The first time I tasted vermouth, not some generic dull version designed to be hidden within a cocktail, but an honest to goodness, drink it straight like the Europeans vermouth, I felt I had discovered a whole new drink. Somewhere between wine and a cocktail lay this lovely infusion. Ransom Dry was my first. I sipped it. I rolled the flavors around and tried to understand it. I sucked the ice.
What is Vermouth? A fortified aromatized wine. Um, what? Yeah, okay take a wine and add brandy to fortify it – kind of like a port. Then add herbs, botanicals, spices and let those flavors infuse the vermouth. Think of a giant tea bag soaking in booze. Then think of the flavor combinations – different base wines, different botanicals, etc.
And those are the two things that keep me coming back for more… 1. There is a mystery 2. You can solve it. We put wine to our nose all the time and say things like, “I get herbal notes.” But we are talking about an impression of herbs. With vermouth there might be actual herbs. Sometimes the producer will even tell you.
This literal flavor infusion makes me wish I had learned to taste vermouth before wine. I think it would have made it easier to ferret out the hidden nuances in a glass of Pinot.
Almost 2 years after that first experience Northwest Travel Magazine accepted my pitch to explore vermouth in the Pacific Northwest.
In writing the story, I started at my beginning – Ransom Spirits and lunch at the winery/distillery with Tad Seestedt and the team. Around the room were dark jars, worthy of a medieval apothecary, labelled “pau d’ arco bark,” “burdock root” and “dandelion root.” A sensory archive of the flavor trials to perfect their recipe. It took 5 years.
I visited Patrick Taylor of Hammer and Tongs. Three vermouths that ranged from Christmas in a bottle to the bittersweet flavors of rich earth to the spicy aromas of incense and prayers lifted in an ancient church. Patrick told me the main flavors of Sac’Resine were frankincense and myrrh. “I don’t know any Magi. I have no idea what those smell like.” And from the backroom came a lime scented yellow powder (frankincense) and knobby nugget of myrrh that smelled of menthol and baking spice and tasted like black olives.
Armed with samples from three Oregon producers – Ransom, Imbue, and Interrobang – we held two tastings, industry and consumers. There were vermouth virgins in both groups. Even people googling “what is vermouth” on the way over. We were armed with club soda, citrus zest, sparkling wine, and an assortment of whiskey and other mixers. The only rule was taste it pure and then mix at will. And our room of newbies tasted it, picked a favorite, bypassed the mixers, and sucked on the ice.
Now vermouth is on my drinks list, not just for Manhattans, but for welcoming guests, for an afterwork cool down, or for sipping while I make dinner.
See the full review of Hand Crafted Pacific Northwest Vermouth.
I will share more cocktail recipes in upcoming posts. In the meantime try it straight or with club soda over ice with a twist.