The vermouth section at Discount Liquor,
which boasts more than 30 varieties.
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
Not so long ago, if
the question was vermouth, the answer was sweet or dry. White or
red. And chances are, there was just one green-bottled brand.
Today if you stroll the vermouth aisle of Discount
Liquor, there are more than 30 different vermouths. “Vermouth is
very popular,” says Paul Nash, spirits buyer for the Milwaukee
store. “It’s no longer just red or white. There’s rosé. Some have
(special) herbs and spices, and some are aged.”
And some vermouths are not just small batch, craft
vermouths — they’re one-of-a-kind, homemade vermouths. In Milwaukee,
a handful of bars make their own, but arguably the most notable is
Vermutería 600, the bar attached to Hotel Madrid, which is perhaps
the only place in the country that not only makes its own vermouth,
but serves it on draft.
Vermouth is basically a spiced wine fortified by
brandy, port or sherry, and to officially be considered a vermouth,
one of the spices or herbs has to be wormwood, says Daniel Beres,
beverage director for Stand Eat Drink Hospitality Group, which owns
Vermutería 600. Locally, wormwood can be purchased at The Natural
Food Shop on South 13th Street.
“I recommend adding the spices to the brandy, not the
wine,” Beres says. “We use brandy because its higher alcohol content
extracts the spices better, and you don’t have to worry about
anything breaking down or not turning out as well.”
The house vermouth at Vermutería 600 contains dozens
of herbs and spices, including vanilla, cocoa nibs, cinnamon (three
types: Saigon, Cassia and Ceylon), green and black cardamom pods,
coriander, caraway seeds and Turkish bay leaves. “If you have dark
flavors like vanilla and cocoa, then you definitely want to add some
lemon or orange peels to add some brightness and acidity,” Beres
To infuse the brandy — and Beres suggests using a
nice, but not-too-expensive brandy — buy a whipping cream canister
with a nitrogen cartridge from a kitchen supply store or online,
then purchase a hops bag from a brewing supply company like
Milwaukee-based Northern Brewer. Put the herbs in the bag, then put
the bag and the brandy into the canister, and let it sit for 24
hours. “Then you’ll get this nice, pungent, flavorful brandy that
will knock your socks off,” Beres says.
After the brandy is infused, add wine and caramelized
or burnt sugar syrup. To make the burnt sugar, heat sugar in a
stainless steel pot until it melts, then carefully pour in an equal
amount of water. Stir, and let it cool. Then, for a red or sweet
vermouth, mix together 2 parts white wine, 1 part caramelized sugar
and ½ part infused brandy. “You get the color from the caramelized
sugar, not the wine,” Beres explains.
For a drier vermouth, simply cut the sugar by
one-third or one-half, Beres suggests. If you don’t have a whipped
cream canister, you can let the herbs and spices infuse the brandy
in a glass jar, shaking it once a day, and letting it infuse at room
temperature for a week or two. And if you decide not to use a hops
bag, strain the brandy through a cheese cloth before mixing it with
the wine and sugar. “Taste it every day until you get the flavor
profile you want,” Beres advises.
For a longer and deeper infusion, home enthusiasts
might also consider infusing the brandy and spices in a small
barrel, which Discount Liquor is now selling for people who want to
make their own spirits or barrel-aged cocktails. “They come charred,
and they’re in 3- or 5-liter sizes,” Nash says.
A Guide to a Good
The tools every at-home bar aficionado should invest
» A good shaker. One that fits in your hand and is
easy to separate into two halves.
» A jigger with easily discernible measurements. Or a
small, 4-ounce measuring cup, with discernible 2-, 1½-, ¾-, ½- and
» A bar spoon.
» Strainers: hawthorne, tea and julep. Or just borrow
the tea strainer from your kitchen.
» Zester and knife — or again, just borrow from your
» Glasses: two rocks and two martini glasses to
» Optional: fun, large ice cube trays.