February Vermouth Round Up: New American
I'm very excited about this month's round up.
I've never shied from expressing my skepticism about American vermouth. Because of a combination of dated restrictions on wormwood, the principal botanical of vermouth, and lack of other standard regulations such as designations denoting sugar content (i.e. dry or sweet), American vermouth more or less gets to be whatever it wants.
While the US government has strict standards on products such as Bourbon, things are much less specific for vermouth:
(1) Aperitif wine is wine having an alcoholic content of not less than 15 percent by volume, compounded from grape wine containing added brandy or alcohol, flavored with herbs and other natural aromatic flavoring materials, with or without the addition of caramel for coloring purposes, and possessing the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to aperitif wine and shall be so designated unless designated as “vermouth” under paragraph (g)(2) of this section.
TLDR: If a product generally seems like it could be a vermouth, it is legally able to be sold as such. As you can imagine, this vague language has allowed American producers tremendous freedom in how they approach production and marketing.
Quady Winery is widely considered the first American vermouth producer to bring a quality product to market showcasing American wine with botanical profiles to satisfy European style purists with their Vya vermouths in 1999. By the time East Coast brands like Uncouth and Atsby launched nearly 15 years later, it seemed the boundaries of vermouth were being tested.
No longer content to adhere to the expectations of European vermouth if for no reason other than not having to follow the same regulations, American producers began experimenting with unique profiles by highlighting flavorful local wines and terroir-driven, hand-foraged botanical blends.
These boutique brands were creating small batch vermouths based on well-sourced, high quality local wine and they demanded a premium. They were marketed to be savored as wines first and foremost, not cocktail ingredients. The botanical profiles softened. Wormwood is rarely used and many producers either went light on or eschewed obvious bittering agents altogether, instead gravitating toward aromatized, but not strongly bittered finished products.
Since they're typically less bitter, less sweetener is required to balance them. Instead of the default caramel or grape must, producers commonly use honey, agave, or fruit. It's also important to note there are no legal designations in the US for terms such as Dry, Extra Dry, or Sweet so some American vermouth may be labeled Sweet, but may be Semi-Dry or Semi-Sweet by traditional standards.
American vermouth production seems to be at a crossroads. A handful of thoughtful producers have been able to break into the crowded market and build trust with bartenders and imbibers. Unfortunately, with the entire hospitality industry ravaged by a combination of government negligence and pandemic safety precautions, the Good Ones are in a precarious position.
It's a bad time to be in food and beverage whether you're behind the stick or a small spirit producer. Menu placement at bars and restaurants can literally make or break a new brand as exposure is crucial and bartenders can be better advocates for brands than brand ambassadors themselves. Menu placement also means product will move and unfortunately, not much is moving these days.
Independent wine and spirit shops most likely to feature these products on their shelves may or may not be allowing indoor shopping, which means no matter how eye-catching or well-designed a bottle is, fewer people will be seeing them. Additionally, compounding pandemic and economic issues means the consumer public has less disposable income for luxury goods like fancy aromatized wines.
All this is to say the US is producing some awesome vermouth and I hope these small producers manage to stay afloat. The five bottles I tasted this month have reignited by excitement for American vermouth as a whole. I have a well over a dozen bottles to hunt down for my tasting guides, and I'm more excited than ever for each new bottle.
Reader donations (via the subtle PayPal link at the bottom of the page *wink*) have gone directly toward buying new vermouth to round out these guides. In the past I've simply updated the tasting notes as I acquire new bottles, but moving forward I'll also be highlighting the fortified wines I pick up in monthly round-ups like this one.
Unlike my tasting guides which are a straight-forward resource, this is where I'll dig into and detail how I enjoyed drinking and mixing with each new bottle.
If you're new to the world of vermouth, check out my Introduction to Vermouth post to learn some basics, introduce yourself to some of the terminology used, and get a general overview of how these guides are structured (and why). Then join me back here to get into the details!
