Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, vermouth is often called for as a supporting ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Martini and Manhattan. Against that backdrop, we decided to make vermouth the star of the show at a session exploring this little known cocktail staple and it's usage in hot and cold cocktails.
On a chilly Tuesday evening, we decamped to Japanese izakaya bar Kagura where owner/chief drinks slinger Flynn is an avid cocktail enthusiast himself, often making his own concoctions, including vermouth. For this special evening, Flynn had made up a batch of his own vermouth and as members sought solace from the cold, they were greeted with a glass of warmed up home made vermouth, not unlike mulled wine.
Then it was on to the tasting, which featured a range of vermouth using different wine bases. Vermouth is essentially fortified wine flavoured with the use of various botanicals, of which the core botanical is wormwood. Yes, the same wormwood found in absinthe. In Europe at least, there is a requirement that at least 75% of vermouth's composition must be made up of wine whilst the balance is generally neutral spirit but as far as we knew there wasn't any such rule in Australia. Given vermouth's origins however, the vermouth on taste were chosen to highlight the different wine bases used. Kicking things off was the Margan vermouth, so new it had only been released 2 weeks prior and probably the first "vintage" style vermouth on the domestic market in that it was made using the 2015 Hunter Valley Semillon grape. Using botanicals mainly grown in their own garden, father and son combo Andrew and Ollie have produced a vermouth that is very dry - far drier than most we had tasted. This vermouth was by far the driest of all the vermouth we tried that night, retaining most of its wine characteristics.
Next up, was the Victorian made Castagna vermouth that was classically dry in style and reputedly Australia's first 100% estate grown vermouth against a base of rose and shiraz wine. This was perhaps in between the Margan and Flynn's home made vermouth in terms of the acidity and dryness, with Flynn's vermouth being more spicy on the palate and the crowd favourite in terms of sipping on the rocks. Whilst Flynn wasn't able to demonstrate on the spot the making of his vermouth, our friends over at Cocktails and Bars have written up a step by step guide featuring Flynn's vermouth, which we highly recommend reading. As we moved towards the heavier end of the spectrum, we finished off with the sweet vermouth from another Victorian label, this time Maidenii, which uses as its base a Cabernet and mainly Australian botanicals including strawberry gum, wattleseed and sea parsley but with the addition of grapefruit, mace and angelica root. In contrast to the Margan and the Castagna this had a thicker viscosity and sweeter spicier notes. We then finished off with perhaps the oldest vermouth in that range, not in vintage but in historical terms. Antica Formula is reportedly made using the same formula devised by founder Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786 and this was the sweetest and most viscose of all the vermouth on the night though it did not garner many fans in the room, as it seems most preferred either the Maidenii or Flynn's home made version when it came to sipping vermouth. So to finish off, we had a round of Hanky Panky cocktails, that classic gin cocktail made with gin, vermouth and Fernet Branca. As a special treat, we had Jesse, one of the founders of Poor Toms gin in the house, who spoke briefly of his journey into distilling gin in an inner west suburb of Sydney, so it was only natural we had an Old Toms Hanky Panky!
Much thanks to Flynn and Kagura Bar for generously opening up their venue, Jesse from Poor Toms for supplying the gin for our Hanky Panky cocktails and above all, to everyone who came!