Tom’s Garden

Growing by the Bay

Neap Tide cocktail detail showing color.

Neap Tide (cocktail)

The Neap Tide, a refreshing cocktail.

The Neap Tide, a refreshing cocktail.

Today’s fluid delight is something I’m calling a Neap Tide. Neap tides are when the difference between high and low is the least. Steady as she goes. (And this is similar to something Laird’s calls a Tidal Wave.)*

INGREDIENTS
1.5 oz. Laird’s Applejack
0.5 oz. Campari or Bruto Americano
4.0 oz. Orange juice

Stir with ice and strain. You can add an orange garnish. The result is a refreshing drink, with a flavor the evokes grapefruit, that it would probably be all too easy to overdo.

I’m temporarily out of Bruto Americano, so I used Campari, but the Bruto would, I’m sure, be great. As long as you like that kind of thing (as I do) — if bitter isn’t your taste, you could try substituting Apertol, which is sweeter and more citrusy. Hey, they love it in the Veneto and the Alto Adige. If, on the other hand, the OJ is too sweet for your palate, rebalance it with the Campari, or add something like Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters.


A Tidal Wave is a combination of 1.5 oz. Applejack, 4 oz. OJ, and a splash of cranberry juice.

Detail of Grüss an Aachen Rose flower.

Grüss an Aachen Rose update

Grüss an Aachen Rose flower.

Grüss an Aachen Rose flower.

I’ve talked about Grüss an Aachen roses before. I don’t grow a lot of roses, but I like this one. The problem with modern roses is that they were bred strictly for flowers, and the plant and its foliage lack the nice bush form of old-fashioned roses. But after our wet winter this year, the Grüss an Aachen looks fine. It is blooming profusely, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

 

calandrinia spectabilis

Calandrinia spectabilis

Calandrinia spectabilis flower.

Calandrinia spectabilis flower.

Calandrinia spectabilis — the rare plant with no real common name (though some commercial growers are trying to brand it as Rock Purslane) — is native to the deserts of Chile. In does very well in our area. For one thing, it needs virtually no water. After five years of drought that’s a big plus, even if this last year set records for wetness. I mean, it doesn’t just manage for a while without water, it outright laughs at drought.  So it’s a great plant to put in that corner that the garden hose is hard to get to.

I got mine at Annie’s Annuals. Usually in these posts I do a thorough review of online information and resources (see, for example, here, here, and here). But in this case, Annie’s blurb really says it all:

This spectacular Chilean perennial gets my highest recommendation as the best, super EASY, everblooming, deer-resistantplant for a dry garden or difficult spot. Blooming from May to forever (mine was still in full bloom at the end of November), this most robust succulent produces a continuous supply of hundreds of bouncy, bright cerise, 1.5,” single, rose-like flowers –without deadheading! Color coordinating, attractive, blue-green foliage spreads quickly into a dense, 15” x 4’ groundcover, suppressing all weeds as it grows. Do give it a home in that parking strip that looks so sad, (it’s kid proof!) that blah hillside or anywhere you’d love to see continuous easy color. Cut back to 6” in Winter & add a bit of compost in Spring for perfect appearance next season. Decent drainage. Drought tolerant!

Okay, here are some more links:

Calandrinia spectabilis.

Calandrinia spectabilis. This young plant already needs uppotting, but right now I don’t want to set back the blooms.

Detail of illustration of salad greens from Johnny's catalogue.

Browsing the seed catalogues: Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Maine, 7.75 x 10.25 in., 244 pp.

Cover of catalogue from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Maine, 7.75 x 10.25 in., 244 pp.

Next up on our tour of seed catalogues is my favorite of all, Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Johnny’s, based in Winslow, Maine, is a large operation that was started in 1973 in New Hampshire by a 22-year-old named Rob Johnston. Back then it was briefly called Johnny Apple Seeds, but that name had already been taken. Now employee owned, Johnny’s is a member of the Safe Seed Initiative, pledging that it will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.

