The 2019 Restaurant Show really was an incredible event. In particular, this session about vermouth, which was run by wine writer and drinks expert, Ewan Lacey. He began by selling us (as if we needed it) the various benefits of vermouth. “It’s incredibly versatile,” he tells us, “it’s good in cocktails, it’s good for both pre-dinner and pre-lunch drinks…use it as an appetite sharpener.”
Lacey did admit that pre-lunch drinks were probably a bit more common in France and Italy these days than in the UK. This area, the Italian and French rivieras, hitting up against the alps, was, after all, where vermouth originated.
“Now this drink has the coolest labels… whether it be the established brands such as Noilly Prat… or one of the latest to reach the market, one which we were about to try, Sacred. Essentially vermouth is a wine to which herbs and spices are added using different processes; and sugar – 50-60g per bottle is also added.
Last year I went on a tour of the Lustau sherry factory in Jerez. As part of the sherry tasting session at the end, we were introduced to the company’s new range of vermouth. An Italian in the group asked about the ingredients, and our guide reeled off a list. “No wormwood?” asked the Italian, surprised. “No wormwood,” it was confirmed. “Then it’s not vermouth!” cried the Italian… “even the name, ‘vermouth’ comes from the same stem as wormwood (or ‘wermut’ in German)”.
The Italian is right. Rules may be made to be broken, but wormwood is considered an essential ingredient for vermouth – it’s the main source of bitterness used to counter the added sugar. Vermouth is a drink which is all about balance.
Additionally, when wormwood is mixed with alcohol its hallucinogenic qualities are released (wormwood is also an essential ingredient in absinthe).
Other than that, producers tend to be coy about the mix of botanicals in their particular brew – for obvious reasons!
No 1 – Belsazar – white
Lacey kicked off the tasting with a white vermouth from the Belsazar brand. This is relatively recently founded in Germany. Schladerer is a family-owned company making fruit spirits (kirsch, himbeergeist etc), but the market for these spirits has reduced considerably. Belsazar was founded as a way of business reinvention – repurposing such as this, Lacey comments – is a feature of the history of vermouth.
The fruit brandies are added to Riesling – German white wine from the South Baden region. Then herbs and botanicals are added together with the essential wormwood.
“You can certainly taste the wormwood in this white vermouth,” says Lacey. “but other than that it’s a bit elusive, there’s a melding of aromas – quince and juniper maybe?
This vermouth is 18% ABV.
In general I am not very keen on white vermouth (too sweet). But for a very refreshing spritz made with Belsazar rosé, go to this post on Saucy Dressings.
No 2 – Regal Rogue – wild rosé
Regal Rogue is an Australian vermouth made from Australian wine and aromatics sourced from Aboriginal farmers. It’s another brand with a very cool label. The founder was an Australian, working as a bartender at the Artesian bar in the Langham Hotel in London. He watched the gin explosion in the UK, and saw the obvious chance for vermouth.
The wild rosé is made from a mix of 30% red Barossa shiraz wine and white wines.
This vermouth is 16.5% ABV.
A chef in the audience thought it would pair well with salt… dark chocolate… some sort of salted caramel chocolate traybake perhaps?
Sacred’s Head of Business Development, Alexander Jeffreys, was in the audience to outline the story behind this brand which was founded about ten years ago by a Londoner, Ian Hart. Like Luke Boase, of low-alcohol lager producer, Lucky Saint (see A Low And No Alcohol Beer Tasting) Hart saw the advantages of the use of a vacuum. “If you distil in a vacuum, you don’t need so much heat”, explains Jeffreys. “You can see the still in this image – yes, those really are kitchen cabinets. Sacred is distilled in a house in Highgate.”
No 3 – Sacred – English Amber
“This vermouth has a really warm taste,” enthuses Lacey. “It has a lovely amber colour, and there are flavours of citrus peel…. There is a marmalade-y bitter sweetness. The wine comes from Gloucestershire – dry and refreshing with a high acidity. The botanicals are macerated in spirit, and then added back into the wine, for additional flavour.
“Where does this fabulous colour come from?” we asked Jefferies. “It’s from apricots,” he replies. “And the smokey dryness comes from the thyme. You couldn’t find anything more homemade and hearty than Sacred,” he tells us, “It was originally developed for use in a Vesper Martini*.
They use it at Dukes hotel – the home of the Martini cocktail. It’s won the World’s Best Vermouth award.”
We all agreed it had a lot going for it. I thought it tasted a bit like a sort of instant Gin and It.
No 4 – Sacred – English Spice
“Oh look at the legs on that!” exclaimed Lacey, “this tastes like a mix between Pedro Ximenez and engine oil…. but in a good way…. the viscosity is rich, it’s got a lovely herbaceous, bitter scent. The base is, surprisingly, white wine.”. “Yes,” says Jeffreys, “it’s the cloves, cinnamon and cardamom which give it its deep colour.”
The chef in the audience commented that this vermouth could be used in cooking – for example to finish off a mushroom risotto. Genius idea – especially, for example, an Earthy, Spooky, Mushroom Risotto.
Thoughts on vermouth in general
Lacey summarised the session by saying that for the chef or barman looking for something new, vermouth could often be the answer. You could always try updating a classic Martini by substituting a modern vermouth.
Additionally, vermouth has a conveniently long shelf life. “Encourage the team in your restaurant to understand how it’s used and to try different types. Get them to tell your customers that they’re just about to try ‘the World’s Best’ – have fun with it.”
*The Vesper Martini was invented for a Bond girl named Vesper Lynd in Fleming’s novel, Casino Royale. It is made from three parts gin, one part vodka, half a part Kina Lillet (a wine and quinine mix), and a twist of lemon peel.