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How to get into vermouth, with Dave Verheul

It’s the quiet achiever in a good Negroni, the unsung hero of every Martini, but now, vermouth is stepping out on its own – ready for its moment in the spotlight.

By Callum McDermott
Dave Verheul. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Vermouth is a key player in iconic cocktails such as the Martini, Negroni and the Manhattan, but in recent years, its role as an aperitif classic – enjoyed on its own, maybe with a splash of tonic or soda – has been pulled sharply back into focus. The bitter, fortified and aromatised wine is commonly enjoyed neat in Europe – especially in the Mediterranean; from Marseille's coastal cafés to the vermuterías of Barcelona.
"I'm not really sure why it's taken off here, but it most definitely has," says Dave Verheul. He's the chef and co-owner of legendary Melbourne wine bar Embla. In 2020, he founded Saison – a craft vermouth company that tailors its flavours to the seasons of the year.
"It really comes back to that aperitivo culture in those old European bars, like in the vermouth bars of Madrid," says Verheul. "Getting together early or late in the afternoon and just sharing a drink – it's a social occasion but [vermouth] is not something you're getting smashed on."
In Catalonia, "fer un vermut" is slang for a whole style of casual socialising (that sometimes doesn't even involve drinking vermouth). Gather a group, split a bottle of vermouth, serve it over ice in tumblers with garnishes of your choice and soda water on the side. And have it alongside anchovies, potato chips, olives and other snacks.
The word vermouth is derived from the German word for wormwood, "wermut." Wormwood is a medicinal herb which, beginning from the Medieval period, was commonly used as an aromatic bittering agent in various alcohols. Wormwood is what lends vermouth its distinctive bitter taste. Every vermouth has a different breakdown of aromatics – like how gins use different botanicals. At Saison, Verheul releases new batches roughly every three months, with ingredients that correspond to the seasons.
Its Black Walnut vermouth just released in time for the colder months. It's made with unripe walnuts, dried cumquat, chamomile, roasted barley koji and two kinds of Australian wormwood. Later on in the year you'll find a re-release of Summer Flowersmade with a Moscato base and a fruity and floral set of aromatics.
Many mass-made European vermouths rely on strong spices, colourants and caramels for uniform look and taste. In Australia, which is less tradition-bound, makers have more leeway to experiment.
"I started making vermouths years ago, just tinkering around in the kitchen," Verheul says.
"Making one out of cherries and their pits, and the wood and the leaves, then leaving it in the back cupboard for a year – and then the next year matching it with a cherry dish I was cooking."
"If you tried to do something like that in Italy, and you did it differently to how generations before you have done it, you might get your hand slapped,"says Verheul."But in a country like Australia, things can go a little bit weird for a while, but then you start creating something that's free from tradition, which is nice."
In 2020, due to the pandemic, Verheul used his time outside of the kitchen to give his vermouths a commercial crack. Saison was born. It joins a clutch of other Australian brands such as Maidenii, Regal Rogue and Madlore making their own takes on the fusty Euro classic. Small-batch vermouth is also becoming a popular side hustle for vineyards: in South Australia, Unico Zelo and Margan Wines have both released well-received vermouths made using their own grapes.
Because vermouth isn't a spirit, it has a short shelf life once it's been opened. You'll want to refrigerate it after opening it and consume it within one month – two tops. Otherwise it'll "oxidise and go bad, like the old Cinzanos and Noilly Prats your parents probably had stashed away in the back cupboard."
Although there's a panoply of vermouth subgenres, the two main categories: sweet vermouth, which is almost always red (so it's often called vermouth rosso); and dry vermouth – typically clear or pale yellow – still dominate.
Find a good bottle of sweet vermouth rosso, and you can use it in Negronis, or enjoy it neat or on the rocks (feel free to give it an orange twist or turn it into a spritz). If you have a nice bottle of dry vermouth, meanwhile, you can also have it on its own – twist it with lemon and garnish with a green olive – or deploy it in a Martini or a Negroni Bianco.
Regardless of how you sip it, getting into vermouth is a great gateway to a fun, easy-going style of drinking.
"Bitterness either resonates with you, or it doesn't," says Verheul. "People are very much one side or the other – but people that do like bitterness, I think they get very passionate about that world that vermouth can open up," he says.
"Once you get into bitter drinks there are just so many roads you can go down."

Five vermouths to try

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  • undefined: Callum McDermott