Friday, November 22, 2013

Thirst Boston: Fortified Wines--Vermouth & Sherry

Beside spirits, wine occupied a small spot at Thirst Boston, including two seminars on fortified wine, discussing them both on their own as well as their use in cocktails. As I am a fan of both Vermouth and Sherry, I was drawn to both of these seminars and I wasn't disappointed. I am hoping that all of the interest shown in these two fascinating fortified wines will boost their popularity as they have much to offer people.

The seminar Rethinking Vermouth: The Renaissance of Fortified Wine was presented by three artisanal vermouth producers including Carl Sutton from Sutton Cellars (California), Neil Kopplin from Imbue (Oregon) and Adam Ford from Atsby (New York). Vermouth production is still a relatively new industry in the U.S. and there are only around 10 artisan producers. Prior to this seminar, I have tasted only a few American Vermouths. Back in January 2010, I tasted my first American vermouth, made by Carl Sutton, his Brown Label Vermouth and it even was one of my Top Ten Wines Over $15 of 2010. In October 2010, I tasted, and enjoyed, the Dry and Sweet Vermouths produced by Quady Winery. I was excited to try a few more Vermouths at this seminar.

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine that has been flavored with a blend of botanicals. Though Antonio Benedetto Carpano, of Turin, Italy, in 1786, coined the term "vermouth" for a wine flavored with wormwood, such wines have ancient origins. (FYI: The German word "wermuth" means "wormwood.")  The ancient Chinese flavored wines with herbs and roots while the famous Greek physician, Hippocrates, is known for having infused wormwood into white wine, creating vinum absintianum. The Roman, Pliny the Elder, even wrote recipes detailing how to create such wines. Most of these ancient cultures sought to create medicinal elixirs, benefiting from the natural properties of botanicals.

The first Vermouths in the late 18th century were sweet, and generally red in color, and it wouldn't be until the early 19th century that a dry version, generally white in color, was created in France. Thus, red Vermouths are sometimes called Italian Vermouths and white Vermouths sometimes called French Vermouths, though both countries now make red and white Vermouths. In addition, not all red Vermouth is sweet, and not all white Vermouth is dry. So it is difficult to generalize.

European Vermouth must legally contain flavoring from wormwood however American law does not possess such a requirement. The Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) defines vermouth as “A product which is compounded from grape wine, with herbs and other natural ) merely states aromatic flavoring materials, and which possesses the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth.” Wormwood provides bitterness to vermouth, and there are number of other botanicals which can provide a similar bitter flavor. This means that American Vermouth can be a diverse product, created from a myriad of botanicals. And the three Vermouth producers at this seminar showcased that versatility and diversity.

In the U.S., Italian sweet vermouth became popular in the 1880s and was used in the Manhattan cocktail, while dry vermouth became popular several years after, and became used in the Martini. Older cocktail recipes called for larger portions of Vermouth than what are used today. For example, Julia Child preferred Reverse Martinis, which use 5 parts dry vermouth to one part gin. With modern Martinis, Vermouth often seems to get short shrift, with people wanting less and less of it in their cocktail.

The new American Vermouths though do not easily fall into the dry/sweet dichotomy, and choosing which cocktail to add them to takes a bit more thought. In addition, some of the new artisan spirits produced in the U.S., from Gin to Vodka, don't work as well with European Vermouth and may actually pair better with new American Vermouth. American Vermouth may sometimes be too powerful for a European gin but will work much better with some of the new styles of American gin.

Do you have a bottle of Vermouth in your liquor cabinet? If so, how long has it been there, and how long has it been opened? Most people probably don't store Vermouth properly. Carl Sutton made the important point that Vermouth, at its most basic, is a wine and should be stored as such. Would you open a bottle of Chardonnay, have a glass, and then store it for several months on a shelf somewhere next to your rum and tequila? Probably not. The freshness of Vermouth is important and you should check your liquor cabinet and toss out any old Vermouth.

