Understanding the World of Vermouth: The American Upstarts

published Aug 20, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

From all the columns we’ve devoted to vermouth here at 9-Bottle Bar — up to and including this month’s coverage of dry vermouth — a reader might be led to believe that making the stuff is exclusively a European affair. Vermouth most certainly got its start as a Continental product, but today the map of producers is much broader, and several domestic outfits have been busy carving out a relatively small but much-deserved space on liquor store shelves for American-made vermouth.

A New Wave of American Vermouth

Quady Winery in Madera, California, helped kick-start the recent new wave of vermouth-making in the States. (Since wine is an essential ingredient in vermouth, it’s not surprising that a lot of domestic vermouths are minted in and around the grape-growing regions of the West Coast.)

Vya Vermouth from California

Established in 1999, Quady’s vermouth brand is called Vya, and includes a sweet as well as two dry-style bottlings.

The winery uses its own cultivated Orange Muscat as well as other dry white wine grapes as the base for the latter — an unusual choice compared to the approach of most European makers today. Frequently, wines deemed fit for vermouth were neutral in character — more or less blank slates on which the producer could illustrate his or her desired flavor profile through the use of elaborate blends of botanicals, spices, and citrus peel. Vya Extra Dry features more than 15 botanicals, but the Orange Muscat — aromatic and pronounced — contributes appreciably to the character of the final product.

A Different Style of Vermouth

While many European dry vermouths are light and restrained, Vya’s is intense and assertive (suggested at first sight by its deeper color), displaying flavors of vanilla and herbs and finishing sherry-dry.

According to Andrew Quady, the winery owner, “European vermouth base wines are typically stripped of all wine character” — also known as vinosity — “before adding the botanicals. We don’t do that. Instead we look for base wines which can impart a certain desired flavor to the vermouth.”

Quady says that the botanicals in his Vya Extra Dry, sourced mainly from Europe and Asia, “were selected to give sort of a mountain meadow after the rainstorm sense with notes of fresh green plants, citrus, and flowers. Some of the ingredients are lavender blossom, rose petals, linden flower and leaves, citrus peelings (sweet orange from Florida), a species of wild ginger from Laos, and alfalfa.”

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Atsby Vermouth from New York

The Left Coast isn’t responsible for all the domestic newcomers to the vermouth shelves. New York-based Atsby Vermouth is another label gaining attention. Chardonnay from grapes grown near the Long Island Sound serve as the base for Atsby’s two vermouths, between which its “Amberthorn” bottling is closer to a traditional dry style. Again, the wine plays an important role in the product: Atsby exclusively uses wine from one producer in one region and doesn’t blend wine from different years — in effect creating vermouth with annual vintages.

Uncouth Vermouth from Brooklyn

As is true of America in general, domestic vermouth makers don’t allow Old World tradition to stand in the way of their self-expression and innovation. Borrowing space at the Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, New York, Bianca Miraglia produces her small line of Uncouth vermouths in a variety of intriguing and uncommon flavors. Miraglia calls her dry bottling Apple Mint — words you’re not likely to find on vermouth labels hailing from Europe. She often sources ingredients personally; her Apple Mint vermouth recipe, for instance, includes foraged mint leaves.

Along with the handful of other domestic labels, American vermouths encompass a surprising diversity of approaches. And while these producers operate largely untethered, at least officially, by the strict definitions Europeans follow (many Americans forgo adding wormwood, an essential vermouth ingredient according to the E.U.), they do ascribe to one value held by their forebears across the Atlantic: that vermouth — especially a carefully crafted one — can and should be enjoyed on its own as much as it’s meant to be mixed into cocktails.