The Book of Vermouth – a Bartender and Winemaker Celebrate the World’s Greatest Aperitif »

Discover what you’ve been missing with the help of Shaun Byrne and Gilles Lapalus

By Robyn Lewis
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<i>The Book of Vermouth</i> by Shaun Byrne and Gilles Lapalus

The Book of Vermouth by Shaun Byrne and Gilles Lapalus [©Hardie-Grant]

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Like many others in Australia – according to the authors – my hitherto miniscule knowledge of vermouth was formed by the contents of an old, dusty, generic-brand bottle in the back of my parents’ grog cupboard.

Bought for a Martini, rarely used since, it was still sitting there a decade later when I tasted it and nearly spat it out. What was the fuss about? Clearly it was rubbish, but hey, someone might want it one day. So the bottle was put back and sat there for another decade until it was finally evicted in a cleanup, along with some dregs of Stone’s Green Ginger Wine and some decrepit ports well past their use-by date.

Little did they know back then that vermouth is actually a wine. Although fortified with a small amount of spirit, once opened it will oxidise, as its alcohol content is between 14.5% (lower than a full-bodied red wine) and 22% (a bit higher than port and sherry). At the lower end this is not enough to preserve it for more than a couple of months in the fridge – let alone in a cupboard – and at the upper end it will lose freshness and intensity, if not actually go off.

Back then too, fridges were smaller and didn’t have room for such an occasional ‘treat’ as vermouth (or the ability to hide it from inquisitive children). Unless your parents were Italian, there was probably only one available brand in Australia, too: Cinzano, basically industrially produced and lacking nuance (Noilly Prat was the imported alternative). Little wonder the family’s bottle languished, born boring and dead shortly after its third month.

Vermouth, as we have learnt, is made from wine – which can be white or red, ranging in variety from sauvignon blanc, semillon or viognier to tempranillo, shiraz and cabernet – plus sugar and botanicals, the most critical of which is wormwood, which adds bitterness and lots of different flavours (but curiously has never given vermouth the seedy reputation of absinthe, also made with wormwood). It is not a spirit itself (ie it has not been distilled) so is not a long keeper.

However its origins are ancient. Long before distilling was discovered around 800 BC, as far back as 7000 BC wines in China and Europe were being infused with botanicals for medicinal purposes, and these were the ancestors of what we now call vermouth, named after vermut, the German word for wormwood.

Eventually came the Industrial Revolution, greater prosperity and trade, and the rise of the middle class, who started to drink alcohol for recreation. First Italy, then France, Spain and Germany began to produce vermouth and export it to America, which had discovered cocktails.

When vermouth met gin in 1887 and the Martini was conceived, there was no looking back, especially during the heady 1920s, when vermouth was indispensable for any bartender.

Interestingly, the authors tell us that vermouth was also made in Australia from the 1870s, as imports were hard to get (and still are). Seppelts, Hardys, Penfolds and Lindemans all made vermouth; Yalumba even released a pre-mixed Martini! (Where is such wine industry innovation today?!) Such was demand in Australia that by the 1930s Cinzano established a vermouth-making operation in Sydney – perhaps that was the start of its decline?!

Local consumption languished after the Depression and WWII through to the 1990s – no doubt in part thanks to those gone-off bottles gathering dust around the nation – and local production fell away even more, as better wines, vermouth-less cocktails and craft beers all hit the stage. By the year 2000 only De Bortoli was making vermouth in Australia, sold in 2 litre flagons. It seemed like vermouth had truly run its race.

As Max Allen says in the preface to The Book of Vermouth “this is why, when premium Australian vermouths started appearing again in 2012, it seemed as though they had emerged from nowhere. To a whole generation of drinkers who had grown up with no experience of local vermouth [or indeed any vermouth], the category felt brand new.”