When creating Vermouth, the main aromatic is the base wine, and each of the presenters have different ideas on the type of wine to use in their products. Sutton prefers a good, neutral wine, keeping secret the identity of the grapes. He feels that if the wine dominates, the botanicals end up in the background. Kopplin, steeped in the wines of Oregon, chose to use an Oregon Pinot Gris from a winery located close to them. He also has the Oregon distillery, Clear Creek, make their brandy. Ford choose to use a local wine as well, Chardonnay from Long Island, as well as local apple brandy from the Finger Lakes.

Ford stated that "Vermouth is a story of trade routes," indicating the importance of the botanicals, which are sourced from all around the world. Spice routes have played a significant role throughout history, and Vermouth is almost like a microcosm of that history. In the U.S., you can add any amount and type of botanical to your vermouth, including fruits, herbs, barks, roots, flowers and more. Sutton's Vermouth contains 17 botanicals, but he started with a palette of about 120 and experimented with combinations. Kopplin's Vermouths only have 9 botanicals while Ford's Vermouth have either 21 or 32 botanicals. Because of the time and effort invested into creating their botanical recipes, they generally choose to keep the exact composition secret.

Some of the botanicals that are used are rare items, that many people may have never been exposed to before. Botanical combinations can also create more unique and exotic tastes which the consumer cannot identify. That is likely to make you think about what you are drinking, seeking to identify those unknown flavors and aromas. Sutton states that is one of the things that makes American Vermouth great, that you "Stimulate your mind too, not just your palate." I agree with Sutton, and have encountered that same thing in wine, being intrigued by wine tastes which pleased me but which I couldn't identify.

Sutton's Brown Label Vermouth ($20) was first released in December 2009 in San Francisco, and you can read some of my prior thoughts on it here. I love his Vermouth with club soda on ice. As I mentioned, he uses 17 ingredients but will only mention a few, including dried orange peel, rosemary and chamomile. He sources from all over the world, except that he grows some rosemary, and forages a bit more. All of his botanicals, except for the rosemary, are dried. He macerates each botanical separately, and uses no heat at all. He stated that European Vermouth often focuses on the floral but he wanted to focus more on fruit. Sutton also wanted to create something drinkable on its own, and not just as a cocktail ingredient.

With great passion and energy, Sutton is a contagious advocate of Vermouth (and he makes some excellent wines as well). Currently, he makes some special Vermouth blends for a few bars in San Francisco, and in the future, he will produce both Sweet and Rose Vermouths.  I highly recommend his Brown Label Vermouth.

Ford owns Atsby Vermouth, which was established in 2012, and the name is an acronym for the Assembly Theaters of Broadway, some of the first saloons in New York City to serve cocktail. Ford states that he does not make sweet or dry Vermouth, simply making Vermouth and with the name of each Vermouth helping to describe its contents. He macerates all of the 21+ botanicals together, cold seeps them, and wants his Vermouth to be made as a base spirit and not just a mixing ingredient. Raw summer honey is also used as a sweetener. I tasted both of his Vermouths, the Amberthorn and the Armadillo Cake.

The Amberthorn ($47) derives its name from its amber color, as well as the "thorn" in the Vermouth, that cuts through the sweetness on your palate. It may a powerful anise aroma, and on the palate, is light, elegant with a complex blend of citrus and herbs, and hints of bitterness. The Armadillo Cake ($47) takes its name from a groom's cake, shaped like an armadillo, that is usually a red velvet cake. It was at a wedding that Ford's wife first got him to taste a Vermouth and he became enamored with it. This Vermouth uses 32 bontanicals, and most are different from those used for the Amberthorn. To sweeten it, he uses a caramel that was made from dark Indian Muscovado sugar. This complex and impressive Vermouth is more powerful than the Amberthorn, but still with plenty of restraint and balance. There is an enticing umami taste, with a great depth of flavor, and unknown tastes which intrigue the brain. It was my favorite of their two Vermouths.

