Compose a boozy diary of your quarantine by making vermouth: bottling scents and flavors from this moment in time to take a snapshot of this self-isolated life.
Vermouth is aromatized, fortified wine – that is, wine given a boost of extra flavors and extra booze. Best known in the US as the other half of a martini, vermouth is a world unto itself and can be fascinating, delicious, and rewarding to make on one’s own.
The botanical flavorings added to vermouth can be anything. Though centuries of tradition might make you think the world of vermouth is stuffy, stolid, and old-fashioned, commercial American vermouth makers are getting creative with their flavorings you should too.
I think of vermouth as a time capsule. Ephemeral flavors and scents are captured and preserved in wine to create a rich and transportative sensorial experience. When I make vermouth, I choose botanicals to tell a story, either by using all plants from a particular place (hello, terroir!) or from a particular memory or story. For this recipe, I recommend you choose botanicals, herbs, and spices from this time in your life to capture the essence of what quarantine or self-isolation means for you. This could mean using plants growing in your windowsill, the dried herbs and spices from your pantry, or the flavors of a dish you’ve been making again and again. Really, you can use anything as long as it isn’t toxic!
Advice for choosing botanicals: vermouth makers typically strive for a balance of flavors. Here are suggestions for a variety of flavors to let you know what is typical and spark some ideas, but don’t let this list hem you in. Most commercial vermouths include flavors of nearly each type but you can choose as many or as few botanicals as you’d like to tell your quarantine story:
Wormwood is the traditional bitterant, and must be included in European vermouths to meet legal definitions, though many American vermouths don’t include wormwood. You could use astringent tea or coffee grounds, or anything else that would impart a bitter flavor. Go wild and add straight Campari if that’s a part of your quarantine story!
This can be from actual flowers you find or grow (check with the internet or Poison Control for edibility / toxicity) or from a floral tea like chamomile or hibiscus.
You can use any citrus peel, fresh or dried, or expand your citric horizons to consider lemon verbena or lemon extract.
Any baking spices (preferably whole) like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, or go savory with cumin, coriander, or pepper.
This can be any fresh or dried herb, or a grassy kind of tea. Or try grass!
This is a traditional flavor in vermouth, though admittedly polarizing, so you should only choose it if it makes sense for your quarantine story and your taste. Anise flavor can be wrung from star anise, fennel bulbs or stalks, fennel seed, caraway, etc.
- Don’t stop there! You could also do dried fruit, or black beans, or your sourdough starter……
This recipe includes only the vaguest of recommended amounts – you can make as much or as little as you’d like and can alter the proportion of each recipe. Here’s a suggestion of ratios based on my taste:
1 bottle of wine : 1 cup of spirit (total of all tinctures) : 2 tbsp honey
- 2-10 bottles of wine
White or red; I recommend an acidic and dry wine as a solid base for all your other flavors. There is no need to get expensive wine (boxed is great here) but it should be freshly opened and taste good – that is to say, turning bad or spoiled wine into vermouth will not make it taste good.
- A neutral spirit
Brandy or applejack is my go-to but you could use vodka or anything you have on hand. Avoid gin or other strongly flavored spirits if possible.
- Botanicals see headnote
or any other sweetener: molasses, agave, simple syrup, sugar cubes, hard candy, etc
- Tincture each of your herbs / botanicals / flavorings in a neutral spirit. This is like steeping tea: put each botanical in a mason jar or similar and cover with the spirit. Let steep for at least three days in a cool, dark place. The longer these botanicals steep, the deeper the flavor!
- After you’ve let the tinctures steep, strain them through a coffee filter or very fine cheesecloth; discard the solids. Keep each tincture separate. You will probably have extra of at least some of the tinctures. You can use these as in cocktails, shots, or future vermouths. Store in a cool, dark place and they should keep for an incredibly long time.
- Pour your wine into a vessel large enough to hold all of your ingredients.
- Optional but highly recommended: add sweetness. If your wine base is already sweet or you can’t stand the taste of sweetness, skip this step. Combine 1 part sweetener (anywhere from 1 tablespoon to two cups depending on how much vermouth you’re making and how sweet you want it) with 1 part wine. Depending on your sweetener (i.e. honey, molasses, hard candy) it might be easiest to heat up the wine on the stove to ensure it combines fully. Mix this sweetened wine back into the rest of the wine.
- Add each tincture a bit at a time, working slowly and tasting as you go. Keep stirring because the honey and thicker tinctures will settle. Add more of whichever flavor you want until you get to the taste (and proof) you are happy with.
- Store your vermouth in an airtight glass container in the fridge. Its shelf life will be somewhere between that of the opened wine and the spirit you used (higher proof and sweeter vermouth will last longer). Serve chilled straight or on the rocks in a fancy glass as an aperitif, or mix into a Manhattan or Quarantini.