I’d go so far to say that vermouth still has a major image problem, but this book is a great step forward in changing that. The authors are a winemaker, Gilles Lapalus, formerly of France and Italy, and a bartender from Melbourne’s famous Gin Palace, Shaun Byrne. When they met “they quickly established that Shaun’s cocktail experience and self-professed bar geekery was the perfect complement to Gilles’ winemaking knowledge”, and their own brand of Australian vermouth, Maidenii, was born in 2013.

The book has been another five years coming, as together they refined not only their label and their deep knowledge of Australian native botanicals (from strawberry gum to river mint), and other more mainstream spices, bitters and aromatic plants, but the alchemy of cocktail making.

It is here that this book excels – and in my opinion it would have been better named Vermouth and its Cocktails, as there at 110 pages of them, from the traditional to the highly innovative. For vermouth is not primarily drunk neat (although apparently you can, especially with some of the more interesting brands now available; they’ve given some food matches on pp 90-94, including one from Ben Shewry and another from Kylie Kwong), but is the star or supporting act of many amazing cocktails.

Helpfully, the cocktails in The Book of Vermouth are arranged by season. Spring cocktails are all about freshness and light flavours – including strawberries, cherries and even peas – plus a few robust drinks for the still-cool evenings. There are cocktails made with nasturtiums, quandongs (also known as native peaches), rhubarb and tea, fennel pollen and a group of three called Corpse Revivers, which date from the 1930s but have been given a modern twist.

Lapalus and Byrne also tell us that “in spring, the vermouthery is a hive of activity as we collect and macerate fresh botanicals… and we start visiting the vineyards in central Victoria to check their health and plan the vintage with the growers”. Busy men indeed.

Summer “calls for tropical and stone fruits for your cocktails… fun, frivolous, minimal fuss and most importantly refreshing” (and rehydrating, so with a lower alcohol content). Blueberry Spritz; Peach Iced Tea; Blackberry Tonic; Mango Buck… you get the picture. I’m looking forward to trying a few of these around Christmas and New Year!

And of course out in the vineyards, they’re heading towards vintage, and busy in the vermouthery making the botanical tinctures and getting them ready to fortify the wines when they’re made in Autumn.

Which brings us to the season of apples, pears, quinces and pomegranates – more robust flavours that work well with spicy ingredients for cooler evenings. (I think I might have to invite these guys to be mixologists at my next grape harvest party!). There’s an adult spider made from sloe gin, a Quince Sour, the evocatively named Summer’s Funeral (for recipe see link below) and even a pick-me-up called Breakfast in Autumn, “the perfect accompaniment to brunch to awaken the palate”.

As Winter approaches “it’s time to drink richer, bolder and sometimes even warmer drinks”. Like oranges and truffles? Tired of shiraz? Then try one of these evocatively named creations like Blood and Sand; Beneath the Fascinator (whoever thought of infusing gin with potatoes?!); Incitation Cocktail; Eve’s Cheat Day and more. Add a few traditional mixes with a twist and there’s almost enough drinking for a season without wine!

But of course we can’t do that, so there are also cocktails made with wine in the Pre-Dinner Cocktails selection, which of course also include the classic Martini and other post-work unwinders, which also need to work to stimulate the appetite without cloying the palate. Many of these also include gin, dry sherry and Champagne as well as vermouth.

To get right into making these though you’re going to need a pretty serious home bar, with lots of different brands of each; I’m rapidly gaining new respect for mixologists’ memories!

Don’t like dessert or need a digestif after a big meal? Then the Post-Dinner section is for you. Cocktails here require a selection of amari (bitter Italian liqueurs), brandy, whisky and rum; there are even cocktails including coffee like Caffe Corretto alla M&M, and Vermouth and Tea.

Clearly the restaurants I’ve been to lately need to do more work in this area, instead of just offering cheese, iced wines and the occasional liqueur as chocolate mudcake alternatives.

Then there’s a section called Bitter – “an acquired taste, you have to train your palate to accept the intense flavours”. Anyone who likes Campari will be at home here however, or even Aperol lovers if you still have your bitter training wheels on. Of course this includes the classic Negroni, with various permutations including one for the designated driver.

