‘People Are Yearning for It’: The Rise and Potential of East Coast Vermouth | Wine Enthusiast
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‘People Are Yearning for It’: The Rise and Potential of East Coast Vermouth

When Bianca Miraglia started making vermouth in 2012, she had few American peers. “There was Andy [Quady] producing Vya and Carl Sutton [of Sutton Cellars], both in California. That was pretty much it,” says the founder, owner and sole employee of New York’s Uncouth Vermouth.

The archaic meaning of uncouth, Miraglia notes, is something rare, and her vermouths—in expressions as far ranging as wild raspberry, beet-eucalyptus, hops and serrano chile-lavender—are the antithesis of commercial vermouths. Made with naturally-sweet wine sourced from Long Island’s Red Hook Winery and Catawba grape brandy from Finger Lakes Distilling, Miraglia’s vermouths don’t require back-sweetening, a process that involves adding sugar after fermentation. The vermouths are designed to vary seasonally and from year to year, and she grows and forages 100% percent of Uncouth’s botanicals. To date, Miraglia has sold out of her category-bending vermouths every year, and this October, she’ll launch two focused vermouths, a dry and a sweet.

“I wasn’t trying to mimic anybody else’s vermouth,” says Miraglia of her success. “It’s not made to be recognizable. It’s made to taste like I make it.”

A decade in, Uncouth Vermouth remains a small, labor-intensive operation, with production peaking at 1,000 cases. But Uncouth’s influence—along with that of other early New York producers, including Channing Daughters and Atsby—is undeniable. While West Coast vermouth production had a head start in the late 90s and early aughts, today the East Coast is dotted with distinctive vermouth producers from Virginia to Northern Vermont. The category only continues to expand.

Yet marketing for vermouth can be tricky. As an aromatized and fortified wine, it’s essentially a cocktail unto itself. But in America, most vermouth gets mixed into cocktails like martinis, negronis and Manhattans.

Purists insist that vermouth be infused with wormwood, the same bittering agent found in absinthe. However, it can be flavored with any botanical, from mugwort (a wormwood relative) and bay leaves to black walnuts and black peppercorns. Despite the dominance of European brands like Dolin, Martini & Rossi, Carpano and Cinzano, whose flavors represent only a sliver of what’s possible, vermouth has nearly unlimited potential for variety and experimentation.

“One of the most fun things about vermouth, and something the general public could easily appreciate, is the broad selection of flavors,” says Will Clark, owner of New York’s Little City Vermouth. “The range is so much greater than in so many other categories.”

Entering via Cocktail Culture

Little City Vermouth
Image Courtesy of Little City Vermouth

Clark, a drummer by trade and avid home bartender, first started making syrups, bitters, shrubs and grenadine for fun in his home kitchen in Harlem.

“I didn’t even realize you could make vermouth,” he says. Eventually, Clark fell under vermouth’s siren song, and bartender friends began requesting bottles to play with. They encouraged Clark to launch his own label, and out of naivete, he says, Little City was born in 2018.

Clark now makes 600 to 700 cases a year in the Finger Lakes region of New York. He relies on hybrid Cayuga white grapes for his base wine and unaged brandy to develop botanical tinctures and fortify his vermouth.

Little City’s dry vermouth leans toward a traditional French style, with botanicals such as coriander, thyme, juniper, rosemary, parsley, citrus peel, lemongrass, chamomile, jasmine flower, angelica root and cassia wood. Clark says it’s ideal in a 50-50 Martini, estimating that 90% of his product, distributed exclusively in New York, gets consumed in cocktails.

Vermont Vermouth
Image Courtesy of Vermont Vermouth

Kobey Shwayder, owner of Vermont Vermouth in Brattleboro, says that cocktail bars increasingly seek out local vermouths.

“At any Vermont bar, you could get a dozen Vermont gins, but they were still pulling out Martini & Rossi,” says Shwayder. “I think we’re at a place, where it’s like, do we want to make the best products in the world, or something that tastes of this area and is unique to our territory?”