One thing I love about this catalogue is the wealth of information in it. It’s better than many most of the gardening books I’ve got from the library. Growing guides are provided for many varieties of vegetable. Second, extraordinary comparison images show differences among varieties. And, finally, the photography is excellent. All three features can be seen in this excerpt from the bush beans section:

Johnnys Selected Seeds, excerpt from section on bush beans.

Johnnys Selected Seeds, excerpt from section on bush beans.

Sometimes the images comparisons can be amazingly extensive. Just check out this section on microgreens, which required three separate scans (sorry I didn’t get a better result):

Johnny's Selected Seeds, microgreens comparison.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, microgreens comparison.

Or this page on salad greens:

Johnny's Selected Seeds, salad greens comparison.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, salad greens comparison.

These are addictive. Here are varieties of radicchio:

Johnny's Selected Seeds, radicchio varieties comparison.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, radicchio varieties comparison.

It’s hard to stop.

Johnny's Selected Seeds, beets.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, beets.

So this is an extensive (244 pp.), oversized, full-color catalogue that is fun and educational. Now, I should say that Johnny’s seems more oriented to market gardens than home gardens. Still, it does offer seed packets in home garden quantities. While the prices of the seeds are reasonable, I was disappointed by the shipping costs, which are higher than many other vendors on the level that is likely to work for the individual gardener. No matter. It’s still my favorite seed catalogue.

A new look for Tom’s Garden

I’ve changed the look of this blog (but not the content very much). Mainly what you will see now is larger images. (The typography and sidebar configuration is also changed.) I think this makes sense because much of the content here is photographic. Previously I used a distinct homepage with small square thumbnails linking to the posts. Let me know if you have any thoughts about the new look. Here’s what the homepage used to look like:

The look of the former home page of this blog (using a modified child of the apostrophe theme).

The look of the former home page of this blog (using a modified child of the Apostrophe theme).

jasmine

Jasmine

Star jasmine.

Star jasmine.

I’ve been traveling and haven’t posted much here for a little while. So here’s some Star Jasmine to tide us over.

Geums.

The Prodigal Gardener

The garden, April 9, 2017

Returned to the Bay Area after a while away. I was worried when I heard about a local heat wave while we were gone, but fortunately a neighbor agreed to do some watering. Almost everything came through marvelously, and there are a lot of spring blooms (more on that later).

The garden, April 9, 2017

Wheelbarrow detail.

The Orange Wheelbarrow

Orange wheelbarrow.

So much depends upon an orange wheelbarrow, scarred from rough use, beside the green citrus.

Cunonia capensis

Cunonia capensis, Butterknife Tree

Stipule of Cononia capensis, Butterknife Tree.

Stipule of Cunonia capensis, Butterknife Tree.

Some leafstalks are marked by outgrowths at the base, usually on opposite sides. These were named stipules by Linnaeus, from the Latin word stipula, meaning “straw” or “stalk.” Not all plants have stipules, and among those that do, they vary greatly in appearance “and might appear as glands, scales, hairs, spines, or laminar (leaf-like) structures.” The remarkable, conspicuous stipules of Cunonia capensis, the African Red Alder, or Butterspoon or Butterknife Tree, are a focal point in the garden, almost always remarked upon by people who see them for the first time. The paired stipules are reddish in color and pressed together like cupped hands — or like butterspoons, I guess, whatever those are. (I say “butterknife” rather than “butterspoon.” I can see how the stipules are spoonlike, but I don’t apply my butter with a spoon, do you?)

An evergreen multistemmed perennial shrub or small tree from South Africa, this is one of my favorite specimen plants. I used to have several that I lost in our severe, years-long drought. The plant doesn’t need constant water, but it doesn’t like being dry, and I was careless (or all too responsible a California citizen). It also dislikes heat, and I’m now growing this one in a large container in part shade. While the tree can reach thirty feet in damp forests, it is seldom seen above fifteen feet in the open. Several sources report that it can be kept for many years in a container, and this has been my experience. It grows in zones 9–11 and prefers good drainage.

