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The housemade rosé vermouth at Etto could easily be mistaken for a cocktail. Aside from the lovely pinkish-garnet hue, it’s citrusy and slightly sweet with a nice herbal, bitter finish. And why suspect vermouth when, well, who orders a glass of vermouth these days? But if you’ve ever visited Spain, you’ll recognize the presentation: garnished with a pickled pepper, olive, and orange slice, and served with a soda siphon to turn the aperitif into a spritzer.
Etto is one of very few places in D.C. where you will find vermouth prominently featured on the menu. That’s starting to change. Several local bars are beginning to make their own vermouth in-house, and at Nido and the Royal, which both plan to open in the coming weeks, the aperitif will be the focus of their beverage offerings. Meanwhile, Etto manager Kat Hamidi and co-owner Peter Pastan have teamed up with New Columbia Distillers to bottle and sell their vermouth, which they’re calling Capitoline Vermouth. The first batch will debut in restaurants and bars next week with retail locations to follow. The product will be the first commercially available D.C.-made vermouth.
The challenge is that most American drinkers tend to think of vermouth as that “other” ingredient in a martini or Manhattan. This new wave of vermouth advocates aims to show people that it can stand on its own, or at the very least, be just as important to the quality and character of a cocktail as the type of gin or whiskey.
Part of the problem is that not everyone knows exactly what vermouth is. In short, it’s an aromatized, fortified wine. That means that the alcohol level is boosted to 15 to 18 percent by the addition of a spirit (typically a grape brandy) and then infused with a range of spices, herbs, roots, and other botanicals. The word vermouth comes from “wermut,” the German name for wormwood, which was historically a prominent ingredient but is less so today. The aperitif can be sweet (the traditionally Italian style), dry (French style), or somewhere in between. Originally used for medicinal purposes, commercial vermouth grew out of Turin, Italy in the late 1700s and became a popular cocktail ingredient by the late 1800s.
In the U.S. today, vermouth is often an afterthought, while spirits are the main attraction. But with more domestic vermouths becoming available and bars experimenting with their own interesting interpretations, Hamidi believes vermouth is finally starting to get its due. “Amaro was a big thing and still is a big thing, and vermouth seems to be the next—I don’t know if you want to say cult beverage—but some people take it very seriously,” she says.
She, of course, is one of them. Hamidi had been making vermouth for years at Obelisk before she joined the team at Etto.
With Capitoline, Hamidi and Pastan are producing a white and a rosé vermouth out of New Columbia’s Ivy City distillery. The rosé is a Sangiovese wine from a California vineyard co-owned by Pastan. The other is a blend of aromatic dry white varietals. Both vermouths have a similar citrusy herbal character and don’t shy away from a little bitterness. “We think bitter is kind of an undervalued element in a flavor profile,” Hamidi says. She adds that it’s “very wine centric”: They didn’t want to cover up the vermouth with a heavy-handed dose of botanicals and sugar since it is a wine-based product, after all.
New Columbia Distillers will be using the collaboration for its own spin-off product known as a “fruit cup” or “summer cup,” which consists of vermouth and gin infused with additional botanicals. The most famous brand of this genre is Pimm’s. New Columbia Distillers co-founder John Uselton says he isn’t aware of any U.S. distillers that bottle and sell a summer cup. The D.C. distiller’s version—which will be around 35 percent alcohol—will use its Navy Strength Gin and Capitoline Vermouth. “It’s kind of herbal-y and sweet and gin-y and all kinds of good stuff,” Uselton says. “Think of Pimm’s but with more going on.”
The Capitoline collaboration actually started because New Columbia had been thinking of producing a summer cup and was looking for some help on the vermouth component. Uselton was friends with Hamidi and knew about her vermouth experiments, so he asked her to help. It turned out that she was interested in starting her own vermouth brand. “This was a good time and opportunity to do it,” Uselton says. The distiller plans to release its summer cup by mid-July.
Between the summer cup and Capitoline, Uselton hopes to give people a different view of vermouth. “Americans look at it like it’s a mixer, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” he says. “I was in Spain a couple months ago, and there are whole bars that have 15 vermouths. That’s what they do. You go to Europe and it’s definitely a thing.”
