[Excerpt] “…. Vermouth, if you believe the laudatory newspaper articles that appear every couple of years, has long been poised to become the next big thing — always on the verge of mainstream popularity, but never quite arriving….
Could it now finally be vermouth’s moment?
…. New, local vermouth producers put a quintessentially Northern California spin on a centuries-old tradition, San Francisco’s cocktail bars have stepped in to proselytize. Dedicated vermouth menus, flights and even draft taps can be found.
…. Several factors have conspired to create this moment. Americans have belatedly discovered the charms of the aperitif hour, a staple of life in many parts of Europe. We’ve warmed to bitter flavor profiles in a new way. And high-octane drinks have ceded ground to lower-alcohol options.
What the hell is it?
Like Sherry, Madeira or Port, vermouth is wine fortified with neutral brandy. And like Sherry, it can be either dry or sweet. The base wine for the vast majority of vermouth is white; rosso vermouth usually gets its hue from caramel color, similar to whats used for cola.
But what truly defines a vermouth’s flavor is, as with gin, the addition of various botanical elements — primarily flower, herb and fruit. It can be rich with vanilla, like Italy’s Carpano Antica; or sweetly floral, like France’s honeysuckle-inflected Dolin Blanc; or intensely woodsy and herbal, like France’s Noilly Prat.
…. Despite the boom, a major learning curve remains. “We have a lot of work to do with educating the consumer,” says Massican owner Dan Petroski. One of his customers, for instance, complained that the Massican vermouth smelled like turpentine. It’s supposed to smell like turpentine.
But that episode also spurred Petroski to create something with greater commercial fluency. “If you have to provide operating instructions, you’re not going to be successful,” he says. “My No. 1 motivation with the vermouth is to make it so that it’s nondescript but perfectly constructed, and to price it so that it reaches the back bar or the well.”
Those economics can get tricky. Thanks to their production processes, artisanal vermouths can easily price themselves out of the back bar. Just think about all that specially sourced quassia bark.”
Massican: Winemaker Dan Petroski bases his vermouth on the Tocai Friulano grape, blending it with other Massican white wines. Each year it’s a little different; hence the vintage dating. Since 2015, he has worked with St. George Spirits in Alameda to distill his own brandy from Massican wine for the vermouth’s fortification — likely the first in California to make a 100 percent in-house artisan vermouth. Petroski’s 2014 Vermouth di Friulano ($20/750ml, 15%), though much juicier and rounder than the 2013, is still spiky and herbal, tasting of bay leaf, pink peppercorn and pine needle, coated with jasmine and kiwi.
– Esther Mobley