Tom’s Garden

Growing by the Bay

Tag: bitters

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.

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters.

These turned out great. Most of the mole bitters recipes I could find (there aren’t a lot) were, I felt, too simple. That goes against the spirit of what mole is, which is a complex mix of many flavors. For my mole bitters I infused cacao nibs, vanilla bean, cinnamon, ancho chile, coriander, cloves, and allspice. I was pleased that the chile calibrated exactly right: not too hot, but not too timid either.

Some of my mole bitters ingredients

Some of my mole bitters ingredients.

I’m working on a second batch now. This time I think I will try gentian rather than wormwood as the bittering agent. Or come to think of it, reduce the wormwood and combine it with gentian. I will have to ponder the portions. Fortunately, I enjoy bitter flavors—wormwood is said to be the second most bitter drink, though I don’t know how scientific that appraisal is. It’s bitter, for sure.

In making bitters I cut the grain alcohol with another spirit to reduce the proof and round out the flavor. The result should be about 50 percent ABV. (Some people do this with a watery mash cooked up from the infused solids. This is hard to fathom. I believe Mark Bitterman, who says that this water extract “tastes bland at best.”) This time I used a light rum, which I thought would be the most versatile, but I might experiment with other spirits. I’m tempted to try sake.

Old Tom's Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label

Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters woozy bottle label.

I’ve started using woozy bottles rather than two-ounce dropper bottles (though those are great for airline carry-on). So for these larger bottles I used Avery 5164 labels.

The macaw image was taken in Antigua, Guatemala. Maximon is a Maya folk hero/deity (he’s pretty cool). Read about Maximon here.

I endorse this recipe!

2 oz tequila (I have silver, but reposado might be better)
Some maraschino liqueur (maybe a teaspoon)
One or two dashes of Old Tom’s Maximon Mole Bitters
One or two dashes of Tom’s Citrus Bitters
Sweeten to taste with agave nectar
Shake with ice and strain.
If you’re feeling fancy, garnish with a twist of lime

BTW, I don’t sell Old Tom’s Bitters (nor does anyone else). To execute the recipe you will have to make your own.

 

bitters

Bitters and health

bitters on desk

Bitters and tinctures on my desk

While we’re on the subject of bitters, it’s worth taking note of their health benefits, which include moderating blood sugar, improving digestion, and I think immortality–though I understand not all alternative health sites are 100 percent reliable, so I’m not certain about that last one.

Here are three sites on the topic that seem pretty good:

Andrew Weil: Why Bitter Is Better
“America is still probably the most sugar-philic and bitter-phobic culture the world has ever known…. But there is an appealing logic to consuming bitters for health….”

The Weston A Price Foundation: Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor
“Many of the diseases riddling our modern culture—from indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets….”

Jim McDonald: Blessed Bitters
“I am a firm believer in Bitter Deficiency Syndrome; a notion that posits that much of the health woes faced by modern folk has at its root a lack of bitter flavor in the diet; and that many of the digestive problems for which we see bitters as a “remedy” are actually symptoms of deficiency of this flavor….”

Delicious and good for you, with ingredients straight from the garden — how can you go wrong?

herbal bitters detail

Herbal Bitters Recipes

Tom's Herbal Bitters

A selection of Tom’s Herbal Bitters

For my next two batches of bitters I followed a base herbal bitters recipe from Mark Bitterman. He uses three bittering agents in his herbal bitters: I tsp gentian, 2 tsp quassia chips, 1 tbs hops, together with 2 tbs double strength simple syrup. He combines Everclear grain alcohol and botanical gin in the ratio of 4:1. No doubt it’s best to use the highest-quality herbal gin, but that stuff is pretty expensive, so I just used Rangpur Tanqueray, which seemed to work. To this base he simply combines fruit pieces and fresh herbs in fairly hefty quantities. I used basil and dried cherries in one and cilantro and lime in the other. These and other recipes can be found in his Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters 40 Amari 123 Recipes for Cocktails Food & Homemade Bitters (Andres McMeel, 2015).

I stopped infusing after 5 days. After that point the tannins start to dominate, and I didn’t want to lose the fresh herb and fruit flavors. I put the canning jars full of ingredients in a dark place and shook them several times a day. I strained the mixture through a gold coffee filter, and then through a funnel with a double layer of cheesecloth into two-ounce amber bottles with droppers. I chose the two-ounce bottles because I want to be able to carry some with me on airlines to give away. (I washed the bottles first with soap and water and then dried them as best I was able.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Canning jars in which herbs and fruit chunks are infusing. (Dates of preparation are are on the lids, not shown.)

Bitterman says that herbal bitters are especially good in cooking. A few drops of cherry bitters might be interesting with maple syrup buttermilk pancakes, I imagine. But I prefer them for savory cocktails using spirits like tequila, whisky, or gin. The cilantro lime bitters should work well with Mexican menus. The Bollard has some suggestions for tequila cocktails, and you can get some ideas from Yummly too. And there’s a Cherry Basil Collins recipe at Cocktail Puppy. Generally you have to be a little creative, since older recipes presume Angostura are the only bitters you can find (unless you’re in New Orleans and can get Peychaud’s). Now there are hundreds of commercials bitters as well as more people like me making their own.

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Some ingredients for herbal bitters

Happily, my limes seem to have survived our stretch of frosts. I don’t grow cherries, and I used dried cherries from the supermarket. I bought the dried herbs I didn’t grow myself from Lhasa Karnak in Berkeley — highly recommended.

I make my labels with 2 x 4 in. Avery labels, using InDesign template 5163. I size the background image first in Photoshop. The font is Garamond Premier Pro, the same I used in 1616: The World in Motion; River of Ink: Literature, History, Art; and many other books.

The Bitter Gardener

citrus bitters

Bitters are handy in cocktails and cooking — or even to just flavor water for drinking. This is my first batch of bitters, and the result is satisfying.

Making your own bitters means you have control over the ingredients. Most of mine come from the garden and are organic. More on that in another post.

You have solvents, bittering agents, and flavoring agents. You can make separate tinctures and then combine, or just throw everything in a single canning jar and hope for the best (which was my approach for this batch of citrus bitters). Making separate tinctures gives better control (different ingredients infuse at different rates), although it might be that the flavors combine better when infused together.

My main solvents were Everclear grain alcohol and  unfiltered semi-sweet sake (in a ration of about 2:1). I think next time I will try substituting mirin for the sake to get a result that is less cloudy.

My bittering agent was wormwood (the extremely bitter ingredient in absinthe). My flavors were lemon, bitter orange, lime, tangerine, cardamom, allspice, cloves, coriander, cinnamon, and anise seed.

You shake the jar every day for a week or so (most sites advise two weeks or more, but I feel Mark Bitterman — more on him in a moment — is right when he says a shorter time gives fresher, less tannic flavor. Then you strain, first through a gold coffee filter and then through cheesecloth, bottle, and label. Some people simmer the macerated ingredients and use the resulting water to cut the alchohol, but I see no advantage in that compared to cutting with a solvent with a lower ABV (in this case the sake).

I consulted many websites, but my main guides were Mark Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari and Will Budiaman’s Hardcrafted Bitters. I particularly like Bitterman.

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