Vermouth has finally started growing as a category in the US. At least, the high-end imported vermouths have been growing, and that is where the real value lies. But it’s not only as a bit player in cocktails that vermouth is in vogue; numerous operations have given vermouth-led drinks equal billing while other have established reputations as vermouth- friendly drinking spots. Maybe it’s time chain operators rethought their old school vermouth listings.
Vermouth may still suffer among many consumers because of their perception as a mixer that can't stand on its own. Now, however, there is plenty of room to maneuver.
When planning to open San Francisco's Octavia, a vermouth program was part of the origin, says beverage director Paul Einbund. “We wanted to create a unique offering that would attract attention and be exciting for our diners.” Octavia now carries about ten vermouths, each offered on the menu straight, on the rocks with bitters and orange, or with tonic, bitters and orange. In addition, the house cocktail includes two types of vermouth and the aromatized wine, Lillet.
The program at Octavia has developed many fans who are driving lots of empty cases, Einbund says. “I think unique offerings are important. If we just listed one or two it would get skipped over but we list nine, which makes people stop and take notice.”
Descriptors are important if an operator intends to drive interest among wary customers. At Chicago’s Nico Osteria, head bartender Matty Eggleston features a vermouth of the day program that showcases different varieties served with club soda and garnish. He keeps the descriptions brief and accessible for the dozen vermouths he lists. Imbue Bittersweet from Oregon is noted for its sage and clove influence, while Cocchi Torino, the house vermouth, is noted for its flavors of green grapes and cola. “You can only say sweetened fortified wines so many times, but if you say it tastes like cola or grapes, that’s a conversation starter,” he says.
The broad variety of modern and classic styles attracts Erin Lindle of Washington, DC’s Nido where vermouth highballs are featured during their happy hour. This promotion includes a locally made vermouth on tap and a cocktail program composed of vermouth-based twists on classic cocktails.
“There is so much variation and depth of flavor in vermouth and it’s a lot of fun to play with,” says Lindle. “They can be sweet, dry, bitter, herbal, aromatic, spicy, all of the above, or anywhere in between. Plus, you can drink it all day. All these factors were important in considering the restaurant’s bar program, which was ultimately inspired by visiting vermouth houses in Madrid where the house vermouth is served simply with an olive, cherry and orange, and from drinking them as aperitifs throughout Italy.” The vermouths also fit with the Spanish- and Italian-focused shared plates menu.
The latter is a real selling point for many restaurants, especially those based on Mediterranean cuisine. Light, quaffable and appetizing, vermouths offer a change from the same old glass of wine, appealing to the adventurous nature of today's younger wine consumer. So sure, go ahead and add more vermouths to your cocktail program, but allow them to do double duty and give them a place to stand alone on your drink and appetizer menu as well.