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Many ducks.

The morning commute

 

This brings back memories of my commute to San Francisco’s Civic Center, right down to the honking and passing along the shoulder. The traffic here is just moving a bit faster.

At this South African vineyard, a thousand Indian Runner Ducks keep the vines free of snails. The ducks are probably more enthusiastic workers than most of my fellow commuters. But then, they get paid in snails.

I guess all our garden needs now is a few hundred ducks.

Crabapple blossoms.

The prettiest fruiting tree blossoms

Crabapple blossoms, March 2017.

Crabapple blossoms, March 2017.

Crabapple, hands down.

Mugwort.

Artemisia douglasiana, Mugwort

Artemisia douglasiana, Mugwort.

Artemisia douglasiana, Mugwort.

This California native mugwort, here growing in a container, is happy after this year’s wet winter. I acquired a couple of specimens last summer, and they looked pretty rangy during those dry months. Like many native plants, mugwort is pretty resilient, tolerating shade and aridity up to a point, but in nature it favors moist locations.

It’s an underappreciated perennial plant for the garden. While top leaves are whole, lower leaves are lobed in a sharply jagged cleft pattern. The evenly-spaced leaves are dark green above and silvery (and a little wooly) below. The plant is aromatic, especially when the leaves are crushed.  It attracts butterflies and birds, and is said to be deer resistant. Stems grow erect from runners (which are not too difficult to control); some sources say they get to six feet, but I have never seem this plant above about three feet. Flowers (summer to fall) are insignificant.

Artemsias are in the Asteraceae (sunflower) family. Artemisia douglasiana is sometimes classed as Artemesia vulgaris var. douglasiana, but it is much more bitter and stronger flavored than the European mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) referenced in many herbals. (There is also a Korean variety, which is closer to the European than to this native California mugwort.)

Also known as Dream Plant, the leaves of mugwort contain some of the same substances (notably thujone and cineole) as those of another Atemisia, wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). When smoked or drunk as a tea, they are said to produce vivid dreams, and to ward off the spirits of the dead. Native Californians sometimes wore mugwort necklaces for protection against such spirits. In the European tradition it was held that pillows stuffed with mugwort could reveal one’s future in dreams. One herbalist calls mugwort “ the star of any dream pillow.” A reference more to my taste is  “The Natural History of Orange County, California and Nearby Places,” which cites several print sources.

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Euphorbia myrsinites.

Euphorbia myrsinites, Donkeytail Spurge

Euphorbia mysrinites, Donkeytail Spurge.

New growth on Euphorbia myrsinites, Donkeytail Spurge.

Lots of new growth on the Donkeytail Spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) this mid-March. The new growth is bright green; older leaves are blue-gray. Also called Myrtle Spurge because the Latin word myrsinites alludes to myrtle (Myrtus communis), which the plant was thought to resemble, this is a succulent spurge native to Southern Europe and West Asia. It is a low-growing (to about six inches) evergreen perennial. The “tails” grow to about one to one and a half feet long, spreading radially. The bright new growth resembling flowers is actually a specialized leaf called a bract.

Euphorbia mysrinites, Donkeytail Spurge.

Euphorbia myrsinites, Donkeytail Spurge, trailing over a container.

In some respects this spurge can be nasty. It projects seeds quite a distance and can overrun other plants. It is illegal to grow in Colorado, where it is classed as a noxious weed because of its invasive habit, though San Marcos Growers say this is not a problem in Mediterranean climates like ours (I would not recommend it in inland climes, except with caution and vigilance). In addition, like many spurges, it produces a sap that can cause fairly serious skin irritation in some people (and other animals); children are especially susceptible. You don’t want to get the sap in your eyes, that’s for sure. Finally, it is alleopathic, meaning it produces a substance that can prevent other plants from growing nearby. For these reasons I grow mine in containers and use gloves when repotting.

