Sure, I’m familiar with vermouth…it’s that mixer in the green bottle pushed to the back of the liquor cabinet that plays a supporting role in martinis and manhattans. The alcohol that, along with Galliano, has a shelf life longer than Twinkies. The perpetual cocktail bridesmaid – never the bride.
How very wrong I’ve been.
I discovered vermouth – real vermouth – a few months ago at Amar Santana’s Vaca restaurant. He’s managed to elevate this non-descript mixer into something sublime – it’s house-made, poured from the tap, served on the rocks and garnished with a thick slice of orange zest. And it tastes like…well…on my first sip, I proclaimed it tasted like, “Thanksgiving and Christmas all rolled into one.” His version is redolent of warming spices – cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, slightly sweet with hints of vanilla, and tertiary notes of herb (sage? thyme?) and orange.
Thus began my quest to make my own vermouth at home. Vermouth, I’ve discovered, is aromatized, fortified wine; wine that has been infused with herbs and spices (aromatized) and has alcohol (in this case, Sherry) added to it (fortified). The sweet version of vermouth also has caramelized sugar added. My final version below is a world away from Vaca’s recipe ( I can aspire!), but still quite tasty; similar to higher-end bottled vermouth I’ve sampled in recent months – like an Amaro – a bit sweet, a bit bitter, and loaded with spices and herbs.
The first thing you’ll notice is there’s a daunting list of ingredients. But don’t be deterred, the actual hands-on time is about 30 minutes total once you have your supplies. My recommendation is to order your herbs and spices online from a reputable retailer (I bought mine from Monterey Bay Spice Company) and the remaining ingredients can be purchased from a well-stocked grocery store.
Homemade Vermouth Recipe
The perfect aperitivo – a bit sweet, a bit bitter and loaded with spices and herbs. Play with the proportions to highlight your favorite spice.
- 5 green cardamom pods
- 7 whole cloves
- 2 star anise
- 6 juniper berries
- ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
- ½ teaspoon wormwood
- ½ teaspoon chamomile flowers
- ¼ teaspoon dried sage leaves
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- Entire zest of an orange, peeled using a potato peeler
- 2 strips of zest from a lemon, peeled using a potato peeler
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- Scraped seeds from ½ vanilla bean
- 1 bottle light white wine such as Pinot Grigio (I use Tesoro della Regina)
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1 cup sweet Sherry (I use Osborn Cream Sherry)
- Crush cardamom pods, cloves, star anise, juniper berries, and coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle. Scrape them into a medium stock pot. Add wormwood, chamomile, sage, nutmeg, orange zest, lemon zest, cinnamon sticks, and vanilla seeds. Pour white wine over ingredients, bring to boil, remove from heat, cover with lid and let steep for 24 hours.
- In a small pan, make a caramel by combining sugar with 2 Tablespoons of water. Cook over medium heat, without stirring, until caramel is dark golden. Carefully add sherry to caramel – the caramel will bubble and splash. If the addition of Sherry causes the caramel to harden, return to stove to re-melt the caramel.
- Strain and squeeze the wine mixture well through a coffee filter or two layers of cheese cloth. Add the Sherry mixture and stir to combine. Serve on the rocks with an orange zest.