Vermouth: what’s all the fuss about?

by Julian Davies

As we stand, and notwithstanding the coronavirus pandemic, it seems like vermouth has a real chance of being “the next big thing” in alcohol. Some people think that mantle will be passed from gin to rum, others that rum has already reached a peak. Gin has definitely hit a peak of some form or other, in the UK at least, signified by the crazy amount of new distilleries opening in the UK, and some frankly bizarre flavoured “innovations” coming out from panicked major producers.
Within this context vermouth has been ticking along nicely, like the less glamorous batsman in a high-scoring partnership: there, relied on, but not given much airtime… Most people have heard of it, or have some vague understanding, or use it in cooking, but it’s chronically underrated in our opinion at Ostara!

What is vermouth?
Vermouth, basically, is fortified (and flavoured) wine. That’s perhaps not a very glamorous description. To our mind, it could be explained as a cross between wine and gin: leaning on grape varietals, terroirs and vintages in the same way that wine producers do, with the added fun of a melange of herbs and spices in the same way that gin distillers work. It’s the original pre-batched cocktail really, with the best vermouths offering a full rollercoaster of flavour on the palate at each sip.

UK history
Vermouth has a somewhat chequered history in the UK. Actually, it was extremely popular in Tudor and Elizabethan times. We don’t have a resident historian here at Ostara yet, but some might surmise that this popularity was due to necessity: evidence suggests that the French would only send us poor quality wine, which by the time it reached London was off. So, necessity being the mother of invention, people would add various herbs and spices to disguise the off flavours. In the winter, people would often warm this concoction; mulled wine anyone!?
During the 18th century we got a bit faster at transporting better wine from the continent. We also drank quite a lot of port via our allies in Portugal. Then, without getting bogged down in continental politics of the period (Brexit being more than enough of a headache...), for many tariff, military and cultural reasons we drank much less wine and were encouraged to drink more beer and gin during the latter 18th and 19th centuries. For anyone keen to know more it’s all about The Corn Laws and Napoleon of France’s Continental System – but that’s for another blog… For all these reasons vermouth was by and large forgotten until the 1960’s or so, apart from the odd negative mention from famous gin drinkers like Winston Churchill.
In the 60’s, Martini (which is a vermouth…) brand advertising evoked the glamorous Mediterranean, not always in a completely sexist way, but with a style that can sometimes grate against our views on equality today. However, even despite these efforts vermouth was – sadly in our opinion – often the poor relation in cocktails, frequently overlooked by drinkers in favour of gin, and by and large forgotten. Certainly as our founder was growing up in the 80s and 90s many households had a bottle of Noilly Prat or Martini gathering dust in the cocktail cabinet, with not much prospect of getting used any time soon!

A revival on the cards?
However, as cocktail culture continued to grow in the UK, and as the early 2000s heralded a renaissance in gin, vermouth has gradually started to become more interesting in other spirits’ slipstreams and be seen on more cocktail menus across town. Internationally, brands like Belsazar (from Germany, now part of Diageo’s portfolio) and Regal Rogue from Australia have borrowed from gin cues, used customer interest in provenance, locale, and their search for authentic brands to great effect, really starting to invigorate the category as a whole. In the UK the growth of vermouth has been somewhat slower but led by some interesting distillers like Sacred (who create vermouths to complement their gin range) in Highgate, North London, which is championed by the likes of the legendary Alessandro Palazzi, head bartender at Duke’s Hotel, Mayfair, green shoots of something special can be noticed by those in the know. In no small part this is also due to the vast improvements in English wine over the last few years, and Ostara is the lucky beneficiary of these improvements.

What does this mean for Ostara?
Ostara is an English vermouth, crafted with care using English wine and a gorgeous concoction of hedgerow botanicals you’d find in any corner of the country if you knew where to look. It is of its place, proudly so, and yet pays homage to centuries of history of continental vermouths. It is true to the style but aims to be more drinkable, more accessible, and more versatile. It is primarily designed to be drunk neat or over ice, or maybe with tonic or soda, as we believe it has enough flavour to stand up to the scrutiny of wine and cocktail lovers just on its own in a glass. It hopes to be at the front of a wave of English Vermouths, and we hope you love it as much as we do! We’ve had a positive start, and we hope that with the continued support of drinks writers, bartenders, and our community of vermouth lovers, that the future looks bright.