Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vermouth Making a Splash with Craft Distillers

As we pulled into Lemelson winery Neil Kopplin, distiller of Imbue Vermouth, and I shared one of those rare surreal moments that remind you of your place in the world. Surrounded by the rolling hills of Oregon's Yamhill Valley we knew that we were about to participate in something special as the rolling fog lofted over the vines. Being part of the artisan spirits movement is nothing new to the northwest, but something in the air told me that we were on the cusp of something great.

In the last five to ten years we have seen beverage culture take great strides in most major markets. Boutique spirits began to pop up on the backbars of cocktail bars and finer restaurants alongside the 'bar wallpaper' of the big box spirits brands we grew up with. Bartenders began to experiment with new expressions and consumers began to expect more in their libations. Classic cocktails re-emerged with a vengence as did the comsumer's desire for high quality ingredients. Enter artisan vermouth, a fortified wine enhanced with botanicals essential to the Martini and Manhattan cocktails.

A few years ago, sitting on a rickety barstool in a small Chicago bar, I had my moment of epipheny. In came by way of a well made Manhattan, and what struck me was how simple but perfect the cocktail became when Carpano Antiqua Formula was introduced in lieu of el cheapo vermouth. To that point I'd only been exposed to what was avaialble in your average midwestern bar, be it Noilly Pratt sweet vermouth or what have you. Since then more and more bars began to mix with craft products like Carpano, as well as brands like Dolin and Vya vermouths, thus leading us to this misty morning in Western Oregon

"Imbue vermouth began as a quiet little idea over dinner with friends," notes Kopplin. "Who would've thought less than eight months later we'd be here bottling our own vermouth."

Imbue is seeking to capture what they recognize to be a growing niche in the beverage market by focusing on the locovoires of the Pacific Northwest. As a barman at Portland cocktail destination Clyde Common, Kopplin became accostomed to using the finest potables. After much recipe development and dialogue with business partner and winemaker Derek Einberger, they thought they'd try their hand at producing their own. If the local community embraces the first 112 cases of their reisling and grappa based aperitif, expansion to other markets may happen in the very near future.

Only the third domestic artisan vermouth to hit the market, Imbue is careful to learn from established models. Andrew Quady, winemaker and vermouth producer, is one producer that might warrent notice. Quady's 'Vya' vermouth is a favorite amongst bartenders due to its amped up herbacious notes and rich flavor profile.

Like Andrew Quady, Tad Seestedt of Ransome Spirits began as a winemaker prior to distilling spirits. Through interacting with Oregon bartenders as well as cocktail historian David Wondrich he decided to enter the market with small batch spirits that have become highly sought after. At a recent trip to Ransom's distillery in Sheridan, Oregon, Seestedt eluded to an interest in entering the burgeoning vermouth market.

"I still need to taste what's out there and fully research vermouth, but I'm really interested in seeing what we might be able to produce," he remarked to Oregon Bartenders Guild president David Shenault and myself.

Given the success of Ransom's Old Tom gin and its cousins Small's gin and Whippersnapper whiskey, it's expected that his vermouth will make a big splash. Owner of beverage industry consulting firm 'Live the Lush Life Productions', Lindsey Johnson, has seen artisan spirits take off in New York and San Francisco cocktail bars as well.

"I think it's education more than anything else. Companies that reach out to bartenders show they really care, that they're not just a faceless company," Johnson surmised.

In a section of the country where 'stay green, buy local' bumper stickers are as abundant as hipsters and micro breweries, it will be surprising if Imbue doesn't find its way behind the majority of Portland bars. Kopplin has plans for future releases, such as an Italian style vermouth and something that may create its own category altogether.

"We're really focusing on taking care of Portland first before we expand to other markets," Kopplin says emphatically.

It will be interesting to see the market trends of artisan spirits in the coming years, but rest assured the Pacific Northwest will be at the forefront of that trend. With the most micro-distilleries per capita of any city in the United states Portland is now host to one more product of the people, by the people and for the people.

"Everyone's hearts are in the right place. It will be a matter of time though until everyone is finished polishing their products," says Rocky Yeh of cocktail bar Vessel in Seattle.

Time will indeed tell, but in that time our glasses will be full and our barmen busy crafting potent potables with these unique expressions.

-Brandon Wise is a featured contributor of Daily Blender and presiding barman of Portand's Irving Street Kitchen.

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