THERE'S A SCENE in the last season of Mad Men where Peggy and Roger are the last two at the old office, and they get bombed off the only bottle of booze left in the building: vermouth. Inspired, I pulled out a bottle that I inherited from my grandfather, plopped a few ice cubes in a glass, took a drink, and... spat it back out again.
Turns out, vermouth—a fortified wine-based spirit with bittering agents and a lot of sugar—can go bad. And while drinking the stuff straight up in the late '60s was an act of desperation, today Portland bartenders and producers are embracing it as a complex, bittersweet drink you can sip on the rocks before and after a meal.
More restaurants—including Maurice, Coopers Hall, Coquine, the new Taylor Railworks—are featuring straight pours of Italian, Spanish, and Portland-made vermouths.
Taylor Railworks partner and bar manager Gabriela Ramos says she devoted an entire section of her drinks menu to vermouth "just for the absolute love of it."
"It's an extremely cultured way to drink—it's lower proof and it has really complicated flavors," Ramos says. "It's as good as a cocktail... if not better because I can have five of them."
Vermouth—the star mixer in everything from Manhattans to martinis—varies as much as the wine grapes it's made from: Some, like Dolin Blanc, are sweet and taste of reduced champagne, while others, like the classic Carpano Antica, are dark in color, earthy, bitingly bitter, and a challenge to comprehend at first. For that reason, vermouths do best before or after a meal to get your digestion and senses moving, says Erik Spellmeyer, who opened Locale on N Mississippi last month with partner Dustin Wright. All along, Spellmeyer says he planned to offer vermouth flights.
- photos by Natalie Behring
"I really would like to see it take off more," says Spellmeyer, 32, who drank in vermouth bars while traveling in Europe, got hooked, and has amassed a near encyclopedic knowledge of the spirit. "The cocktail culture in our generation has been about higher-end ingredients, including things people have never heard of."
Vermouth is made by fortifying wine with bittering agents—wormwood, cinchona bark (where quinine also comes from), and gentian root, says Patrick Taylor, owner of Portland-based vermouth line Hammer & Tongs. Taylor, who also makes wine at Cana's Feast in Carlton, tried a Barolo-based vermouth at a trade show and decided to make his own. In 2012, Hammer & Tongs released its first vermouth, L'Afrique, a deeply red, musty, bitter, and almost animal-tasting drink that's great with Scotch or mezcal or excellent straight.
"I wanted to be a chef, so creating flavors and creating aromas is in my blood," says Taylor, whose substantial beard matches the one his alter ego sports on Hammer & Tongs' product labels. "Vermouth is so intensely aromatic and flavorful, I can steer it in whatever direction I want, using botanicals and proportion to determine its flavor profile."
Taylor says he crafts his vermouths based on memories, the excellent Sac'Résine has notes of frankincense and myrrh, and was inspired by trips to old Catholic missions, while the turmeric and cola flavors in L'Afrique were based on a time he jumped a fence to fetch a ball as a 10-year-old and wound up in a muddy bog-like field.
As interest in bitter drinks increases (think about how Campari and Fernet blew up), Taylor says his sales have increased steadily; he produces about 500 cases a year. Along with Portland-based Imbue Cellars, locally made vermouths can be spotted at area New Seasons markets and some liquor stores.
"It's a way to game up, to add an exotic element to your repertoire," he says. "It doesn't always have to be about going to a brewpub or PBR."
New to Vermouth?
Here are a few to sip before (or during and after) your next meal:
picked by Ksandek Podbielski of Coquine
"It's my personal favorite. It's sweet and bitter and the way it unfolds on the palate... it's a really interesting drink with a splash of soda."
Punt e Mes
picked by Patrick Taylor of Hammer & Tongs
"When I was developing L'Afrique, I always had it on hand. It's similar to a jackal at the watering hole. It has some beastly qualities, but like the pack animal it is, it plays well with other predators. It's not a ferocious lion that will bite your head off (like Fernet). In other words, it can be enjoyed as a stand-alone cocktail but blends well with the right spirits."
picked by Gabriela Ramos of Taylor Railworks
"It's a Spanish vermouth, a little on the sweet side but on a summer day with one giant ice cube in it and an orange peel, it's really, really pretty. Very easy drinking, it doesn't ask a whole lot from you."
picked by Erik Spellmeyer of Locale
"I really enjoy bitter things, and I have a sweet tooth, so to me it's very, very close to perfect. It's complex and thick from the moment it hits your palate and it follows down the throat."
I tried this lightly colored, intensely bitter yet perfume-y and citrus-inspired vermouth from Portland's Hammer & Tongs in October and was so blown away I decided to learn more about drinking vermouth straight.