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The Truth About Vermouth

By Lara Creasy

For the longest time, I have had a desire to make customers love vermouth again – for the very simple reason that I understood from personal experience how sweet vermouth could make or break a Manhattan, and how dry vermouth took a martini from being just a chilled shot of gin or vodka and made it a wonderful cocktail with character.

Vermouth Behind the stick

Bojan Popovic, beverage director for Cook Hall

A Tales of the Cocktail seminar that I attended, years ago, on vermouth as category, further opened my eyes to the proper care and use of the product and the awesome potential vermouth presented.

The amount of specialty vermouth on the market has increased dramatically in recent years, with traditional Italian, French and Spanish producers sharing bar space with artisan products such as Imbue from Oregon and Brovo from Washington.

“We’ve increased our skus substantially in the last few years,” says Jason Walton, Craft Spirits Manager for Savannah Distributors, which currently represents at least 28 artisan vermouths. “People are more curious about the category, after producers like Cocchi and Carpano have paved the way. Having those products (in the market) has really opened a lot of doors.”

Walton says he is often out working the Atlanta market, and in the city, bar managers are always eager to try new products. When he’s working the suburbs, however, he says restaurateurs often need more convincing.

“I hear, ‘I use Martini & Rossi, I’m not interested.’ So I tell them, ‘Do me a favor, and just taste it.’ Every single time I get them to taste it they say, ‘I’ll take it,’” Walton says. “Their whole opinion is changed.”

Walton explains to his buyers, who all understand that high-end bourbon is a hot category, that they don’t want to ruin a fine whiskey in a Manhattan by diluting it with inferior vermouth. If cost is an issue, he encourages them to market a “top shelf Manhattan,” and up-charge for using vermouth like Carpano’s Antiqua Formula, for example.

Part of the perception problem, he explains, is that people aren’t taking care of the vermouth they already have. No one has ever told them that vermouth is wine, that it needs to be refrigerated and that it has a shelf life. “People aren’t taking care of those bottles, so it’s turning people off from the whole category.”

Vermouth 101

What is vermouth exactly? Most people don’t even really know. Put simply, vermouth is an aromatized wine, infused with a botanical blend that is unique to each producer. Unlike spirits, which are distilled and have a higher percentage of alcohol, vermouth can go bad. It will last longer than a bottle of table wine, due to the fact that it is fortified, but it begins to change shortly after opening, and it certainly doesn’t show well after a couple of weeks. (For excellent information about the history of vermouth, the different categories, and tips for storage and care, I highly recommend a visit to vermouth101.com)

You can imagine the vermouth experience that many consumers have gotten over recent years, ordering a martini or a Manhattan in a bar that has kept the same bottle of vermouth opened on a shelf, or worst of all in their speed rail with a pour spout in it, for months on end. The bad tasting vermouth logically turned many drinkers off from vermouth in general, they started to tell the bartender to “wave the bottle over the glass,” or something equally silly, and the vermouth bottles collected dust for even longer, going even more bad. Bar managers stopped investing in vermouth, because, well the guests don’t like vermouth, and a long, sad slide from grace perpetuated.

But once anyone starts to learn about vermouth, good vermouth, it’s almost as if a light bulb goes off. Because not all vermouth is made from the same recipe — not even close — you can be certain that making a cocktail with one vs. another is going to make a big difference.

Bojan Popovic, beverage director for Cook Hall in the W Buckhead, says that his restaurant stocks a variety of artisan vermouths, and the secret to their success with the restaurant’s guests is the fact that he promotes them directly to the customer.

“People ask the question, ‘I make a Manhattan at home and it doesn’t taste anything like this. What’s the difference?’ The difference is the vermouth. I tell them, ‘You are probably using something inexpensive that you bought at the grocery store, like Martini & Rossi. We use a Spanish vermouth called Yzaguirre. It’s an absolutely delicious vermouth at a fair price.’ I bring the bottle to the table, and I tell them about it.”

Still, says Popovic, the typical Georgia guest is way more interested in the base spirit. “It’s rare that people ask for a specific vermouth,” he says, opting instead to call for Grey Goose in their martini. He likes to tell them how vodka is flavorless and neutral, and how much difference a specialty vermouth will make in their cocktail. “Grey Goose and Ketel One are going to taste the same every time.”