That’s the way Lupo Verde Beverage Director Francesco Amodeo, who also founded D.C. liqueur producer Don Ciccio & Figli, experienced vermouth growing up in southern Italy. “When I was a kid, I got drunk on white vermouth,” he says. “I was 14. My dad was like, ‘If you need to get drunk, just try this. It’s the safest thing.’”
Amodeo has been playing with his own vermouth recipes for five or six years. He finally put them on a menu for the first time at Lupo Verde when the Italian restaurant opened in February 2014 on 14th Street NW. Last year, he produced a sweet white vermouth with chocolate notes. Now, he’s making something a little more bitter with a Prosecco and Sangiovese base that’s infused with ingredients like gentian, rose petals, fresh orange, juniper, and safflower. “It’s bitter orange-y with notes of red peppers almost,” he says.
Amodeo likes to make as many cocktail ingredients as he can himself. And with vermouth, he can apply many of the botanicals he uses in his liqueurs to the fortified wine. He says he’s thought about bottling up his vermouth, but Don Ciccio & Figli’s facility doesn’t have the space or equipment necessary to do it on a large scale anytime in the near future.
For now, his vermouth makes its way into cocktails at Lupo Verde. The restaurant’s menu doesn’t list it on its own, although people can still order it straight if they ask.
Others are looking to take a more purist approach and make vermouth an even more central part of their menus. The Royal in LeDroit Park and Nido in Woodridge—both opening within the next couple weeks—will serve housemade vermouth on tap in addition to a wide selection of vermouth brands.
At Mediterranean-inspired Nido, co-owner Erin Lingle plans to change up her signature vermouth seasonally. “I’ve been steeping chamomile for a little while, and I’m excited to play around with that,” she says. The former Passenger bartender plans to make a more piney, resinous vermouth for wintertime. The vermouth will likely be served the way she experienced it during her travels to Spain: chilled or on the rocks with pickles or olives, a cherry, and an orange.
Lingle also plans to offer a vermouth happy hour where the restaurant will pair the best vermouths for soda, tonic, orange juice, grapefruit soda, and so on. The cocktails will also be vermouth heavy with an Americano, a French Kiss (equal parts dry and sweet vermouth), and a Manhattan variation that’s half vermouth and half rye whiskey.
“[Vermouth] is not just sweet and syrupy or dry and herbal. There’s so many different ways to go,” she says. “Some of them are vanilla-y and smoky, and some of them are bitter.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Beverage Director Horus Alvarez has already been experimenting with his own vermouth at sister restaurant Vinoteca. It took him two months to get a version he was happy with before debuting it on the menu in April. The recipe includes 17 different ingredients, including wormwood, cinchona root, Spanish thyme, citrus, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Instead of the traditional caramelized sugar used in sweeter vermouths, Alvarez used a lemongrass simple syrup. The whole concoction is aged in a whiskey barrel, and the result is a semi-dry greenish golden liquid with citrusy, spicy, piney, and slightly bitter notes.
The same recipe will be on tap at the Royal, a Colombian-inspired cafe and bar. There will also be about half a dozen other vermouths for diners to try, and Alvarez hopes to grow the selection over time and possibly even offer flights. He also wants to make his own dry and sweet varieties.
“Vermouth has never been respected,” says Alvarez, citing one of the reasons he got into the beverage. He’s seen bars leaving the vermouth on the shelf for months like it’s a spirit. But because it’s a wine-base product, it’s best kept refrigerated.
Alvarez has tried to change that respect by hosting Monday night vermouth classes at Vinoteca. (They’re on hiatus, with the opening of the Royal, but he hopes to continue them in the fall.) “Some people were really interested; some people were like, ‘All right, well, I don’t even know what vermouth is,’” he says.
But as people start to drink more cocktails and get interested in their components, it’s only a matter of time before they start asking about vermouth.
“If you’re picky about your whiskey,” Alvarez asks, “why not do the same thing with vermouth?”
Photo by Jessica Sidman