About 15 years ago the owner of the cutting edge “foodie” restaurant that I was then employed at summoned all his employees to a mandatory weekday meeting. After the joy of spending my afternoon making about $10 wore off (the hourly wage in the restaurant business is certainly not why most of us do the job) he began his spiel.
“Everyone knows that the martini is fast becoming the most popular drink around,” he said.
We all nodded.
“I am going to make a vermouth,” he said. “It’s the next big thing.”
What he didn’t take into consideration was that people where moving towards vodka martinis and away from vermouth, in particular away from dry vermouth. Manhattan drinkers were (and still are) content to plunk up to a 50:50 ratio of sweet vermouth into their cocktails, but for dry vermouth, it soon became “just look at the bottle” or “ an extra, extra, dry vodka martini” which is really just a long way of saying chilled vodka.
Fast forward to today, and a whole new cocktail world. Gin is making a huge return, artisnal spirits are all the rage and yes, even dry vermouth is making a comeback.
“Sometimes it seems that I have been so painfully ahead of the times to seem as if I was actually behind them,” says Carl Sutton, 41, who owns Sutton Cellars in San Francisco. Sutton grew up in Monterey County, moved to Sonoma, started working at tiny winery in Penngrove and fell in love with the whole process of wine. Later he worked for both Cline and Deloach before starting the eponymous Sutton Cellars in 1996. After going through several locations in Sonoma County he moved to the American Industrial Center in San Francisco in 2010.
“I’m a winery,” he says. “Not a vineyard.”
Currently he makes a carignane, a syrah, a couple of Banyuls style dessert wines, and a dry vermouth. Although he owns no vineyards he says, “From the moment everything is harvested all the way through to the bottle I’m doing everything.”
It took three things for Sutton to branch off into vermouth. His wife bringing back three bottles of aperetivi from a trip to Italy; recognizing the limitations of his wine making license; and, his close proximity to both Anchor Distilling (Junipero gin) and the 209 Distillery.
“I wanted people to be able to have a truly local martini,” he says.
“There was already Carpano Antica, the benchmark for sweet,” Sutton says. “But with dry vermouth no one product stood out.”
The U.S. government classifies vermouth as an “aperitif wine” which has an alcoholic content of not less than 15 percent, and has “the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth.”
History tells us that red vermouth was invented in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Italy. It was followed in 1814 by the “dry” version invented by herbalist Joseph Noilly in France. Hence “dry” vermouth became known as “French” and “sweet” became known as “Italian”.
Sutton says there are three major flavor aromatic profiles for vermouth; floral, vegetal, and fruity. “I take the floral and fruity,” he says. For his vermouth Sutton takes a neutral white wine from Sonoma (the varietal is a trade secret) and macerates 17 different herbs in it for 10 to 14 days. He only admits to three ingredients; dried orange peel, chamomile and rosemary. He adds a bit of a previous batch (like sourdough bread) and fortifies the concoction with 170 proof neutral grape brandy bringing it up to 17 percent alcohol. Sutton’s Dry Vermouth is neither fined, nor filtered and contains no added sulfites. As a result he says, “Once in the consumers hand it should be kept cool,” in order to preserve it. Cool as in refrigerator cool.
“Would you open a bottle of chardonnay and leave it a room temperature for two weeks and expect it to taste right?” he asks. “Well don’t treat [any] vermouth that way either.”
Sutton’s result is a florally citrus vermouth with a brighter fresher flavor, something that is perfect on its own or with artisnal cocktails. For Sutton this might finally put him at exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Which is more than I can say for my previous boss.
Sutton Dry Vermouth ($20/750ml) is available at local Whole Foods Markets and through Sutton Cellars.