Cook Hall features many cocktails on its printed menus that feature vermouth, particularly paired with bourbon. Popovic says he loves to use Yzaguirre Rojo, and he’s used it on “every menu for the last two years.”

Walton agrees that menu placement is the way to get specialty vermouth into a consumer’s glass. “There is a small group of educated consumers who are pulling them through, but it’s very small. By and large it’s the bar managers showing people the way.”

The cocktail gateway

Leith Shenstone, partner in Fasel Shenstone, a specialty vermouth importer, says that cocktails are the gateway to getting consumers to understand vermouth. “Someone ordering a Manhattan will notice if you change the vermouth, and that starts a conversation. What we are going for is that everyone at least likes the vermouths we sell.”

Fasel Shenstone and Haus Alpenz are two importers who have given a serious amount of attention to artisan vermouth.

“No one has been telling the stories about how the vermouths are made,” says Shenstone, adding that his company brings in brands that are serious about the winemaking portion of vermouth production. While most mass-produced vermouths are made with a very cheap base wine, in order to keep costs down, the vermouths Fasel Shenstone sells are way more labor intensive, often growing the grapes for their base wine in their own vineyards. “They should appeal to all people who love artisanal, estate-made products,” says Shenstone.

He adds that one angle his company has been exploring recently has been going after sommeliers, to get them to recommend vermouth as a food pairing or an aperitif. Vermouths like Lacuesta Rojo may seem an unlikely pairing for oysters, but distinct minerality and black pepper and tomato aromas actually make it perfect. The Yzaguirre dry, which is aged in used sherry casks, is even more of a no-brainer.

“When the somm is standing at the table, and the people want something dry and fresh, the somm just has to recommend it,” Shenstone says.

At the bar, he adds, cocktail menus that suggest a light, effervescent cocktail, like artisan vermouth and soda with an orange peel, are ready-made to appeal to people with a taste for light, dry cocktails like vodka and soda, he adds. “Putting a vermouth and tonic on your menu will make people stay longer, eat more food, and it’s good for everyone.”

The next big thing?

Popovic hasn’t had as much success selling vermouth on its own at Cook Hall, however. “The culture here is very different than in Europe,” he says. “Here people see it as something that will take them way too long to get drunk!”

Even so, when targeted to the right consumers, vermouth seems poised to really take off in the American market. But it seems we’ve heard the same thing in recent years about other unfamiliar products, like sherry.

“The problem sherry suffers from is that it doesn’t fit the flavor profile that most Americans are used to. If there is low-risk, people will give it a chance. The fact that you can use vermouth in cocktails like martinis and Manhattans helps,” says Shenstone.

If you ask me, good vermouth almost tastes like a cocktail on its own, with all the depth of flavor and bittersweet balance that people like, so perhaps the idea that it will catch on as a stand-alone beverage isn’t too far-fetched.

In addition to Cook Hall, other Atlanta area restaurants are having success with selling small-production vermouths on their menus and back bars. The Optimist featured a cocktail called The Cardinal on its menu recently that was built upon solera sherry and sweet vermouth. Holeman and Finch Public House is known to have different vermouths chosen for each Manhattan a guest might order, based on which whiskey they choose. And Ticonderoga Club in the Krog Street Market pours Lacuesta Reserva, a barrel-aged vermouth represented by Fasel Shenstone, by the glass.

“Hats off to those guys,” says Walton, about the Ticonderoga Club. “They are doing the leg-work for everybody.”

When it comes to the trailblazing products like Cocchi and Carpano Antiqua Formula, however, you can find them nearly everywhere these days, “from from your neighborhood pub to the highest end steak place, which is a testament to where the industry is going. For all of those types of bars to have an almost $30 bottle of vermouth,” says Walton, “it’s pretty cool.”

Lara Creasy is a consultant with over 15 years experience in beverage management. She has developed wine and cocktail programs for such restaurants as St. Cecilia and Superica through her consulting business Four 28, LLC.

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