Marvellous stuff, wormwood. The fragrant, bitter-tasting, green-grey leaves of the Artemisia absinthium plant have been used for millennia to treat tummy ache and to stimulate appetite. And throughout history, one of the most popular methods of wormwood ingestion has been in vinous form: the ancient Greeks used to steep the herb in wine; the Germans, Italians and French refined the drink in the Middle Ages, giving it the name vermutwein (after wermuth, the German word for wormwood). Its modern descendant is infused with other botanicals as well as wormwood, and has enjoyed bursts of popularity, first during the cocktail era in the early 20th century and again right now.
"I love all that history," says sommelier Rebecca Lines, who late last year opened Australia's first vermouth bar and bistro, Banksii, with her husband, chef Hamish Ingham, at Sydney's Barangaroo. "And I love that in traditional European vermouth-drinking countries like France and Italy and Spain, it's crossed over into the food, too: people drink it as an apéritif, and they'll also cook with it. It means both Hamish and I can play with all the different flavours - him in the kitchen, me behind the bar."
Lines has assembled a collection of vermouths from around the world: as well as well-known labels such as France's Noilly Prat (most famous as an essential Martini ingredient) and Italy's Punt e Mes, there are Australian examples from Maidenii, Regal Rogue, Castagna and Causes & Cures (all of which we've reviewed) and an array of small-batch vermouths from Spain (including one from sherry house Lustau, barrel-aged for 10 years), California and England.
Banksii has a fully stocked bar and impressive wine list, too, but Lines has been pleasantly surprised by how many people have run with her theme and now drink vermouth when they visit, whiling away a lazy couple of hours working their way through the different styles.
"Sometimes I get people coming in who aren't so sure about it," says Lines. "They'll tell me they remember trying vermouth when they were younger and thinking it wasn't very nice. But that's because it was probably a bottle that'd been sitting around on their parents' drinks trolley for a couple of years and was horribly oxidised and stale - of course it wasn't very nice. So then I pour them some of the rosé vermouth I have on tap that I blended up with the Maidenii guys - it's light, fresh, not too bitter, a crisp daytime-drinking vermouth - and they try it and they're hooked."
Lines started her hospitality career working as a bartender, which is where she first discovered vermouth - as an ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Negroni and the Manhattan. But then the more she worked on the other side of the bar as a sommelier, the more she wondered why this sometimes deliciously complex and satisfying drink wasn't appreciated on its own, like wine - as it is in Europe.
It's no coincidence that winemakers are driving the resurgence of Australian vermouth: the creator is free to include whatever botanicals he or she chooses - which appeals to the playful, tinkering spirit of the thoughtful winemaker. As well as the labels mentioned already, other recent arrivals include the Margan sémillonbased off-dry vermouth from the Hunter Valley, and Ravensworth winemaker Bryan Martin's Outlandish Claims range of "bitter tonics". (More new labels are due for release this year, including an estate-grown vermouth from riesling producer Crawford River, which I'm very much looking forward to.)
"The idea was to make a drink that can be enjoyed just straight up or on ice," says Martin. "The base wine is a grenache I made in 2014: light and pretty but lacking distinction. I macerated the bitters in it first - gentian, orris root and angelica. Then added mostly Aussie botanicals - quandong, Davidson plum, anise myrtle, wattleseed, pepperberry. This was matured for a bit over a year. I could have left it as is, but I wanted to add some freshness at bottling to give it a just-made cocktail feel. So I put the zest of blood oranges and flowers from the garden into a sugar syrup, macerated that for a couple of days, strained it and added it to the wine."
The result is a tangy, bitter, multilayered experience best sipped neat, chilled, alongside a serve of Hamish Ingham's rich chicken pâté and muntrie jam at Banksii.
"It's a fun side project," says Martin, a former chef. "It makes me feel like I'm on the pans again."