Channing Daughters Vervino
Producer: Channing Daughters Winery
Wine Base: Sauvignon Blanc
Known Botanicals: 30 total, calendula, fennel, sage, nasturtium, lemon balm, rose, basil, black birch, chives, spiked za’tar
Sugar: 4.19 g/l residual sugar, lightly sweetened with honey
Nose: grape, orange, honeysuckle, tarragon, pear, hay
Palate: angelica root, lemon verbena, green apple, grape, underripe peach, fennel, lemon
Finish: hay, tarragon, lemon, dandelion greens, elderflower, angelica root
Additional Notes: Variation 1, Batch 4. Nutty, stemmy, and mineralic. No discernible wormwood bitterness - or cinchona, gentian, or any other common bittering herb for that matter. A delicious aromatized wine, but a bit of a stretch to call it vermouth. Tricky to mix with because of its low sugar content, but a joy to drink neat or iced.
This is the best version of the most annoying thing: American vermouth producers who are clearly making a unique aromatized wine, but refuse to budge on the vermouth nomenclature. Still, it's delicious as hell and I look forward to getting my hands on the rest of the VerVino line.
The first drink I made was a Martini, of course. It added some botanicals, but without any body or texture at all, it made for a Martini which felt over-diluted and weak the moment it was served. At this point, I decided not to mix any more of it against other bases as I knew it simply wouldn't hold up as a modifier. Instead, I went for a Fancy Vermouth Cocktail so I could play up the perceived orange notes I was getting from the vermouth. It was delicious.
Sometimes I find myself banging my head against a wall trying to figure out the best way to utilize certain vermouths, but not this time. This time I decided it was best not to mix with it and simply enjoy it neat out of a wine glass. At least this is a nice reminder that vermouth was not in fact invented to be mixed into cocktails. This may be my new favorite bottle to gift my wine drinking friends as an introduction to aromatized wines and a gateway to more traditional vermouths.
Little City Dry
Producer: Little City
Wine Base: Cayuga White
Known Botanicals: 38 total
Sugar Content: N/A
Nose: orange, cinnamon, straw, honeysuckle, white grape, star anise, cinchona, mint, sandalwood, raisin
Palate: grass, green apple, lemon, cinnamon, orange, licorice root, quinine, eucalyptus, melon rind
Finish: green apple, cinnamon, cinchona, grass, mint, orange, sea salt
Additional Notes: Golden straw color. Very light body with trace oiliness. Tart and acidic on the palate rather than bitter. Brings a little bit of dried hay and some farmhouse funk to cocktails. An assertive expression which I found delicious when it was the star of the show, but a little tricky to mix with.
Many American vermouth producers are so intent on defining what American vermouth could be they go out of their way to be decidedly NOT European, but Little City does a fine job at creating an American vermouth to satisfy the expectations of bartenders mixing their products into classics.
Still, I found the Little City Dry to be tricky to mix with, but not because it's non-traditional - I just personally didn't love the flavor it brought to many cocktails. I don't think its best qualities stand up as a 1:1 substitution for most dry vermouths.
It was shockingly overpowering in a 50/50 Martini against Perry's Tot Navy-strength gin, imparting a ton of farmhouse musk with lots of hay and straw which smothered the gin. It made for a similarly off-putting Old Pal. This one shines when it is the star of the show such as a Vermouth Cocktail. My favorite way to drink it was actually simply with soda water which I found to almost emulate a dry sparkling wine.
Little City Sweet
Producer: Little City
Wine Base: Cayuga White
Known Botanicals: 53 total
Sugar Content: N/A
Nose: tobacco, bay leaf, star anise, white grape, cedar, white pepper, raisin, sweet potato
Palate: black cherry, cinchona, cedar, cinnamon, orange, licorice root, myrhh, banana
Finish: black cherry, cinnamon, star anise, ash, white pepper, cedar
Additional Notes: Batch 10 bottling. Red tinted cola brown color. Medium-light body. Warming and spicy with some charred notes.
This is a really lovely vermouth no matter how you choose to enjoy it. I found it to be on the drier side and consequently one of the rare sweet vermouths I'll drink straight out of a wine glass. It also worked incredibly well in every cocktail I tried it in.
I appreciated the dry nature of this sweet vermouth and the charred, woody notes it brought to the mixing glass. It's a nice change of pace from the cinnamon and vanilla cola crutches most sweet red vermouths prop themselves up on.
