Growing by the Bay

Month: February 2017

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.”

detail of old San Bernabé vermouth label

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 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.


As I mentioned above, check out Vermouth 101., 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 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 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.


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.

Plain Titmouse.

Plain Titmouse

Plain Titmouse.

Plain Titmouse.

Continuing with our bird theme, we see here a Plain Titmouse, occupying the same iochroma bush that yesterday’s Chestnut-Backed Chickadee was perched on. This poor guy is saddled with the “Plain” moniker because, despite being “the sole titmouse in most of the West,” according to Peterson’s field guide, he is “the only one without distinctive markings.”

Okay, so he’s not all pimped up like some tropical show-off. He’s still a handsome little guy, with his perky head crest. He’s sharp in a range of always fashionable gray tones, set off with just a touch of white highlighting. Plus he’s got personality! Here he is wrestling with a pretty big seed, and you know it’s going to crack, no problem.

He gets along pretty well with the chickadees, but when push comes to shove, he’s the boss of that particular bush. He gets first dibs on the choicest morsels, when he cares to exercise his authority. Maybe that’s because he is, relatively speaking, a bruiser, busting the tape at a little better than five inches in length, maybe a quarter of an inch bigger than the chickadees. Why, he could probably hold his own with a sparrow if he had to! But he’s not pushy about it. I guess there’s plenty for everyone.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Chestnut-Backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee.

A chickadee couple has joined the titmouse outside the study window. This one is on one of the iochromas. Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds says that “the cap, bib, and white cheeks identify it as a chickadee,” while the chestnut back identifies the particular species of chickadee. Both the Peterson and the Audubon guides say it prefers moist habitats, such as Northwest rain forests. As it has rained here most days in January and February this year, I guess the chickadees have determined our drought is over.

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

Plant Propagation System

Propagating seeds with heat lamp, rapid rooter plus, and LED grow lights.

Propagating seeds with heat lamp, rapid rooter plus, and LED grow lights.

Until I complete my greenhouse (still in the fantasy stage) I won’t have a lot of space for plant propagation. But I do have a small but effective system for germinating seeds and rotating them into the garden. The system consists of a flat, a 50-cell tray, a ventilated dome, a heat mat, and small LED grow lights. This is a much smaller system than the ones you often see for sale, but it’s enough to keep me busy potting up seedlings.

Rapid Rooter plugs.

Rapid Rooter plugs.

I’m using Rapid Rooter plugs, a soilless sponge-like planting medium from General Hydroponics. The plugs have a small hole on the top. According to the manufacturer, they are a “unique matrix of composted materials bonded together with plant-derived polymers. Rapid Rooter provides the optimal air-to-water ratio within the plug matrix resulting in explosive early root growth.” The plugs are said to be organic, and I hope that is so. A main reason that I like these is that they are clean and neat. My tray is in the kitchen, and I like that these do not create any kind of mess. In addition, they seem to germinate seeds more successfully and faster than other media. (They can also be used for cuttings.) The picture below shows the tray just a few days after planting. This tray mainly has Asian vegetables from the Kitizawa Seed Co.; I will have more to say about that later.

The main downsides of the plugs are that they are a bit expensive and can’t really be reused. Instead, once the plant is rooted the entire plug is put into the soil. Also, the plugs sometimes seem to sort of float up in the garden  rather than remaining level with the surround soil. I’m thinking about a way to improve that. (BTW, most of the information on the web about these is about growing cannabis. But that is one thing I do not grow.)

The plugs should be watered when they start to dry out. At first I was overwatering, and I started to get mold. Of course, as this is essentially a hydroponic rooting system, you never want the plugs to dry out.

Until the sprouts come up, I run a small heat mat to warm the plugs. It’s supposed to warm the rooting material by about 5 degrees over the ambient temperature. This is helpful for the majority of seeds. After the seedlings come up I turn off the mat.

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

Propagation tray showing seedlings and labels.

I had a problem with the seedlings being leggy. This makes them floppy and weak at the base. It’s a sign of insufficient light. To solve this I purchased a small LED grow light. I knew I wanted LED for low heat and low energy usage. Even then the really strong systems are quite bright, large, and expensive (I supposed that’s what you’d want if you had a big operation growing cannabis or something.) For my purposes this little dual-head 10-watt desk clip grow lamp seems to be working fine. It costs less than thirty dollars. It emphasizes the red and blue ranges of the light spectrum because that is what the plants utilize best. As I understand, full-spectrum daylight grow lights, by contrast, are wasteful of energy.

I’m currently using little bamboo plant labels at this stage. For long-lasting labels in the garden I use zinc labels that react chemically with carbon pencils. Everything else eventually fades.

I find a book from the American Horticultural Society a good resource on plant propagation (I also have their excellent garden encyclopedia).

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