By David Furer
While the advent of craft, low volume contemporary Left Coast vermouth production dates to Andrew Quady’s 1998 launch of VYA, its Right Coast rise by wineries originates in 2013 from New York’s Channing Daughters initiating its VerVino line with several others south to Virginia, west to Wisconsin, and north to Vermont joining since.
“It’s surprising that so little attention is paid to a category arguably accounting for $20billion of annual global sales,” exclaimed Jared Brown, author of The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs (http://www.mixellany.com), positing that approximately 20% of that is accounted for in the US. “With just a handful of brands raking in the profits, it’s ripe for handcrafting to take a percentage point or three and elevate the category—especially that lower ABV and gently oxidized products garner quality-minded consumer attention.”
Locally sourced herbs, fruits, nuts, and other botanicals along with wine is a mainstay of eastern vermouths although, with few exceptions, the unavailability of regional grape distillate necessitates its sourcing from California. The nascency of eastern vermouths have allowed many in creating pink versions in keeping with the recent upward trend for pink wines.
“Showing America how to truly drink vermouth has been a mission of mine,” shared Enrique Pallares, partner with veteran winemaker John Levenberg in two new Maryland operations which share honors for being both the state’s first and second vermouth labels; the eastern shore’s Casa Carmen hosts a Chestertown vermutería serving these wines, homemade vermouth on tap and pintxos while Baltimore’s The Wine Collective, the newest feature of the popular Union Collective, is ready to launch its first bottled vermouth Vermú, a pink aged partly in used oak with Casa Carmen’s first bottling destined to be ‘Valencian Sun’ with DTC the core of each operations’ sales program.
Justin Rose of Rosemont of Virginia has just completed his family’s second vintage of vermouth, a move spurred by a request from DC’s fashionable Capitoline restaurant to craft its namesake in-house brand, a blend of Rosemont wine fortified with California brandy. Responses from his customer and theirs, along with he and his family’s enthusiasm for its sales and quality, have the young winemaker experimenting to create a separate vermouth under the winery label.
Flying Fox Vineyard is the second of three operations belonging to the Hodson family and in 2016 became the first in the commonwealth to work with vermouth. Adjunct to FFV’s still wine portfolio are four seasonal sweet renditions of varying shades of its wines infused with local, seasonal fruits and botanicals fortified with Virginia-distilled grape brandy sold through its tasting room and to local retailers and restaurants with a little distributed to the DC metro area.
As with Flying Fox, distiller Tom Lenerz of Wisconsin’s Wollersheim Winery & Distillery sources everything from within his state’s borders for his family’s sweet white vermouth. A future exception may be an American oak-aged medium sweet red still in development, with both filling a need for its on-site cocktail program as Wisconsin’s farm law requires it to make all wines and spirits it serves. Wollersheim has since enjoyed success with off-premise sales.
The Piccolo Dito line of aromatized Michigan wines—Grüner Veltliner for the dry white which is fortified with grappa distilled from their own Riesling grapes and Chambourcin for the sweet red—harken to the Italian portion of the heritage of brothers Robert and Ed Brengman—the only vermouths made in the Great Lakes state, and a motivating factor its creation. “We looked for a niche other than ciders and mead to receive support from quality conscious craft-beverage consumers, a move that’s also helped build allegiance to our brand,” said Robert. Self-distributing in Michigan, the Brengmans also have a solid DTC sales channel at their tasting rooms and web page.
Chad Sletten of Pennsylvania’s Sand Castle Winery, another sole in-state vermouth producer, sells thousands of bottles of sweet red and dry white vermouths for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB), but envisions selling it soon to nearby states for general distribution. Due to customer demand in 2017 Sletten used one of Sand Castle’s five satellite licenses to transform a retail store into a full restaurant. As at Brengman Bros., his market research showed no other Pennsylvania enterprise producing vermouth allowing it to fill a previously unrecognized market need. “Once we received TTB approval we engaged in a significant digital marketing strategy targeted to reach every winery, distillery, and brewery throughout Pennsylvania–and a market was made,” he said. As of 2018 its two vermouths are carried in PLCB Premium Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores at $15/bottle.
Upon leaving academia linguist Kobey Shwayder chose his passion for fermentation and flavor through making vermouth although, as he ferments from apples rather than grapes, he’s legally unable to label his creation ‘vermouth.’ “I’ve been stymied by the TTB and FDA on use of some of my wild foraged ingredients, so I’ve adjusted my recipes to use some similarly-flavored botanicals from the other side of the world which are approved by the TTB. The Vermont Vermouth brand also had the chronological misfortune of having launched this spring. Shwayder currently sells exclusively direct-to-consumer at his state’s farmers markets and, as with Pennsylvania, is confined to off-premise sales through the state’s liquor control board which currently carries his products at 20 of its stores.
Professional drummer and long-time vermouth lover Will Clark had a range of bar materiel in his New York City kitchen as a cocktail hobbyist. His creative pursuits extended to vermouth in 2013 with store-bought wine, experimenting with botanicals and extractions attempting to mimic his favorite commercial renditions such as Carpano Antico and Boissière until launching Little City in August 2018 with help from Finger Lakes Distilling and Glenora Wine Cellars. When pouring at wine shops he thinks consumers like the crisp, fresh posture of his versus others which are oxidized or warm, whether by intent or design.
Widely hailed as one of the Empire State’s most creative craft winemakers, Channing Daughters‘s Chris Tracy’s sojourn into vermouth are six variations “designed as a reflection of place and the proprietary blends, with labels photographs of the plants steeping in the wine.” The Long Island-grown wines are macerated with 20-40 local botanicals grown or foraged by its staff or farmer friends within a few miles of it, sweetened slightly with local honey before fortification with California spirit.
Beginning this spring these and other US craft vermouth producers have met to share their experiences, ideas, strategies, and enthusiasm with each other and listen to speakers such as Cocchi’s Roberto Bava of Italy and the aforementioned Brown with an established national vermouth organization looming on the horizon.