Vermouth has long been a staple in top-end cocktail bars, but is increasingly making a return to drinks cabinets at home. Nick Mosley finds out more.
The names Cinzano, Martini and Nolly Pratt all invoke a retro feel. The kind of drinks that would be quaffed for pre-dinner cocktails in the 50s, or perhaps sipped with lemonade in a slightly less sophisticated manner in the 70s.
“Vermouth is definitely in fashion”, says Henry Butler of Brighton’s Butlers Wine Cellar. “The Negroni cocktail has had a lot to do with this: bar tenders like making them and customers like drinking them. This has lead into a big interest in vermouths, both white and red”.
Falling in the category of aperitif wine, vermouth is characterised by a distinct bitter-sweet character that stimulates the appetite. The difference between vermouth and regular wines is that vermouth is aromatised, meaning that the base wine has been infused with botanicals that add both colour and flavour. The name itself comes from the French pronunciation of ‘wermut’, the German word for wormwood which is found in many vermouths, particularly in Europe.
Sarah Thompson of Blackdown Distillery near Midhurst has been championing vermouth for over five years, with her award-winning Sussex vermouth made with silver birch sap from the woods surrounding the distillery and featuring traditional notes of juniper and wormwood.
“Everyone thought I was wasting my time when I starting to make a vermouth”, says Sarah. “In 2011, the gin craze hadn’t even began so nobody understood my determination to re-create and improve a classic”.
“And I’m not very good at being told I cannot do something”, she jokes.
Sarah already had a nostalgic fondness for vermouth as it was the favourite drink of her grandmother.
“I was also determined not to use a mass-produced vermouth in our gin. The mass volume vermouth’s just didn’t balance out the flavour, aroma and mouth-feel I required. I wanted imbibers to embrace my vermouth as one which wouldn’t remind them of the crusty and sticky bottles left in the back of drinks cupboard”.
Sarah and the team at Blackdown thus created the UK’s first contemporary white vermouth.
“We like to think we set the trends not follow them”, she says. “We couldn’t think of a better way to say ‘cheers!’ to my Nan, Winne”.
“It would be a great idea for more Sussex spirit producers to investigate this style of drink”, continues Henry. “It would add a lot more interest to their range, and tie in nicely with the seemingly never ending gin boom. Vermouths can be quite versatile. One can enjoy them as an aperitif, or use it in cooking such as a risotto, then finish off the meal with a sweeter one on ice. What’s not to like?”.