Make mine an English vermouth
Phoebe Hunt tastes the latest tipple from British distilleries
READING through the list of botanicals on a bottle of Asterley Bros English Sweet Vermouth is a little like reading a potions book. Yarrow, angelica, hyssop and burdock. Chickweed, fennel, Devil’s claw… the list goes on. In total, the bittersweet liqueur features 31 infused botanicals, as many of them as possible sourced in the UK. Vermouth is an historic aperitif traditionally imported from Italy (of the sweeter, more syrupy variety used in negronis) or France (dry, savoury and better for martinis). Almost all vermouth has a base of white wine, often fortified with brandy, then infused with herbs and spices. To be called vermouth in Europe, the drink must contain wormwood, a greenish-grey perennial plant grown in the UK.
With the explosion in the craft-gin market over the past 10 years, an appreciation for provenance and the distillation process of spirits has grown among drinkers. Learning to savour and seek out gin’s many aromatics has opened our eyes to vermouth and prompted the rediscovery of historic recipes. Forms of medicinal wine have been drunk for millennia, but the herbal aperitif as we know it dates back to 18th-century France and northern Italy. The pre-dinner tipple is a key element in every negroni, martini and Manhattan, yet we’re only just appreciating its versatility.
The first British vermouth makers were husband-andwife team Hilary Whitney and Ian Hart, who started producing it from their north London home in 2012. Their company, Sacred Spirits, was also a forerunner of the British gin movement and the couple saw vermouth as a natural progression for those developing a taste for stronger cocktails. ‘Ian has always loved English wines and wanted to combine this with the distilling knowledge we’d gained from gin,’ Hilary explains. ‘The skill in vermouth is getting the recipe just right and we’re constantly tweaking, adding and taking away different botanicals. Our wormwood, thyme and savoury are all grown organically in Somerset. We sometimes have terrible trouble with rabbits eating the wormwood! The peach, plum and apricot stones we use are a by-product from jam makers. It’s a real labour of love.’
For brothers Jim and Rob Berry, the vermouth journey began with an historic Sicilian amaro recipe handed down by Rob’s wife’s grandfather. Vermouth started out for them as merely part of the amaro process, but they quickly realised it was going to be their star product. They founded Asterley Bros in 2014, putting a British spin on the botanicals list and blending their own digestifs. ‘Both vermouth and amaro are a real expression of local terroir,’ notes Rob. ‘They utilise ingredients that grow on your doorstep —flowers, barks, herbs and berries—which is why regions in Italy have such different profiles. Take the Alpine, juniper-led vermouths in the north, compared with the Arabic spices, citrus fruit and soft herbs of a Sicilian vermouth. We knew we wanted to use English wine, so we started working with Gusbourne estate in Kent.’
The difference between dry and sweet vermouth comes from the sugar content, of course, but is also characterised by the wine base and botanicals used. Sacred Spirits’ white vermouth is bone dry, using a grape blend from Three Choirs vineyard in Gloucestershire and peppery, herbaceous aromatics designed for a martini. For its Schofield’s Dry, Asterley Bros chose a blend of English wines bolstered with fresh aromatics, such as elderflower and lime leaf —again, ideal mixed with gin.
Sweet Vermouth Rosso, on the other hand, has a deep ruby-red colour from added caramel and is a key ingredient of a negroni. It’s usually still made with white wine, although Asterley Bros breaks the rulebook by using a Pinot Noir base, with bold notes of cacao, orange and rosemary to stand up to the tannins.
With homemade cocktails more popular than ever, both sweet and dry vermouth are drinkscabinet essentials for anyone with a penchant for mixology.
More than this, the versatile aperitif is equally delicious drunk with soda or tonic and a slice of citrus fruit as a low-alcoholic tipple.
All in all, homespun vermouth is the spirit du jour in the UK.