Shwayder chose the latter. Launched in 2020, Vermont Vermouth has five varieties: the herbal, dry and martini-friendly Zephyr; floral Thalia rosé; cider-based Harvest (technically an aperitif); bittersweet, Italian-style Hesper (great in a Rob Roy); and sweet, Spanish-style Boreas.

He sources the majority of his herbs from Foster Farm Botanicals in Calais, VT, and his wine comes from upstate New York.

Winemaking Success Gives Rise to Regional Vermouth

Flying Fox bottles
Flying Fox launced in 2017 / Image Courtesy of Kate Simon Photography

According to industry trade group WineAmerica, New York produced the third most wine in the country in 2018, just behind California and Washington. And over the last decade, Mid-Atlantic states Virginia (No. 8), Pennsylvania (No.10) and Maryland increased output and started to earn a reputation for quality winemaking.

Only recently has some of that juice been diverted for vermouth. 

Flying Fox launched in 2017 as a sister project to Veritas Wines in Afton, VA. “We had been wanting to expand our range into a fortified or aromatized wine for a little while to be able to bridge the gap into the spirits industry,” says Elliott Watkins, associate winemaker at Veritas.

Like Miraglia, Flying Fox’s goal isn’t consistency. It uses different base wines every year, which have varied from Pinot Gris, Viognier and Cabernet Franc, and it produces four sweet styles to represent the Virginia seasons.

Its latest spring vermouth was infused with wormwood, plus local strawberries and rhubarb. Meanwhile, summer bottles taste of Virginia peaches, wild heather and elderberry and angelica root.

Five years ago, Flying Fox made 60 cases of each vermouth, and now they’re up to 450 a year. “With every ‘vintage’ we release, we sell out faster and faster,” says Watkins, who runs Flying Fox with Veritas winemaker Emily Hodson and general manager George Hodson.

Fell to Earth
Fell to Earth is Philadelphia’s first vermoutheria / Image Courtesy of Fell to Earth

Tim Kweeder and Zach Morris of Bloomsday Cafe in Philadelphia hope to soon open Fell to Earth as the city’s first dedicated vermoutheria. The duo is currently on the hunt for a commercial space and applying for a winery license. In the meantime, they’re working with Vox Vinetti winery in southeastern Pennsylvania to make and distribute small-batch, hyper seasonal vermouths.

In the future, they’ll technically be able to produce their own base wine, but Kweeder and Morris plan to continue to tap into regional wineries that may have excess juice or even flawed wine that might benefit from a botanical punch.

For a recent batch, those add-ins included juniper, black raspberry and hibiscus; they’ve also experimented with trifoliate (a hybrid citrus), Concord grape skins and persimmons—with most of the botanicals coming from Pennsylvania’s Green Meadow Farms.

A pandemic-era project, Kweeder and Morris first dubbed their vermouth Dumpster Juice, which will live on as an irreverent sub-brand. Fell to Earth will be their grown-up line, consistent for consumers and easy for bartenders to use in cocktails. Dumpster Juice will remain experimental, and taking a cue from craft brewing, Kweeder and Morris envision collaborating with wine friends all over the country.

“It’ll be an attention grabber, a bit weird,” says Morris. “If people take a chance on it, whether they like it or it’s the perfect thing for a cocktail, that’s not what it was designed to do. Dumpster Juice is a joke that has persisted to broaden people’s vermouth horizons.”

Expanding the Notion of What Vermouth Can Be

Lincoln and Main Vermouth
Lincoln & Maine is a mis of all the owner’s “obsessions” / Image Courtesy of MJR Production

If there’s any doubt the world of vermouth is expanding, look no further than Portland, ME, where RAS Wines makes A7 Americano, a blueberry wine-based vermouth. The city is also home to Lincoln & Maine, an electric bike café/vermoutheria and a “center of obsessions” for owners Thaddeus St. John and Doug Watts. “It’s all the things I like to do: have a coffee, go for a bike ride and come back and have a vermouth spritz,” says St. John.

