Vermouth: Dusty No More

Before quality commercial vermouths were widely available, industrious bartenders like Taste’s Ted Kilgore made their own. Now, other burgeoning bartenders around town are trying their hands at house-made versions of the fortified wine, putting another notch on their craft cocktail belts.

Five months ago, T.S. Ferguson began preparing blanc (dry white) and rouge (sweet red) vermouths at Medianoche, the evenings-only restaurant in Clayton that was recently replaced by another, Little Country Gentleman. While Ferguson was influenced by France and Italy – the originators of vermouth – he noted that he is trying to use his own flavors to create his own style. “Most people shy away from the V word because it’s too many dusty bottles on the bar,” he explained. “Cocchi [Americano], Antica Formula, Barolo Chinato: They are so embedded in ancient tradition that they don’t pay homage to the modern palate or style of modern cocktail making … Why use 200-year-old recipes?”

Then, there’s the L Word. “Why not have a local product that is on par or better than the stuff sold in the stores?” he questioned. “The vermouth I make is pretty solid. I can alter the recipe depending on what I am doing. I can make a summery vermouth, fall vermouth, wintery vermouth. It gives me complete control.” As head barman at Little Country Gentleman, Ferguson is now offering his house-made vermouth in cocktails like No. 1, where it works in harmony with rye whiskey, Green Chartreuse, Calvados, Luxardo Fernet and Creole bitters.

Ferguson’s desire to offer apertifs that both fit within a 21st-century context and meet the demands for all things local epitomizes the recent growth of the domestic vermouth market. Artisanal U.S.-born vermouths like Imbue and Vya now sit on shelves at bar and liquor stores, with a handful more coming down the pipeline.

But Ferguson isn’t the only one itching to fiddle with a vermouth formula. This summer, Cory Cuff began making experimental batches of dry and sweet blanc, with hopes of soon serving them at Cielo. Why go through the trouble? “To push myself,” responded Cuff. “It’s for my development – and this bar’s development. This is the next step.”

Justin Cardwell echoed a similar sentiment regarding the house-made sweet rouge he’s working on to soon appear in cocktails at BC’s Kitchen in Lake St. Louis, where he is the bar manager. “There are such well-made vermouths nowadays and aggressive pricing that make it almost inessential to have a house-made vermouth, especially when you have multiple styles and structures at your disposal. It’s something for the burgeoning bartender to learn the structure and technique and history.”