Another talk I went to at Thirst Boston was entitled "Rethinking Vermouth: The Renaissance of Fortified Wine." For a good refresher, see the "Demystifying Vermouth" talk write-up from Portland Cocktail Week 2012. Overlapping in speakership in both talks was Imbue Vermouth's Neil Kopplin, and this talk also had Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars and Adam Ford of Atsby Vermouth.
The basics of vermouth is that it is a wine aromatized (or flavored) with botanicals and fortified by a brandy; in fact, vermouth can be fortified by any fruit brandy but mostly it is a grape-based one. The concept of aromatized wine has been around for almost as long as people making wine. These flavorants were often added for medicinal purposes such as wormwood that first appeared in print in a 1500 BC Indian text on medicine. Eventually, people learned that the addition of a high proof spirit could not only stop fermentation but stabilize the product. While the Carpano family has been attributed to creating vermouth proper cerca 1786, lots of wine and spirits have had wormwood in it. For a great primer on the subject, the speakers recommended Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages by Patrick E. McGovern.
Domestically, America has a fantastic history with vermouth. Vermouth first hits our shores in the 1830s, but it is not until it makes its way to New York City in the 1860s that it truly embeds itself. What solidified its place was not in the old world aperitif but in the cocktail, and vermouth made the cocktail so much more than the basic spirits, bitters, sugar, and water. While the Europeans method of enjoying vermouth had a lot of tradition, the American way had a lot of creativity. Indeed, the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, for example, has over 174 vermouth recipes alone. And not all vermouth was coming from Europe, for in pre-Prohibition American, there were over 200 wineries making vermouth domestically.
Sutton Vermouth: Carl Sutton formed the company four years ago in November of 2009, and he sought to craft a vermouth that mixed well but was drinkable on its own. Carl later explained, "it has to taste good on its own... you cannot make a living a half ounce at a time." One of the company's earliest successes was to get on tap #10 at the Alembic in San Francisco, and he found it great that it was being served on tap like it often is in Barcelona. While most European vermouth is herbal and bitter, Sutton's Brown Label is fruit, floral, and herbal such as from the dried orange peel, rosemary, and chamomile in the mix.
Imbue Vermouth: Neil Kopplin spoke about the terroir being the key word to his vermouths. The Imbue Bittersweet, for example, is made from Oregon Pinot Gris wine made 60 miles away and Pinot Gris brandy distilled at nearby Clear Creek. The Bittersweet has around 50 grams sugar per liter added (in addition to natural grape sugars) putting it at the high end of dry vermouth but closer to bianco vermouth. Neil explained that no one knows what dry tastes like; people talk dry but drink sweet. Botanically speaking, the Bittersweet has orange peel, elderflower, chamomile, clove, and sage -- many of these ingredients were selected for their ability to complement the lemon and Granny Smith apple notes in the wine base. Overall, the product is rather Lillet-like in feel. The Imbue Petal & Thorn is Kopplin's other product with an aggressively sweet and bitter formulation. Gentian works well here but is quite different from traditional vermouth bittering agents. Eucalyptus, Egyptian chamomile, and cinnamon were some of the other botanicals mentioned that add a slightly feminine nature to this somewhat aggressive product.
Atsby Vermouth: Adam Ford wanted to make New York-style vermouth and named his company after a mid-19th century Manhattan center of entertainment, Assembly Theaters on Broadway. Atsby's Amber Thorn has a steel tank New York Chardonnay as a base and apple brandy as the fortifier. Nigella seed from Indian cooking and damiana from Mexican flavor this aromatized wine sweetened with raw summer honey. The 21 botanicals in the mix have a familiar flavor; Adam explained that many people declare, "it reminded me of something... positive, but I cannot identify it." To him, vermouth should stimulate the mind as well as the palate; it should trigger a memory. The other product Adam spoke about was Atsby's Armadillo Cake which has a completely different flavor profile. One of the curious botanicals is shiitake mushrooms for he grew up as a macrobiotic eating a lot of that mushroom with seaweed. Instead of honey, this vermouth is sweetened with dark Indian muscavado sugar caramel to add additional depth to the wine. As for a classification, it is neither a sweet nor a dry, so the vermouth really needs a new style name.