Despite all this, I am fond of this plant, as I am of most spurges (for an opposing take, check out the spurge haters at Dave’s Garden). Annie’s Annuals describes it as “an easy, tough, tidy groundcover that lends marvelous texture to rock gardens and is great trailing over rock walls.” I also have several Honey Spurges (Euphorbia mellifera). Both plants have not only interesting forms but also an almost electric brightness. You feel like this plant knows something. I just don’t know what.

 

Flipped-out spider web.

One weird web

Flipped-out spider web.

Flipped-out spider web.

Did the spider that wove this strange web outside one of my dining room windows get into somebody’s stash?

 

unknown weed

What’s this weed?

unknown weed

It’s a new one this year. Kind of pretty, but it sends out long tendrils that choke out everything.

Rain rain rain!

Detail of Kitazawa Seed Co. catalogue cover photo.

Browsing the Seed Catalogues: Kitazawa Seed Co.

Kitazawa catalogue cover.

Kitazawa catalogue cover.

Kitazawa, now based in Oakland, offers a two-color (green and black) catalogue printed on yellow paper and illustrated with line drawings. 2017 marks the company’s 100th anniversary. It was founded by Gijiu Kitazawa, an apprentice to a Japanese seed company who immigrated to the U.S. and settled in San Jose, where he sold seeds out of a downtown store.

Kitazawa seed catalogue contents page.

Kitazawa seed catalogue contents page.

During the war the Kitazawa family was forcibly interred into relocation camps, and the business had to be abandoned. Because of the internments, many Japanese-American farmers lost their farms, so after the war Kitazawa, having lost its local market, began a mail-order business.

Kitazawa catalogue spread.

Kitazawa catalogue spread.

The company features a range of Asian vegetables, not limited to Japanese. I would say that they have the most extensive selection of Asian vegetable seeds of any of the vendors I received catalogues from. Their descriptions are concise but informative.

Kitazawa special packages.

Kitazawa special packages.

Besides individual seed packets, priced at $3.69, the company offers packages of several seeds, called “Chef Specialty Gardens,” at a reduced price. I ordered the Stir Fry Garden mix.

Kitazawa seed packets.

Kitazawa seed packets.

I also ordered several other seeds from Kitazawa this year, and the company responded instantly: As I recall, the well-packaged seeds were in my mailbox the very next day! I was astonished.

A Kitazawa recipe.

A Kitazawa recipe.

In keeping with the family-oriented spirit of the company, their catalogue includes some recipes using the vegetables.

Orders can be made by phone, fax, mail, or via a secure web page: order info is here. This is one of my favorite seed vendors. Highly recommended.

The garden, March 4, 2017.

The Garden, March 2017

The garden, March 4, 2017.

The garden, March 4, 2017.

After this extraordinarily wet winter, we had to remove some trees from our hillside lot. This gives us more of a view of the valley as well as more sun to the garden. It’s all good.

Speaking of the garden (which once was a swimming pool), looking at this photo I see some work that needs to be done. But things are certainly very green, for here.

Wayside Gardens, South Carolina, 8 x 10.5 in., 104 pp.

Browsing the Seed Catalogues: Overview

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that one of the delights of gardening is browsing seed and plant catalogues. I have a handful of vendors I usually buy from, but this year I decided to do a fairly comprehensive survey of vendors and their catalogues. I know it’s late in the season for this, but I think there is still value in comparing the catalogues, if only for preparing for the fall batch (though I still have some spring ordering to do). In subsequent posts I’ll discuss many in detail. For now, here’s a gallery of the covers, together with the location of the vendor, the trim size of the catalogue, and its length. Stay tuned for more (list of vendors below the gallery).