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed in a Manhattan - a cocktail which rarely wows me. It paired particularly well with the dry rye spice of Old Overholt. I also thought it made an exceptional Negroni - a drink I find to be very forgiving of its vermouth choice by rarely allowing it to do much more than play support.
Rockwell Extra Dry
Producer: Rockwell Vermouth Co.
Wine Base: Symphony
Known Botanicals: California sagebrush
Sugar Content: 18-20 g/l
Nose: lemon, oregano, sandalwood, cumin, cinnamon, white grape, sage, mint, grass
Palate: lemon, white pepper, nutmeg, white sage, chicory leaf, coriander, mugwort, oregano, tarragon
Finish: savory, lemon, nutmeg, marjoram, white grape, orange, grass, basil, chicory
Additional Notes: Lot 1 bottling. Very pale straw color. Light, oily body with a dry, warming finish. Bone dry and moreish. Absolutely incredible on its own or in cocktails. Primarily bittered with Artemesia Californica.
Go buy this right now. Seriously. I don't often get excited about dry vermouth, despite the fact it was what made me fall in the love with the category in the first place, but this ranks as an all-time favorite along with Dolin Dry and the now discontinued formula for Noilly Prat Original Dry. If I was still running a bar program, this would be my primary vermouth.
Delicious on its own or as a cocktail ingredient, I tore through this one in record time. Neat, on ice, with soda, with tonic, in a Martini, in a Brooklyn, in a Scofflaw, in an Old Pal, in both Improved and Fancy Vermouth Cocktails. There is no wrong way to consume this vermouth.
The final test came in the form of my favorite Martini: a 50/50 split of dry vermouth and Perry's Tot Navy Strength Gin, 1 dash of Regan's Orange Bitters, and a few drops of saline solution. Every dry vermouth I acquire eventually meets this fate and none have been able to knock Dolin Dry from its spot as my go-to vermouth - until now. I repeat: buy this vermouth now.
Producer: Rockwell Vermouth Co.
Wine Base: Symphony
Known Botanicals: California sagebrush, mission fig
Sugar Content: 155-160 g/l
Nose: caramelized banana, sea salt, sweet potato, cola, sour cherry, tobacco, mint, strawberry
Palate: maple, cinnamon, nutmeg, fig, cherry, banana, raisin, toasted rice, honey, marzipan, mugwort
Finish: cinnamon, nutmeg, raisin, orange, mint, banana, honey, sage, almond, mugwort
Additional Notes: Lot 1 bottling. Somewhere between amber and ruby in color. Medium-light body. Pleasantly dry on the palate for a sweet vermouth. Dilution draws the bitter notes out. Its incredibly unique profile can be a double-edged sword when mixing cocktails – it may not be a 1:1 swap for your go-to sweet red vermouth, but it's an exciting expression and a fine example of an American vermouth. Primarily bittered with Artemesia Californica.
American vermouth has fought to set itself apart from European vermouth for so long I think too many producers have taken advantage of the lack of regulation and strayed too far off the vermouth path. Rockwell is one of the few approaching the production and marketing of their products the right way. The Extra Dry feels true to tradition while outperforming much of the category.
On the other hand, the Rockwell Classic Sweet acts as a happy medium between the new world and old world. It's a uniquely American take on a traditional European fortified wine and it works. From nose to finish it doesn't quite feel like a European vermouth, but it is certainly recognizable as vermouth.
Like Cocchi di Torino or Carpano Antica, I wouldn't necessarily consider this an all-purpose vermouth. It's doing its own thing, leaning hard into the confectionary. It's also SUCH a unique vermouth it may not work as well as a 1:1 swap for your favorite mixing vermouth.
It's balanced enough to drink neat or on ice,. Coffee and cacao are on full display in a simple flip. It didn't make for my favorite in a Manhattan when paired with Old Overholt, but I imagine something with with more of a red fruit profile like Rittenhouse or Wild Turkey would work nicely. I found it a little too assertive and confectionary confectionary in a Negroni, but without the gin I enjoyed it in Americano and Milano Torino form.
Check the individual regional Vermouth guides for more detailed information on regional styles and recommended bottles:
Sweet White Vermouth
Sweet Red Vermouth
Quinquina and Americano
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