Several years ago, it would have been unimaginable to see the entire front page of a serious wine program dedicated to vermouth. But thanks to changing American palates, the aromatized wine is continuing to take a leading role in America’s renewed interest aperitifs. One such list can be found at San Francisco restaurant Octavia, where beverage director Paul Einbund is hoping to draw attention to the steadily growing range of vermouths available, many of them from America.
Viva La Vermouth
“We didn’t put vermouth on the menu because we’re hoping for the podium, or hoping to ‘educate’ our guests,” he says. “We put vermouth on the menu because it’s amazing.”
The first wave of the vermouth revival owed much to the cocktail renaissance. As more notice was paid to vermouth as an essential element in a great Manhattan, Negroni or Martinez, it became more important for bartenders to have great vermouths in their arsenals. It’s also seen a boost by way of the tapas bar. At Aatxe in San Francisco and Toro Bravo in Portland, vermouth appears as a central aperitif cocktail ingredient. At Donostia and Huertas in New York, vermouth is available on tap; at the latter it’s also made in house.
But vermouth as a stand-alone drink, served on the rocks or with a splash of soda, is still a relatively new idea in the States. Inspired by the pervasive presence of vermuterias in Spain, programs like Einbund’s are looking for ways to introduce U.S. drinkers to vermouth’s versatility and drinkability outside of the cocktail context.
Part of this also linked to the recent boom of U.S.-produced vermouth, many of which have intentionally diverged from the traditional styles originating in Marseilles, Chambéry and Turin to create something wholly modern.
Part of Naren Young’s strategy for combatting vermouth’s stigma is setting up a program that immediately spurs curiosity, which he accomplishes with the sheer number of choices available accompanied by a visually striking presentation. Dante offers a “vermouth service,” in which the vermouth is served in a glass goblet complete with frozen green grapes and Perrier. “People see it and think, ‘I want to try that,’” he says.
“Things have changed a lot in the past few years,” says Bianca Miraglia, founder of Brooklyn-based Uncouth Vermouth. “There are so many more producers than when I started in 2012. And all of their vermouths are so different from mine, and from each other.”
Patrick Andrew Taylor of the Portland-based Hammer & Tongs has branched out beyond traditional ingredients and methods in a range of vermouths, like his L’Afrique, which features botanicals from West and North Africa. Vya Vermouth (one of the first craft domestic brands, launched in 1999) uses a blend of herbs and spices from India, Morocco, Albania and Indonesia, to name a few, while Miraglia primarily uses ingredients that she forages or grows in New York state. In addition to challenging the existing, Old World palate, these new-school vermouths are giving sommeliers and bartenders a whole new range of flavors in a relatively low-alcohol package.
At New York’s newly opened aperitivo bar, Dante, bartender Naren Young designed the drinks program to showcase the incredible diversity among vermouths and aperitif culture at large; he created a list with upwards of 30 vermouths (currently, largely imports), including one on tap.
“There’s still a stigma in the U.S. about vermouth—and yet, there are so many different styles and flavor profiles,” says Young.
Part of his strategy for combatting this stigma is setting up a program that immediately spurs curiosity, which he accomplishes with the sheer number of choices available accompanied by a visually striking presentation. Dante offers a “vermouth service,” in which the vermouth is served in a glass goblet complete with frozen green grapes and Perrier. “People see it and think, ‘I want to try that,’” he says.
Octavia’s vermouth list is similarly “featured” (both are front-and-center of the restaurants’ drink menus), if smaller, and it offers an unchanging house cocktail (starring three vermouths—Petal & Thorn, Hammer & Tongs and Carpano Antica, plus Lillet Blanc and bitters), and a list of seven to eight vermouths. These range from light and dry to sweet, all available three ways: straight, on the rocks with bitters and an orange twist or with Q Tonic, bitters and orange.
Vermouth-centric programs like Octavia’s and Dante’s are still in the minority, but as the boom of new vermouth brands and the interest in aperitif-style cocktails continues, the notion of sipping it on its own is bound to gain more traction.
As for Einbund, so long as the vermouths continue to be delicious, he’s committed to keeping them front and center on Octavia’s list.
“There are more local vermouths than there have ever been, and the variety is huge,” he says. “Vermouth is exciting, for the first time in a long time.”