The catalogues:

  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Missouri, 9 x 10.75 in., 148 pp.
  • Bluestone Perennials, Ohio, 8 x 10 in., 92 pp.
  • Botanical Interests, Colorado, 8.5 x 10.75 in., 72 pp.
  • Bountiful Gardens, California, 8.25 x 10.25 in., 72 pp.
  • Grow Organic: Fruit Trees, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Grow Organic: Gardening Essentials, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Grow Organic: Quality Tools, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Grow Organic: Seeds, California, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Growers Supply, Connecticut, 7.75 x 10 in., 138 pp.
  • Gurney’s, Indiana, 9.25 x 13 in., 68 pp.
  • Harris Seeds: Garden Trends, New York, 7.25 x 10.25, 124 pp.
  • J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, California, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 96 pp.
  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Maine, 7.75 x 10.25 in., 244 pp.
  • Kitazawa Seed Co., California, 8.5 x 11 in., 48 pp.
  • Park Seed, South Carolina, 8 x 10 in., 148 pp.
  • Pepper Joe’s, Maryland, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 34 pp.
  • Pinetree, Maine, 8 x 10 in., 132 pages
  • Raintree Nursery, Washington, 8.5 x 10.75 in., 96 pp.
  • Richters, Ontario, 6 x 9.5 in., 96 pp.
  • Seed Savers Exchange, Iowa, 8.5 x 10.25 in., 116 pp.
  • Seeds from Italy, Kansas, 5.5 x 8.5 in., 64 pp.
  • Seeds of Change, Minnesota, 7.75 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Select Seeds, Connecticut, 8 x 10 in., 68 pp.
  • Territorial Seeds Co., Oregon, 7.25 x 10.25 in., 164 pp.
  • Wayside Gardens, South Carolina, 8 x 10.5 in., 104 pp.
  • White Flower Farm, Connecticut, 8 x 10 in., 140 pp.

Trim size is approximate (the edges of some catalogues are rather imprecisely  trimmed). Some catalogues have self covers and others have a cover stock around the inside pages. Most number the cover as page 1, but some omit the covers from the page counts. (One, Pinetree, actually numbers the inside front cover as 1, so that their versos are odd and their rectos are even. That’s dumb, and someone should have a word with them.) I have tallied up the pages as best I can, including the cover pages in the count.

Ornamental plub blossoms.

Ornamental Plum Blossoms

Ornamental plub blossoms.

Ornamental plum blossoms.

After many years of working with color professionally, I know how to remove a color cast. But I like the blue cast here, and decided to leave it.

Old Tom's Aromatic Bitters, detail of label.

Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters

Old Tom's Aromatic Bitters.

Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters.

“All bitters are aromatic,” according to Mark Bitterman in his Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, “but the ones that are called aromatic are so jam-packed with aromas, bitterness, and a lick of sweetness that it is impossible to parse out exactly what we are perceiving.”

Here we are perceiving Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. These turned out exceptionally well, and can serve as a substitute for Angostura Bitters anywhere those would be used.

Star anise.

Star anise.

The ingredients in Angostura Bitters, as with most old-timey botanical beverage products, are a closely guarded secret. In preparing Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters, I first looked at many websites and publications that speculated on the constituents of Angostura Bitters and other aromatic bitters. Then I looked at several recipes for aromatic bitters, making certain that the phrase was being used in the strict sense, since some people, such as Will Budiaman in Handcrafted Bittersapply it to all bitters. even those constructed of only a few ingredients. I made a list of all ingredients and noted how many recipes they were used in. This gave me a kind of consensus snapshot of the main flavors.

I grind the ingredients (here cardamom pods) with a mortar and pestle.

I grind the ingredients (here cardamom pods) with a mortar and pestle.

I ended up using twenty ingredients:

  • allspice
  • angelica root
  • cacao
  • cardamom
  • cinchona
  • cinnamon
  • cloves
  • gentian
  • ginger
  • hops
  • lemon
  • lime
  • maraschino
  • nutmeg
  • peppercorn
  • quassia
  • Seville ­orange
  • star anise
  • vanilla
  • wormwood
Infusing ginger. This shows the proportions of solid material to grain alcohol (about 1:2). But all of the material should be submersed.

