More than 200 years ago, wine drinkers in Turin and Marseille started adding bittering and flavouring botanicals to wine fortified with spirit, to make an entirely new drink. The styles they created—a sweeter, reddish-brown style in Italy and a drier white-wine version in France—are iconic today, and collectively known as vermouth, a term that comes from the root word for wormwood, which is synonymous in many languages with “bitter.”
Now enjoying a renaissance thanks to cocktail mixology and the Spanish-driven trend for sipping them solo or as a spritz, vermouths should have a place on your back bar. (Actually, in your fridge, where a red vermouth will stay fresh for several months, and white vermouth for several weeks after opening.) Here are three new and three favourite B.C. bottlings to try.
The Alchemist’s tasting panel revels in the complexities of made-in-B.C. amaros, vermouths and aperitifs
Consider them the supporting actors of the cocktail world: complex, helpful and a little bitter. Vermouths, aperitifs and amaros are typically fortified wines—though some are sweet enough to be considered liqueurs—flavoured with botanicals such as citrus peel, spices, roots and herbs. They typically have a somewhat bitter profile, hence the name “amaro,” which means bitter in Italian.
It takes a sophisticated palate to appreciate a good bitter drink, so not too surprisingly, Vancouver bartenders were eager to sample the best of B.C. amaros. We sat down with Alex Black of Tableau Bar Bistro, Amber Bruce of The Keefer Bar, cocktail consultant Sabrine Dhaliwal, Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia and The Botanist’s Jeff Savage to get at the bitter truth.
Before the team at Botanist installed the bar top, creative beverage director Grant Sceney “bought a drink for the next generation of bartenders” by embedding a bottled cocktail, a handwritten note and a copy of the first bar menu inside the bar itself. This is the cocktail they left for the future: an updated version of the classic Vancouver cocktail. “We’ve made the Vancouver Cocktail as Vancouver as we can,” says Sceney.
We asked some top B.C. bartenders which bottle of local spirits they would put on their Christmas list
Lead Bartender, L’Abattoir Restaurant
I’d pick Okanagan Spirits Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky. It is a Scotch-style single malt made with 100 per cent B.C. malted barley using French and American oak, and finished in Okanagan wine barrels. The nose is unbelievable with plum, vanilla, raisins, berries, poached pears, nuts, and classic oak characteristics that continue on the palate. It has a dry finish with a hint of sweet vanilla and baking spices. I would make a twist on a Rob Roy — a Rodney’s Roy — with 2 oz. Laird of Fintry,
0.3 oz. Noilly Prat Rouge,
0.3 oz. Noilly Prat Ambre and two dashes Bittered Sling Cascade Celery Bitters.
Peter Van de Reep
Bar Manager, Upstairs at Campagnolo
Odd Society Bittersweet Vermouth, please. This is a wonderful example of the new style of vermouth being produced in North America: bitter, herbaceous and very complex, with a dominant tree bark and citrus peel character. It’s very versatile in cocktails and delicious on its own. I’d whip up a Mile Zero, a dark and brooding cocktail, perfect for a cold, rainy Vancouver night: 1 oz. Bulleit Rye, 1 oz. Odd Society Bittersweet Vermouth, 0.75 oz. Luxardo Amaro Abano. Stir all ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Bar Manager, Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar
Queensborough Small Batch Dry Gin from Central City Brewers & Distillers. I love its crispness, balanced juniper, light citrus notes and spruce tip flavour. It’s a great Pacific Northwest gin. If it’s in my stocking, I will definitely be making a Gibson Wet Martini —one of my all time favourite cocktails. I like a Wet Martini only if the gin is strong and flavourful enough to stand up to the vermouth and Queensborough fits the bill. Come Christmas, I will share a few of these with my wife, while wearing my favourite sweater, and with my big dogs by my side.
Bar Manager, West Restaurant
Sons of Vancouver No. 82 Amaretto. I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth and it is by far the best amaretto I’ve ever tried. Excellently balanced with the flavors of vanilla bean, orange peel and blackberry honey. I’m almost finished my test bottle so it would be great to find another in my Christmas stocking. I’ve found it pairs incredibly well with a smoky scotch. So, I created The Godfather of Vancouver, a take on the classic Godfather cocktail, using Sons of Vancouver Amaretto, 10-year-old Ardbeg, 10-year-old Glenmorangie, and a lemon twist to finish. It’s my new favorite thing!
Bar Manager, Forage
I’ll take The Woods Spirit Co. Amaro, because they love local like we love local here at Forage, and it’s a spirit that is super user-friendly in cocktails. I’d make a Forage Negroni: 1.5 oz. Sheringham Seaside Gin, 1 oz. The Woods Spirit Co. Amaro, and 0.5 oz. Odd Society Bittersweet Vermouth. You can’t get more local than that!
Bar Manager, OLO Restaurant, Victoria
It would have been a bottle of de Vine’s Glen Saanich Single Malt, but as it’s sold out, I’ll have to wait until next Christmas. Meanwhile, I’ll happily settle for a bottle of their Moderna Vermouth. It’s a great example of the direction B.C. distilling is going, utilizing local ingredients and being creative with Old World recipes. I’d go with a Christmas Morning B.C. Martinez, with equal parts Legend Distilling Black Moon smoked rosemary gin and Moderna Vermouth, a splash of Okanagan Spirits Maraschino Liqueur, and a dash or two of Bittered Sling Moondog Bitters.
Head Bartender, Juniper Restaurant & Bar
I would like a bottle of Sheringham Seaside Gin because I love the delicious briny notes that come from the winged sea kelp, one of its key botanicals. I used to go surfing near where the distillery is located on Vancouver Island, so those coastal flavours evoke fond memories for me. My first drink would be the Islander G&T we serve at Juniper: 1.5 oz. Sheringham Seaside Gin, a dash of Bittered Sling Cascade Celery Bitters and Fever Tree Indian Tonic Water.
The concept of “farm-to-table” isn’t new for B.C. restaurants. What’s served from behind the wood is now also joining the sustainable locavore movement for a more complete offering. Brad Holmes, owner and executive chef at Olo in Victoria, has long been a vocal proponent of this movement, and his cocktail program reflects that. “Our whole restaurant is seasonal; the menu changes with what’s available on any given day and season. I always wanted to bring that to the bar. And now, with all of the great gins and vermouths and other local products, we can offer something that was grown in B.C., produced in B.C. and served in B.C.”