You wouldn't have heard this 20 years ago, but Atlanta bartenders increasingly are shouting it out: Vermouth is the truth. Or, as Staplehouse bar manager Melissa Davis put it, vermouth is "the best thing on the planet. Ever."
In 2000, you’d be lucky to find much more than a dusty bottle of Martini & Rossi behind a bar or in a bottle shop. But, at some of Atlanta’s top bars today, you’ll find an array of unfamiliar bottles, often with elaborate labels that hark back centuries, hailing from producers that, even a few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find outside Mediterranean climes like Sicily, Corsica and Catalonia.
Empire State South offers 11 types of aromatized wines (including vermouth and its close cousins, quinquina and Americano, which employ quinine and gentian, rather than wormwood, as primary botanicals). At Decatur Package Store, you’ll find 20 brands on the shelves, ready to be poured over ice or mixed into a cocktail.
Why the upswing? The cocktail resurgence drove demand for high quality vermouths, given their critical role in classic drinks like the Manhattan and martini. Ambitious importers like Haus Alpenz started scouring Europe for the best. Names like Carpano, whose signature Antica Formula vermouth was developed in 1786, started showing up on cocktail menus. And, now, bartenders and drinkers alike are catching on to the breadth of alluring aromatized wines based on different grapes, terroirs, blends of botanicals, fortification methods and even aging regimens.
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Jeff Banks, bar manager at C. Ellet's, and formerly with Savannah Distributing Co., chalks it up to bartender demand, but, also, having distributors willing to take on the many new options entering the market. At Savannah Distributing, Banks said, "we had 30-something different vermouths. It's a crazy category right now that is growing exponentially."
Kellie Thorn, beverage director at Empire State South, echoed Banks. "There are so many lovely expressions and varied styles (of aromatized wines) out there. They're essentially cocktails in a bottle, so great on their own, on the rocks, with soda."
While many of the new-to-Atlanta vermouths date back centuries, Thorn is featuring a brand-new vermouth out of Athens (Greece, not Georgia) called Otto’s. “It’s a pink vermouth with hints of rose petal, some savory notes, and a wonderful balance of bitter and sweet. It’s great for warm weather.”
Another of Thorn’s favorites is Mattei Cap Corse Blanc. Technically, it’s a quinquina, rather than a vermouth, and has been made in Corsica since 1872. But, it only recently hit the U.S. market.
Across town, in Oakhurst, Scout beverage director Nate Shuman concurred with Thorn. "When I first tried Mattei Cap Corse Blanc, it blew my freaking mind. Light gold in color, it has a really bright nose of citrus, salt and minerals, along with fresh flowers and dried green herbs. The flavors are huge, but not overwhelming." He recommends it simply chilled.
The vermouth carafe at 8Arm is one of beverage director Joshua Fryer’s favorite things on the menu. “It’s a great aperitivo for two or three people to split while lounging on the patio,” Fryer said. He tops off the dark and brooding Casa Mariol Vermut Negre with Topo Chico, and garnishes it with bright green Castelvetrano olives and slices of fresh orange, as you might find in the bars of Barcelona.
On the cocktail front, Greg Best at Ticonderoga Club long has shone a light on vermouth for its depth of flavor, combined with a low alcohol content (most clock in between 16 percent and 17 percent). When it came time to choose the right vermouth for the bar's definitive take on the classic Manhattan, the relatively rare Alessio Vermouth Chinato won out in repeated blind tastings over the more commonly seen Carpano Antica and Cocchi Vermouth de Torino. "No other vermouth had the gumption and depth to stand up to our chosen high-proof whiskey in a way that was complementary as well as congruent," Best said.
Best summed up the current state of vermouth in Atlanta: “I’m happy to say that knowledge and consumption of vermouth is way up. My hat is off to the dedicated producers, distributors and fellow barkeeps and sommeliers that have tirelessly fought to bring these amazing flavors and unique bottled experiences back into the culinary limelight.”
Best bets for buying vermouth
When buying vermouth and other aromatized wines, remember that, just like wine, they decline once opened. Vermouth is consumed best within weeks — not months or years. Refrigeration is recommended, and half bottles are a great way to try a new vermouth and make sure it is gone before it loses its luster.
Picks from Decatur Package Store owner Herb Chereck:
• La Quintinye, from France, in blanc, dry and rouge — 375 milliliters for $18, 750 milliliters for $27. “Their blanc is flavorful, yet less sweet, and the rouge has a soft herbal flavor with nice vanilla and savory notes.”
• Dogliotti, from Italy, in dry and rosso — 1 liter for $30. “They use DOCG estate Barbera d’Asti for the rosso and single vineyard Moscato for the dry, and don’t add any sugar; both are very complex.”
• Berto Ross da Travaj, from Italy – 1 liter for $13. “Huge alpine herbs, but still retains balance; the best part is that it’s ridiculously affordable.”
Decatur Package Store. 1220 Clairmont Road, Decatur. 404-633-5250, decaturpackagestore.com.
Picks from Barcelona Vinoteca General Manager Katie Rice:
• Casa Mariol Vermut Negre, from Spain — 1 liter for $28. “My go-to Spanish vermouth, the one that converted me to a true believer; great as an aperitif.”
• Otto’s Athens Vermouth, from Greece — 750 milliliters for $25. “Super aromatic and herbal, refreshingly complex.”
Barcelona VinoTeca. 299 N. Highland Ave. NE, Atlanta. 470-377-5100, shopvinoteca.com.