Infusing ginger. This shows the best proportions of solid material to grain alcohol (about 1:2). But all of the material should be submersed. (Hops, middle in the background, swell up, so the proportion of solid to liquid there is deceptive.)

Of these, angelica root, cinchona, gentian, hops, quassia, and wormwood are all bittering agents, while the others are flavors. That’s a lot of different bitters, and this is different from other recipes, but I think it works, once the proportions are balanced out. (Experiment.) Gentian was the primary bitter ingredient. I tinctured each ingredient separately in grain alcohol (most often infusing for about five days) and strained through a gold filter into jam jars.

Tinctures. At right are infusions in process, at left completed, strained tinctures.

Tinctures. At right are infusions in process, at left completed tinctures strained into jam jars.

I wanted some sour cherry flavor in the mix, as well as some sweetness. To provide these qualities I added Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur (needless to say, this is nothing like the nasty bright red cherries; it is clear in color and made not just from sour cherry fruits but from the pits and, I think, twigs as well).

I’m not selling my bitters so I don’t have to measure the volume of alcohol precisely. I follow the guideline of adding 20 percent lower-ABV spirits to the tinctures (the grain alcohol is 151 proof). If the ABV is too high, the alcohol burn will mask out the flavors. In addition to the maraschino, I added brandy as a second spirit. The resulting ABV is probably around 50 percent, which is my target.

Apart from the spirits, the ingredients are natural and mostly organic. For example, the lemons, oranges, and limes are all from my own garden. This is important, because commercial citrus may be sprayed with insecticides and coated with wax.

Lemons, February 2017. This tree provides all the lemons we need, year round.

Lemons, February 2017. This tree provides all the lemons we need, year round.

These bitters have a lovely reddish amber color, and they are GOOD. I am having some now in a Manhattan: 2 oz. bourbon, 1 oz. sweet vermouth, and at least a couple of dashes of Old Tom’s Aromatic Bitters. Yep!

Brown-headed cowbird.

Brown-Headed Cowbird

Brown-Headed Cowbird.

Brown-Headed Cowbird.

This dark-eyed little beauty appears to be a Brown-Headed Cowbird. Despite the finch-like bill, she is a kind of blackbird, the smallest in North America. The males are darker, with a metallic tint.

Like most blackbirds, cowbirds are social. But they have been chided for their seemingly Bohemian lifestyle. First, they are fully promiscuous, not pairing up like many birds. In the spring the female attracts a number of suitors, who hang out on treetops and whistle at her. It’s the avian version of bro culture. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these dudes are “noisy, making a multitude of clicks, whistles and chatter-like calls in addition to a flowing, gurgling song.”

The female will soon need a nest, and she looks around for a nice one, figuring why construct one when there are ready-mades around for the taking. Finding a suitable nest, she removes one of the existing eggs and replaces it with her own. Then she goes on her merry way, leaving the young to be raised by foster parents. Typically larger than the host, the young cowbird will crowd out and starve the other chicks. Meanwhile, the female keeps running around. She may lay three dozen eggs in a season, in as many nests.

I don’t think cowbirds are native to my coastal area. They have expanded from inland grasslands. According to the Audubon guide, “Centuries ago this bird probably followed bison herds on the Great Plains, feeding on insects flushed from the grass by the grazers…. Heavy parasitism by cowbirds has pushed some species to the status of ‘endangered’ and has probably hurt populations of some others.”

How to Make Vermouth, Part 1: Curated Resources

Martini & Rossi vermouth ad.

Martini & Rossi vermouth ad.

The first question about making vermouth, I suppose, is why?* It’s a two-part question, really. Why vermouth? And why homemade?

Vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with fruits and botanicals (herbs and spices). For general online information on vermouth, Vermouth 101 can’t be beat. A good print resource (particularly for the history of vermouth) is Adam Ford’s Vermouth: The revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture (2015).

