Vermouth: Aromatized and Fortified Wine
Vermouth can be aromatized with any botanical product, which makes for a vast and rich field of possible flavors. When I set out to collaborate on a vermouth with family friend and farmer Sam Merwin, I knew the botanicals would tell a story: a story of his family’s farm and land, of terroir and genetic selection, of decisions farmers and winemakers make (and don’t make).
In crafting our vermouth, we wanted to balance flavors: to include bitter, sweet, and sour flavors as well as citrusy, floral, fruity, herbaceous, grassy, and medicinal aromas.
Here are the botanicals we tinctured (that is, soaked in brandy to extract flavor and aroma) to add to our Z-Line Vermouth:
- In Europe, vermouth just isn’t vermouth without wormwood. An intensely bitter herb used occasionally in tea but more famously in absinthe, wormwood was our nod to the long tradition of vermouth-making and a way to add a hefty bitter bite for sharpness.
- Dichondra Seed
- As our mark on history, I believe we may have made the very first vermouth with dichondra seed tincture. Dichondra, sometimes called ponysfoot, is an ornamental ground cover with small, emerald, kidney-shaped leaves. The Merwins have grown Dichondra for seed for decades, and it’s a crop that has secured the farm an income in years when other crops did not turn out. According to various online sources, the roots and leaves are used in herbal medicine, but we had a difficult time pinning down the toxicity of dichondra seed. After a lengthy call with poison control and incredible help from a botany doctoral candidate friend, we determined that no studies had been conducted on the toxicity of dichondra seed: we were in uncharted territory. We chose to include a small amount. When Sam tinctured the dichondra seed, it absorbed all of the alcohol, expanding and releasing a gluey substance like flax seed. By the time we gathered to combine all of our ingredients, the jar was a solid brick of dried, glued together dichondra seeds without any liquid tincture we could add to our vermouth! We were undeterred. Sam used a pocket knife to scrape out enough seeds to fill a coffee filter, and we poured fresh applejack over them. This did the trick: the applejack that filtered down was deep green in color and earthy in flavor.
- Mandarin peel
- Sam had hoped to gather lemon peels from his parents’ lemon tree, but there just wasn’t enough ripe fruit, so he peeled mandarins from their fridge to tincture instead. The bright orange aroma was just the citrus burst the vermouth needed.
- This is a crop the Merwins grow on their farm, a nitrogen-fixing legume they grow for seed. Tinctured, it was intensely grassy and bright green.
- Wild Anise
- Growing alongside many of the Merwin’s fields is wild anise. Sam gathered the flowers and tinctured them in grape brandy. This gave us the licorice flavor that many vermouths have as a sweet undertone. And I appreciated getting to include plants from the farm’s periphery alongside core production crops like dichondra, alfalfa, and grapes. This ingredient helped us blur the terroir’s line between marginal and productive, celebrating the wildness in cultivation.
- Perhaps best known as a source for neutral cooking oil, safflower is a beautiful, papery blossom. Sam gleaned some unharvested safflower from the edge of the field and tinctured it into a stunning burst of floral aromas, perfectly perfuming the vermouth.
We tinctured our botanicals in grape brandy and applejack (depending on availability) choosing neutral-flavored, fruit-derived distillates to harmonize with our grape-based wine and maximize the botanical flavor extraction.
Sweetness is another important flavor in vermouth, balancing out the wine’s acidity and the bitterness of the wormwood. We sweetened our vermouth with honey from bees which had pollinated Sam’s safflower crop and nearby blackberries. We incorporated it by stirring a few hefty glugs from the gallon jug into two-ish cups of wine and heating it on the stove, then adding this back to the vermouth concoction.
To read more about how making vermouth with carefully selected ingredients can tell a story, check out my 2020 ASFS Food Studies Conference presentation on Twitter!