The vermouth at Lincoln & Maine is made with locally abundant rhubarb, which St. John and Watts co-ferment with a small quantity of native grapes that grow outside their cafe. They infuse the wine with eight botanicals—among them, cinnamon, cinchona bark, orange rind and gentian—and age the vermouth with wooden staves in a 400-gallon “mother tank.” They call the technique an “Americanized” solera method, for which different batches and ages of vermouth are blended.

“We did 250 variations of bad vermouth before we found the right one,” says St. John.

Farther north in Vermont, Eleanor Leger’s vermouth-adjacent line of cider aperitifs started more than a decade ago with “a happy accident,” she says.

Leger and her husband, Albert, own Eden Specialty Ciders. In addition to single-orchard ciders and heirloom blends, the couple produces ice cider in a process that involves freezing and concentrating apple juice over the winter. Four years into their venture, they ended up with 250 gallons of unusable concentrated juice. Rather than dump it, they pitched in Champagne yeast with plans to boost the alcohol by volume (ABV) and send it to a distiller.

Instead, when they returned to the juice the next summer, they found that they had a lovely 16% ABV cider. Deirdre Heekin, a friend who had just written Libation: A Bitter Alchemy and now owns La Garagista Farm & Winery in Vermont, suggested that the Legers make vermouth.

Eden-La Garagista Orleans Aperitifs is now available in three varieties. Herbal, with basil and anise hyssop, came first in 2010. It was followed in 2013 by Bitter (with red currant juice, gentian root, angelic root, dandelion root and dandelion leaf) and Wood (wormwood, spruce, sweet gale bay leaf, wild mint and raw honey) in 2015.

Leger knew they were onto something when cocktail bar Please Don’t Tell used Herbal in a cocktail.

“The stuff that’s industrial is awful at this point,” she says. “People are looking for things that are local and minimally processed with flavors that are so much more complex.”

Embracing Aperitivo Culture

Casa Carmen
Casa Carmen makes two vermouths / Image Courtesy of Little Casa Carmen

If the value proposition of quality, locally sourced, distinct, cocktail appropriate vermouths isn’t enough to sway drinkers, Morris of Fell to Earth says, “a trip to Spain will fix anybody.”

Enrique Pallares was born in Ecuador and lived in Argentina and Spain before heading to California wine country. These days, he’s settled in Southern Chester County, PA, where he and his brother Felipe live on a small farm with vineyards and a new field for growing botanicals. Having experienced vermouth culture first-hand, drinking house-made vermouths over ice in tiny Spanish bars, the Pallares have a distinct point of view on the drink.

Through their Casa Carmen label, the brothers make two vermouths: barrel-aged, black walnut-infused Tender Is the Night and sweet Spanish-style white The Sun Also Rises, both made from a blend of hybrid Vidal Blanc and Grüner Veltliner. Distributed in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia, Casa Carmen also has a dedicated vermoutheria (complete with sardines, cheese and charcuterie) in Chestertown, MD.

Additionally, the Pallares family collaborates with winemaker John Levenberg and Lea Loizos at Baltimore’s The Wine Collective, an urban winery that sources grapes from a 100-mile radius to make everything from pétillant naturels to rosé vermouth. The vermouth is Aperol-esque, says Pallares, with orange, cinchona bark, chamomile, juniper berries, clove, gentian and galangal.

Wine Collective also offers canned vermouth spritzes and will release two additional vermouth expressions in the fall. One is a nod to Cynar, while the second will be a lemony, floral and dry white vermouth.

Pallares says that a significant number of customers are thrilled to find locally made vermouth. He believes it’s part of a grander trend toward interest in and acceptance of craft vermouth.

“People are yearning for it,” he says. “They’ve all gone to Spain, Portugal and France. They tell me they just got back from Barcelona, and they’re open to drinking vermouth over ice with a tin of mussels and bread.”

Pallares is happy to transport them back to Western Europe through his East Coast vermouth. “It’s my mission in life to get America to drink vermouth,” he says.

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