The two main types are sweet and dry, the first historically associated with Italy, the second with France. Vermouth is an essential element in cocktails, from the Martini to the Manhattan to the Negroni to countless others. It was also once more popular as something to be drunk neat than seems to be the case today. A palatable vermouth makes possible lowering the alcoholic content of your drinks and cocktails. This can be a good thing.

You can easily find cheap commercial vermouths. Which is actually part of the problem. Vermouth goes bad fairly quickly, and if you start with stale, indifferent ingredients … well, it’s no wonder the drink has been slow to really engage an American audience. Top-quality vermouths, like most cocktail ingredients, will set you back a bit. Part of the fun of vermouth is making it with locally sourced botanicals. Stuff from the garden is the best.

The word vermouth comes from the French vermout, from the German Wermut, “wormwood.” By European law, all vermouth must contain wormwood. This herb, Artemesia absinthium, is one of the bitterest of all bittering agents. Famously, it is a key ingredient in absinthe. Making vermouth is similar to making cocktail bitters, in that it combines bittering and flavoring agents. But whereas cocktail bitters are usually around 60-68% ABV, vermouth is usually between 16 and 18% ABV (wine is usually around 11-14). It is a lightly alcoholic drink in which the main ingredient is wine.

In this post I will summarize some of the wisdom of the internet on making vermouth. In a future post I will discuss my own efforts. Techniques of making  DIY vermouth vary considerably, not just in the details of ingredients but even in fundamental approaches. You can do your own search and come up with a lot of results, but I’ve looked at quite a few of them and selected the ones I have found most helpful.  So here’s a curated and annotated guide to resources. Let’s begin with a little background about commercial production.

Background

As I mentioned above, check out Vermouth 101.

Alcademics.com, the website of Camper English, is generally a good source of information on alcoholic drinks. One page there offers a pictorial guide to some of the botanicals used in Italian vermouth.

English also visited a French vermouth producer, Noilly Prat. It’s interesting that this producer fortifies its wine with a lemon-raspberry eau de vie. He also discusses the differences among Noilly Prat’s various vermouths, and reveals some of the botanicals they use.

Finally, English gives some of the history and regulation of vermouth, based on a presentation by Giuseppe Gallo.

The Best Guides

Now for some approaches to making your own. A good place to start is with Jack Bevan, winner of the 2014 Young British Foodie Award in the alcohol category. His approach involves infusing botanicals much as one would do for bitters. He uses twenty botanicals in his vermouth, in the following proportions (weight is for the infused essences, not the raw materials): 15g angelica seed, 15g bay, 10g black peppercorn, 1g cardamom, 8.3g cinnamon, 0.5g clove, 15g coriander seed, 2g gentian root, 15g juniper berry, 5g marjoram, 5g nutmeg, 14.6g orange peel, 6g orris root powder, 4g quassia bark, 5g rosemary, 15g sage, 5g star anise, 5g vanilla pods, 4g wormwood, and 2g yarrow. He combines the infusions (he calls them teas) with wine and a caramel made by heating sugar in a fry pan. Bevan’s approach is a little different from many because the fortification of the wine comes entirely from the vodka used to make the herbal infusions. He mixes his materials by weight using kitchen scales so he can determine ABV by arithmetic. Assuming the wine is 12% ABV and the vodka 40% ABV (this is not specified), then 150ml infusions * .4 = 60 and 500ml wine * .12 = 60. and 120/650 = 18.5ABV.

(The Guardian’s guide to making “the perfect vermouth” is virtually identical to Bevan’s.)

Let’s next visit Amy Stewart, the Drunken Botanist (she also has a book of the same name). Rather than a specific recipe, she offers some general advice. For example, for fortifying the wine she recommends “brandy, grape eau-de-vie, cognac, grappa, even port or sherry.” She also adds fruit, such as “berries, peaches, apples, citrus,” which she infuses in brandy or another high-proof spirit for just two days. (Bevan infuses for two weeks.) She boils the fruit infusions in wine. Other ingredient suggestions include “gentian root, angelica root, cardamom pods, star anise, vanilla bean … oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, bay leaf, coriander, and wormwood. She adds caramel for sweet vermouth only, none for dry.

