With a long and proud history, vermouth was first created in Turin, Italy as early as the mid 1700s. But as of late, the aromatic, fortified wine has earned itself a reputation as an ingredient reserved for the back of our liquor cabinets, often forgotten as an uninspiring cocktail ingredient.
However, with some extra appreciation and a little love, vermouth has begun to make its way back to the forefront of the cocktail conversation, with Australian vermouth companies like Regal Rogue and Melbourne’s latest, Maidenii, igniting interest in this often misunderstood drink.
To understand more about this complex beverage, we spoke with Gin Palace bartender Shaun Byrne about his new Australian vermouth company Maidenii and why vermouth gets such a bad wrap.
It’s a hot Melbourne day when we sit down with Byrne at Bar Ampere to talk vermouth. “Vermouth through time has traditionally used bad wine,” he says. “Quite simply, they’d cover it up with local herbs and spices to make it drinkable, so we decided to turn that on its head by using quality, fresh wine.”
Indeed, the Maidenii model is geared towards the modern palate. It’s one of Australia’s only vermouth companies dedicated to showcasing Australian botanicals as well as fresh wine made at Sutton Grange winery. “When you’re creating cocktails, you want everything to be fresh and lively,” explains Byrne. “You don’t want anything to be old – that’s just the palate of today.”
After spending five years behind the bar at Gin Palace, Byrne met up with French wine maker Gilles Lapalus and from their mutual love for vermouth sprung a friendship as well as the beginning of Maidenii.
The beauty of vermouth is that makers can be creative with its production. “The only rule in vermouth is the use of wormwood,” Byrne declares. “You have to have wormwood. But other than that, you can use any wine and any botanicals you’d like.” The versatility of the drink enabled Lapalus and Byrne to experiment with a whole suite of Australian botanicals (12 out of their 34 botanicals are native) along with methods of fresh wine production traditionally beyond the scope of vermouth.
For example, one of their two varieties, Maidenii Sweet, is made from the partial fermentation of cabernet grapes. First Byrne and Lapalus follow the basic wine making procedure: picking the grapes and juicing them twice, a method called bleeding. Bleeding gives the vermouth “a lovely blush, rose colour,” Byrne describes.
From that point on it’s all about monitoring sugar levels. “The grape juice comes out of the press with 230 grams of sugar per litre, and that’s when we let the fermentation process begin,” says Byrne. “As the yeast eats the sugars, turning them into alcohol, the juice loses its sugar content. When it gets to 130 grams per litre we throw in a bunch of 90 per cent grape alcohol to kill the yeast and stop the process. This lets the juice retain all of its natural sugars.”
Once the wine is created, it’s time to add the botanicals and let the vermouth sit for two to three months. And it is during this sitting process that vermouth goes through a whole range of flavour changes: “The flavour change is noticeable,” Byrne says. “At first you get a sharp contrast of flavours, but with time they become more integrated and harmonious.”
While each of Maidenii’s varieties – Maidenii Sweet, Maidenii Aperitif and Maidenii Dry (to be released in 2013) – undergo their own unique process, the Australian botanicals used remain constant throughout. “We’ve got sort of four champion botanicals that we really love and love to talk about,” urges Byrne.
First is the strawberry gum, a variety of eucalyptus. “I call them ‘berry boosters’,” Byrne laughs, “because they really just boost all of the berry flavours.” Their second beloved Australian botanical is sea parsley. Much like it’s European cousin, it offers a savoury and salty flavour. “It almost has like a tobacco, herbal, smell,” he says. Third is the wattle seed, which has made an appearance in other Australian alcohol varieties like The West Winds gin. And finally, the Australian river mint, offering the crisp, clean flavour its common cousin is known for.
Named after the Australian botanist Joseph Henry Maiden, who significantly contributed to our understanding of native flora like eucalyptus, Maidenii’s love for native flavours runs deep. “If you smell the Maidenii Sweet,” Byrne says excitedly, “it smells like Australia. You smell it and you can just picture yourself walking through the bush, the fresh eucalyptus all around you.”
And now, after all of these years, the old beverage with a bad rep has finally started to make a comeback. Suffice to say, Byrne thinks it’s about time: “Vermouth has so many things going on that you can really do anything with it – it’s so versatile. You could pop it in your orange juice, cider, or if you’re rich you can put it in your champagne.”
His choice way of drinking vermouth this summer? The Negroni. “Maidenii sweet was made with the Negroni in mind,” Byrne says. But if you can’t master this bartender favourite, try the Duplex, a combination of sweet and dry vermouth topped with orange bitters.