Monday, October 8, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit Weekend, Part I: How to Make Vermouth

This past weekend heralded the first ever Boston Cocktail Summit, and yours truly was certainly not going to be one to pass on such festivities.  The event kicked off on Thursday with a bevy of events at various locations throughout Boston, ranging from beverage destinations like The Hawthorne and Silvertone's to more  unique venues such as the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum and Circle Furniture.  Sadly, my schedule was tight on Thursday, but I managed get to one event, a seminar on Making Your Own Vermouth held at Island Creek Oyster Bar and taught by some of the faces behind Eastern Standard, Island Creek, and The Hawthorne.

Jackson Cannon, co-owner of The Hawthorne, and bar manager for Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar started out the seminar with a little background on what inspired him and his cohorts to first dabble in the art of making homemade vermouths, a primer on vermouth itself, and a description of the elements and basic process for fashioning a homemade vermouth.  Joining Jackson as speakers were some of the other big names in the Hawthorne-Eastern Standard-Island Creek trinity:  Kevin Martin, bar manager for Eastern Standard; Nicole Lebedevitch, head bartender at the Hawthorne; Bob McCoy, Beverage Programs Liason for The Hawthorne and Island Creek; and Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, General Manager at Island Creek Oyster Bar.

As with many of the homemade ingredients that have found their way into bars in recent years (like bitters and syrups, and perhaps most notably Amer Picon replicas), Jackson and company's forays were first inspired by the inability to get certain existing products because they were not distributed in the U.S.  Notable examples given were Carpano Antica Formulare sweet vermouth (now available in the U.S.) and Noilly Pratt's Ambre vermouth (still not available).  Apparently, once upon a time, there was a house party where musings about the lack of such things led to Tom cooking up some vermouth in the kitchen.  The results?  Well, interestingly enough, one of Jackson's observations about various homemade vermouth experiments was that in terms of creating exact replicas, they were largely failures; nobody was going to mistake the home cooked product for the original.  However, what Jackson and company also discovered was that their home cooked concoctions were delicious in their own right, with often vibrant flavor profiles that made for creative cocktail ingredients.

During the next part of the presentation, Kevin went through a demonstration of actually cooking up some of the Eastern Standard house Rosé vermouth.  At a high level, the process involved preparing two heated components, a set of bittering agents and other herbs for flavor heated to a boil in a batch of base wine mixed with port, and a batch of sugar and water that is heated and caramelized (the caramelization helps bring the appropriate texture and mouth feel the final product) .  The caramelized sugar is carefully dissolved in brandy (the fortifying agent), combined with the herb-wine-port mix and two additional bottles of wine, and some orange zest is added on top.  This final mix would normally then be left to rest for about a day and then be strained and bottled.  Later in the presentation, Kevin took an audience member and had him go through the process to cook up a second batch of vermouth.  The audience meanwhile got to sample both this final product and the Martini & Rossi product that was the inspiration, as well as several cocktails that featured house made vermouths.

Jackson presenting while Kevin cooks



Kevin overseeing an audience member giving it a try


Some other useful tidbits I gleamed from the presentation:

  • The best base wines are quality, less expressive wines (merlots, cabs, and Sauvignon Blancs do not work well, whereas something like a grenache does)
  • Making sure the sugar does not fall out of suspension is key when caramelizing and blending
  • Homemade dry and bianco vermouths are harder to produce successfully
  • Variations can be made by using a different type of sugar (though some are more challenging), using different herbs and bittering agents, and playing with the brandy phase either with flavoring or using  vacuum seal heating which can quickly produce results akin to substantially longer extraction periods.
And that's how I spent some of my Thursday afternoon.  Definitely a great presentation, and one of my favorite seminars from the Summit.  Much, much more to come soon.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about vermouth in general, I strongly recommend checking out vermouth101.com.


Cheers!





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