Masa Urushido and Nacho Jimenez, the head bartenders at Manhattan’s Saxon + Parole star in an illustrated vermouth-making guide from Munchies. They use a Riesling wine and infuse the bittering and flavoring botanicals directly in the wine for two weeks. Then they add an (unspecified) eau de vie and finally flavor with sugar and sea salt. This is the only recipe that adds salt. It seems a plausible recipe.

Meghan Boledovich, “staff forager” for Print, a restaurant on 11th avenue in Manhattan, talks about making vermouth based on a recipe from Sebastian Zutant of Proof restaurant in Washington, D.C. Like Stewart, she boils the botanicals in wine. She fortifies with sherry. Like most vermouth makers, she recommends Pinot Grigio or a similar wine, along with some other possibilities, for the wine base. She does not seem to add caramel. Her ingredients include wormwood, gentian root, chamomile, juniper berries, cinnamon, sage, cardamom, coriander, and orange and lemon rind. This is a nice, simple recipe.

Kelly Magyarics at Wine Enthusiast magazine also references the technique of Sebastian Zutant. He boils the botanicals in wine and then steeps the mixture overnight, then fortifies it with sherry. He uses Palo Cortado or Fino sherry for dry vermouth and sweet or cream sherry for sweet vermouth. He does not use caramel. This is a quick and simple method.

Flynn McLennan, Owner/Bartender at Kagura in Surry Hills, Sydney, Australia, combines the botanicals with the wine and vodka all at once and infuses the mixture for a month. His botanicals list is quite long.

J. J. Proville at starchefs.com offers a survey of different approaches to making vermouth. Like Stewart he describes a range of options rather than a particular recipe.

Of Lesser Interest

These links might be of interest, but I would start with the ones above.

Chris Tunstall at abarabove.com adds red wine to his vermouth. This is unusual. He also provides a video, but it’s not a demonstration, it’s just him talking.

Fiveandspice at Food52 offers a few basic tips along the lines of “don’t start with a wine you really don’t like.”

Serious Eats uses the boiling and caramel method.

This nicely illustrated guide by home vermouth makers  uses the boiling method. But the authors use a cheap chardonnay wine (Two-Buck Chuck), which does not seem a good idea to me.

Food and Wine infuses fruits for two days in brandy and adds the result to caramel. They boil the botanicals in rosé wine and and add to Port. Then they mix it all together.

Conclusions

It’s clear that there is a range of approaches to making vermouth. Of course the recipes differ in ingredients, but they also vary quite widely in how to infuse flavors, what to infuse them in, how to fortify the wine, whether to add caramelized sugar, and other issues. Which approach you choose is probably largely just a matter of personal preference (I’m not aware of any taste test comparing different approaches). But all of them are easily doable.

I’m a little skeptical of infusing with wine, because the low proof would be less effective in extracting the essential oils from the botanicals than higher proof spirits. Still, some may prefer subtle flavoring. For sweet vermouth, if using a sweet sherry to fortify the wine, as Sebastian Zutant does, gives good results, then this seems less fuss and bother than making caramel. I will try that. And as I already have quite a few infused tinctures, my approach will resemble that of  Jack Bevan. Stay tuned for more.

Let me know of good resources I have missed so that I can add them.


 

* Professor Irwin Corey, the world’s foremost authority, on why he wears tennis shoes: “Well, that’s a two-part question,” he began. “First you ask why. Well, why has been plaguing man since time immemorial. Statesman, philosophers, educators, teachers, scientists have been asking the ultimate why. And in these few moments allocated me, it would be ludicrous on my part—for the sake of brevity—to delve into the ultimate why. Do I wear sneakers? Yes.” Return to top of page.

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