By: Stuart Laidlaw
In North America, vermouth is often misunderstood and unloved. Until the early 2000s, it was used in two ways: a splash of dry vermouth for martinis (the less, the better) and a jigger of sweet for manhattans. Half the time, the vermouth would be spoiled or flat and lifeless due to infrequent use and room temperature storage. Nowadays, as consumers broaden their horizons to include aperitivo hour and drinks like the ubiquitous spritz, there is more interest in vermouth than ever before. For Canada’s winemakers, vermouth offers another way to express themselves and a potential new revenue source.
Although other aromatized, fortified wines predate it, vermouth, as we know it now, was first introduced in Turin, Italy, in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. His sweet red vermouth is still produced today as Carpano Antica Formula. Then, around 1800, Joseph Noilly made the first dry white vermouth in southern France – it too is still produced today as Noilly Prat. The third style of vermouth, blanc or bianco, followed shortly thereafter from Dolin in France and Gancia in Italy, completing the foundation of the category.
Today vermouth is being made in uniquely local styles around the world, broadening its expected flavor palette beyond its traditional expectations. In Spain, oxidative wines are used by producers like Lustau and Guerra to make a new hybrid style of sherry-inflected vermouths. In the U.S., producers such as Vya and Hammer & Tongs draw on inspirations both local and exotic, using botanicals as diverse as frankincense, turmeric, cardoon and alfalfa.
Amongst Canadian wineries and consumers, vermouth has struggled to find its footing. Although fortified wine was one of the first types of wine to be produced commercially in Canada, it was made from non-vinifera grapes, blended with imported table wine, and fortified with neutral alcohol to make a generically sweet, strong and cheap wine. These styles of fortified wine have historically been the country’s bestselling fortified wines, leading to a stigma that has tarnished the entire category. However, as Canada’s craft spirits culture continues to mature, a handful of wineries and distilleries have seen the opportunity that vermouth offers.
Low ABV Workhorse
The last few years have seen the rise of health and wellness trends across the food and beverage sector, leading to a significant increase in the number of people actively trying to curb their alcohol intake. Every year more people participate in Dry January and carry some of those good intentions into the following months. In response to the increasing demand for low ABV drinks, Canadian cocktail bars have begun featuring vermouth spritzes and cocktails as low ABV alternatives to the more traditional gin, whisky or vodka drinks. For example, Bar Raval in Toronto, named Canada’s best bar two years in a row, specializes in sherry and vermouth-based cocktails. One of their menu mainstays is the Logroni, a low ABV version of a Negroni.
One of the clearest signs of the interest in healthier beverages has been the boom of ready-to-drink hard seltzers. Here too, vermouth has a role to play, with its versatility being key. 2020 saw the release of Canada’s first vermouth-based RTD, made by Revel Cider Company, who make both cider and natural wine. They start with a wine made from apples, pears and blue plums, aromatize it with locally foraged botanicals, re-ferment it, and can it at 4.4% ABV with zero residual sugar. Although it is the first drink of its kind in Canada, the current thirst for RTDs and the need for new types and flavors to meet consumer demand make it unlikely that this will be the last.
Unencumbered by the traditions of the Old World, vermouths in Canada are made by people from a wide range of backgrounds. Although someone who makes vermouth is by definition a winemaker, not all start out that way. In addition to trained winemakers, vermouth attracts distillers and even craft soda producers. Quinn and Michela Palmer founded Esquimalt Wine Company in Vancouver following the success of their previous company, Rootside Soda. While learning about botanicals for their soft drinks (e.g., artisanal tonic water and rosehip soda), they became interested in aromatized wines, and since 2019 have released an award-winning range of vermouths, including a Quinquina, a largely forgotten bitter relative of vermouth.
Canada’s first craft vermouth was made in 2015 by Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver. Being the first came with a particular disadvantage for founder and distiller Gordon Glanz. He was the first micro-distillery forced to navigate British Columbia’s licensing system to make a product that requires both a winemaking license and a distilling license. Unfortunately for Gordon, the system is designed to keep beer, wine and liquor licenses separate for taxation purposes. In the end, Glanz acquired a separate winemaking license and produced something that belongs to both the Old World and the new. Although it is in many ways a traditional Italian-style sweet vermouth, the base of local wine is fortified with Odd Society’s own malted barley spirit, instead of the standard neutral grain alcohol, brandy or eau-de-vie – perhaps a nod to Canada’s depth of whisky heritage, and an affirmation of the distiller’s commitment to experimentation.
The most recent addition to Canada’s vermouth portfolio is from a more established producer, Tawse Winery. Founded by Moray Tawse in 2005, the winery is one of the Niagara Region’s largest organic winemakers. In 2019, Moray and Paul Pender, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking, oversaw the installation of a micro-distillery on-site and immediately set about making a bianco vermouth. They took inspiration from the Burgundian tradition of a traveling distiller going from winery to winery, pulling a still with a tractor, to distill each winery’s pomace into marc (similar to grappa). At Tawse, they use their Riesling as the base for their vermouth, then make marc from the Riesling pomace and use it to fortify the wine. The resulting vermouth is high in acidity and has 22 grams of residual sugar, making it uniquely mouthwatering. Although Tawse vermouth comes from a very different place than Odd Society’s and Esquimalt’s, they are still bound by a commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and introducing their own perspectives to a traditionally staid product.
The Future of Vermouth
2020 has put on hold many projections and forecasts, but one trend that seems unaffected is the increased interest in premium alcoholic beverages. This bodes well for the growth of Canada’s domestic vermouth category. It can be easy to focus on the explosion of interest in bourbon, agave spirits and craft beer. Still, in developed markets like the U.S. and the U.K., premium wine sales have outpaced other drink categories. According to a report from Impact Databank, U.S. sales of bottled wine priced $20 and over increased by 30% from January to September 2020. Craft vermouth fits neatly at this nexus of the upswing in premium wine sales, the craft cocktail market’s continued maturation and the fast-developing enthusiasm for low ABV drinks.
Consumers will grow more accustomed to seeing vermouth-forward cocktails on drink menus, and vermouth made with locally foraged botanicals paired with courses on restaurant tasting menus. At the liquor store, they will see well-packaged, sleekly branded, Canadian-produced vermouth sold alongside the French and Italian standard-bearers, and low ABV, low calorie, vermouth-based RTDs next to the beer. Although Tawse is by no means a big producer, they are well-established and highly respected; the resources they have committed to their vermouth say a lot about the category’s potential. If they can solidify their annual production and sales, it will signal to other wineries that there is room for growth in the category and the potential to tap into a new revenue stream.
In some ways, Tawse has laid out a roadmap for other wineries to follow. The ability to experiment with different grape varietals to create a unique flavor profile, and the integration of the distilling side of things by dint of having their own pomace to use, makes table wine producers well suited to adding vermouth to their portfolios. Now, if they can just remind customers to keep their vermouth in the fridge, this could be the beginning of something big.