Kopplin founded Imbue Cellars, in 2010, in Portland, Oregon. Kopplin was a bartender and intrigued by the question of why artisan Vermouth wasn't being produced in Oregon. He decided there was an opportunity there and plenty of local ingredients which would create an excellent Vermouth, and lend terroir to the final product. He chose to use Pinot Gris as the base wine, for its fruit flavors and acidity. He uses nine fresh, dried botanicals for both of his products, including orange peel, elderflower, chamomille and sage.

The Bittersweet Vermouth is supposed to live up to its name, presenting a balance of sweet and bitter flavors, and it succeeds on that level. There are plenty of orange notes with more subtle herbal aspects. It is intended to be drank on its own, or in a cocktail. Petal and Thorn Vermouth ramps up the bitterness level, using gentian root, and the bitterness on the palate is dominant. This Vermouth also contains 5% organic Syrah, organic beets and some cinnamon. It is supposed to be slightly feminine and slightly aggressive, and reminds me a bit of some Italian digestifs like Amaro or Averna.

As the producers pointed out, and which I agree, all of their products are unique so there is no real competition, and the market could easily handle plenty of other American Vermouth producers. With such a great number of botanicals available, and a near infinite series of combinations, the potential diversity is stunning. Stop treating Vermouth as an afterthought, that cheap bottle you buy as a mixer, and learn about the wonders of American vermouth on its own, and as the primary component of cocktails.

Because of my great love for Sherry, I knew I had to attend the seminar, Pirates, Partisans & Grandmothers: The Legacy & Use of Sherry. The two presenters were Derek Brown (writer, mixologist and owner of Washington, D.C. bars The Passenger, The Columbia Room, and sherry bar, Mockingbird Hill) and Jackson Cannon (owner of The Hawthorne). Derek said, a bit touch in cheek, that he wanted to name the seminar, "How To Unfuck Sherry" which actually might have garnered even a larger audience.

The purpose of the seminar was to explain about Sherry, from its history to production, as well as to destroy some of the myths about Sherry. Derek mentioned that Sherry is "a wine that belongs to an ancient past", extending back to the time of the Phoenicians. Derek and Jackson did an excellent job of simplifying Sherry, while still providing lots of valuable information. They discussed Sherry's history, it production process, the various types, its versatility with food and more. Personally, I learned little new, which I expected, but I was likely the exception and it was a great seminar for anyone with limited knowledge of Sherry. Derek and Jackson were passionate Sherry advocates, and I think some of that passion spread to the rest of the attendees. They also did a nice job of distilling the complexities of Sherry into an easily understandable summary.

It was cool that Derek began his talk discussing the common saying that Sherry is primarily a drink for grandmothers. In fact, many older people don't really drink Sherry anymore. Sherry popularity is still relatively low, but it may be slowly gaining, especially with its use by mixologists. You see more Sherry cocktails at local bars, which is good, but far more people need to start drinking Sherry on its own as well. The Hawthorne Bar is a Sherry advocate while Taberna de Haro still has the best and largest Sherry list in the local area, with over 40 choices.

Sherry cocktails have a lengthy history in the U.S., and the Sherry Cobbler was mentioned as early as 1809, just six years after the first documented mention of "cocktail." The Sherry Cobbler was made with crushed ice, Sherry, a little sugar, fruit and you used a drinking straw with it. We tasted an Adonis, kind of a Sherry Manhattan, which uses an Amontillado or Oloroso, sweet vermouth and orange bitters. It was an interesting Manhattan variation, one I would recommend. Derek mentioned that Sherry and Vermouth pair well together, and I am interested in seeing how some of the new American Vermouths might work with different Sherries.

They also mentioned that Pedro Ximinez (PX) and Moscatel Sherries can be used to add a bit of sweetness to a cocktail. As PX can often be overly sweet and viscous, I would recommend being judicious in its use. However, we tasted a PX Sweet Tea, which uses PX and black tea, and I was surprised at how good it was, without being overly sweet. I have a couple bottles of PX in my wine cellar so am going to make some Sweet Tea with it soon.

Expand your wine horizons and drink more Sherry, both alone and in cocktails.

1 comment:

Susan Holaday said...

I love the two Atsby vermouths - they changed my perception of Vermouth forever and that is a very good thing!