel zested in,” I say.
“Isn’t it kind of gross, or too strong?” they ask.
“It’s magnificent, and so refreshing. It was the drink of summer”, I reply, with feeling.
It’s a shock and awe kind of situation that vermouth, pretty much neat, is on high rotation in my liquor cabinet. There would have been a very recent time when vermouth bottles, gathering dust, would have been the sole preserve of the grandparents’ drinking regime.
Antiquated, old-fashioned and forgotten as a tipple it may be, but vermouth has been a staple of fine cocktails since modern bartending came about. A resurgence is on the make in Australia and further afield, driven by a love of Negronis, the ubiquitous cocktail born of an Italian ‘Count’ who decided that gin should replace soda water in his Americano. The result is that producers around the world are ramping up their vermouth efforts.
“We’re definitely seeing it more on drinks lists and amplified in our drinking culture,” says Peter Marchant, Brisbane-based sommelier and wine and drinks expert. “Plenty of winemakers are playing with the idea of vermouth and cool bars are sticking demijohns of the stuff right on the bar so that plenty more people are using it in cocktails.”
Vermouth – traditionally derived from wormwood, but using wine as a base ingredient – is now an experimental domain in which winemakers and drinks lovers can combine just about any iteration of herb, spice, root, botanical, flower and native ingredient to create a unique drink under the vermouth banner. Traditionalists may not love the reinterpretations of the classics, but there’s a curious crowd gathering.
It’s a special type of booze that comes with varied flavours, typically bitter, but in that ballistically pleasing way that say, tonic water with lime or lemon sorbet, might hit the palate. Instead of pure refreshment, there’s complexity from its various ingredients.
“There are plenty of amazing Australian producers kicking it off but we’ve also got great Italian, US and French examples also imported into Australia,” says sommelier James Hird, wine and drinks director for Icebergs group in Sydney. “It’s brilliant to drink on its own, or to make a dominant play in a heap of different cocktails”.
“The idea of the full Australian Negroni I think is a super idea and it’s now a real possibility,” observes Marchant. “It [will be] our accent on things whilst paying respect to the original”.
Vermouth is now the counter-culture cool element in a multitude of drinking scenarios, and coming to another bar near you, soon.
Chinati Vergano Vermouth
(Piedmont, Italy, $70)
Put a gun to my head and I’d say this would be the vermouth to end all vermouths. Produced by an Italian master blender who uses a complex mix of herbs, including marjoram, basil, oregano and thyme, with local botanicals steeped in local wine, the result is sublime – fresh and wildly aromatic.
Ravensworth Outlandish Claims Bitter Tonic
(Canberra District, NSW, $45)
A secret project that was years in the making, chef-turned-gun-winemaker Bryan Martin has released a magnificent vermouth based on local wine, with Australian native botanicals and a mix of bitter roots like gentian, orris and angelica. It’s a spicy, zesty vermouth of intensity, orangey-freshness and bold herbal character, and brilliant in a wet martini (equal parts gin).
Regal Rogue Wild Rose Vermouth
Unique in character (think rose water, raspberry, white strawberry, sour plum and mild herbs), this vermouth is built around rosé produced from Barossa Valley shiraz grapes. It’s astonishingly drinkable. Light and bright, it’s pale pink colour means it’s pretty, too.