Lastly come Punches, which look like great fun for your next party, especially the watermelon-based Summer of Vermouth, or Mulled Vermouth for colder nights. The authors tell us the general rule is:

 

  • 1 part bitter (vermouth, amaro or cocktail bitters)

  • 2 parts sweet (liqueurs or syrups)

  • 3 parts sour (citrus, or dry wines)

  • 4 parts strong (gin, brandy etc)

  • 5 parts weak (soda water, chilled tea or water).

 

As in the recently reviewed The World’s Best Whiskies by Dominic Roskrow (see link below) there’s an excellent couple of pages on the classification of brands of vermouth from dry to sweet, and brands of bitters etc to make your cocktails.

It’s such a pity that very few of these seem to be available in my local bottle shops (even speciality wine/alcohol stores) – I have it on good advice from Italian friends loving nearby that they stock up in Italian supermarkets when they visit their mother country, and bring them back in to Australia instead of wines or other spirits. Maybe a trip through Melbourne’s laneways might be productive?!

But for me as a vermouth novice, and not someone willing to part with hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars for all these bespoke vermouths, gins and more to keep at home, what would really have benefited me is a ‘reverse chart’, as I’ve seen in some cookbooks, ie “I have brands x, y and z in my drinks cabinet, what cocktails can I make with them?”. It would have been so easy to compile in this digital age, and perhaps something to consider for the next edition please (or an app).

Overall, I got a lot more from The Book of Vermouth that I was initially expecting, based on my dim memories of dull, dusty Cinzano, which reflects the considerable contributions made by various botanists, bartenders, sommeliers, chefs, distillers and more. It’s beautifully designed and thoughtfully laid out as well, and I love the tactile cover. However, it’s more for bartenders than everyday drinkers, unless you want to set up an entire bar at home.

Nevertheless, to see what I could start with, I went to my local bottleshop, asked for vermouth, and… was pointed to the red and white Cinzanos that have been around since my parents’ era (nothing more, and this is a winestore located right next to an upmarket gourmet food retailer). I bought them, tried the white, and it was as disappointing as I remember. Sigh.

So what did I do? Inspired by Byrne and Lapalus, I picked a large bunch of fresh herbs that happened to be shooting in my garden (tarragon, lemon thyme and a small amount of oregano), and put them in the white Cinzano bottle along with several twists of aromatic lemon rind. Even a week later it tasted 100% better!

I can sure see the potential of vermouth as an aperitif and will now endeavour to track down their own brand Maidenii, with its 15 botanicals including Australian natives. Maybe I’ll score one for Christmas?! Put a bottle on your wish list too, along with this book for a fun year of cocktail making ahead.

 

The Book of Vermouth by Shaun Byrne and Giles Lapalus is published by Hardie Grant Books (Melb, Vic; Jul 2018; Hb; 208pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.99.

It is available at good bookshops and can be purchased online via booko.com.au »

 

About the Authors:

Gilles Lapalus has wine flowing through his veins. The third generation of a wine-producing family from the Cluny region of Burgundy, Gilles embarked on a prestigious wine making career that has taken him across three decades to the French regions of Burgundy, Languedoc, Medoc, and Beaujolais, and further afield to Tuscany, Campania, Chili and Australia.

In 2001, he moved to Australia to become the manager of biodynamic viticulture and winemaking at Sutton Grange Winery near Castlemaine, central Victoria.

Five years ago, he established boutique Australian vermouth brand Maidenii with business partner Shaun Byrne.

 

Shaun Byrne has developed his love and understanding of the beverage industry through a rich career at some of Australia’s best bars. It was while managing Melbourne institution Gin Palace that he met Gilles, and they quickly established that Shaun’s cocktail experience and self-professed bar geekery was the perfect complement to Gilles’ winemaking knowledge.

 

Regions

  • Melbourne (VIC)

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December 11th, 2018
 
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