By Bethany Ruhe
Pittsburgh Current Associate Publisher
Spirits tend to fall in and out of favor.
For a while, martini bars were all the rage; then, anything infused with something else was hot. After that, bourbon experienced a huge surge in popularity. Could the next big spirit to capture hearts and palettes be… Vermouth?
If Don Mahaney, proprietor of Scratch Food and Beverage has his way, yes, Vermouth is going to be your next favorite drink.
Vermouth is a fortified wine, meaning another distilled spirit has been added to it. It’s also aromatized, so it’s flavored with herbs, flowers, or other natural ingredients. If you ask most Americans if they’ve heard of Vermouth, it’s usually as either an ingredient in a martini or Negroni, or as something to cook with.
But as is the case with so many other things in America, that’s not how it works in Europe. Spain, Italy and France have all been producing high-quality, coveted Vermouths for years. And now, it’s spilling its way across the ‘pond’, and Mahaney is here to help you properly understand and appreciate this quirky beverage.
In a lot of ways, Mahaney’s experience with Vermouth was probably pretty close to yours. “I was tasting sherry one day,” he said, “and the vendor who brought it, on a whim, introduced me to a Vermouth by the same company (Lustau, from Spain). It was like Santa handed me a present, himself. I was blown away. But I had no idea what it was I was drinking. My experiences with Vermouth had not seeded ANY fond memories.”
Same. And this is why I approached a Vermouth tasting he hosted at Scratch on September 10 with a healthy amount of trepidation and antacids.
Turns out, I could have left both at home. What I found was an array of colors, tastes, and flavor profiles that were more complex and satisfying than I could have ever anticipated.
We started in Spain with a Lustau Vermouth Rojo, a sweet, warm red Vermouth that’s a favorite of Mahaney: “It’s fantastic on it’s own (Lustau Rojo over ice with anchovies in olive oil is to die for), and it’s a perfect complement to base spirits in a bevy of classics.” (I skipped the anchovies because there is only so much experimenting I can handle at one sitting).
We tried an Italian Baglio Baita Alagna Vermouth Bianca, as well as a more tongue-coating Baglia Rosso. Mahaney explained that Italian Vermouths were best for ‘situational sipping’, and truly shined when incorporated into a cocktail.
There was also a very wine-like French La Quintinye Vermouth Royal, and even an American version, Lofi, which had very strong notes of anise and fennel, with a sweet, cherry bark finish.
Lead bartender Josh Bordini also whipped up some cocktail samples, and this is where the Vermouth shined the most. We sampled El Pechecote, Manhattan Port Calling, and their newest brunch drink, an Apple Cider Mimosa.
While all of the Vermouths stood on their own, much better than I would have ever thought, they truly make a cocktail magical.
And don’t expect that to come to an end anytime soon. According to Mahaney, the mad Vermouth experiments are nonstop. “We are toying with what Vermouth to pair with Vodka, Gin, Bourbon, Mezcal—we’ve got a doozy we are working on with Wahaka Mezcal—that is a real treat. We will be rolling out new drinks that will feature Vermouth in one way or another over the next few weeks, and they will make up our fall menu.”
The warmth that you get from sipping Vermouth lends itself perfectly to Fall. The anchovies? Well. That’s up to you.