2020 was a dumpster fire of a year, so it’s only fitting that career wine educator and Bloomsday Café co-owner Zachary Morris went ahead and made Dumpster Juice vermouth. After tinkering with vermouth recipes for years, Morris saw Pennsylvania’s bar shutdown as an opportunity to get creative about reducing waste and promoting local ingredients. By partnering with Pennsylvania’s Vox Vineti winery, Bloomsday began cranking out batches of Dumpster Juice vermouth in playful CapriSun-like pouches to cater to the new demand for to-go cocktails. What started as a pandemic shortcut has turned into one of Morris’s more profitable ideas.
For Vox Vineti’s Ed Lazzerini, the biggest advantage of the Bloomsday Cafe vermouth collaboration is that it enables the winery “to craft something special out of the occasional estate-grown wine that doesn’t fit stylistically into Vox Vineti’s customary portfolio.” This allows Vox Vineti to maintain product and quality consistency across the brand without sacrificing wine that might still be used. Lazzerini and Morris work together several times each growing season to create a new vermouth that fits Bloomsday’s cocktail portfolio with the vintages and varietals that Vox Vineti has to spare.
“With a by-the-glass program and a cocktail program, you have lots of spent citrus that you can use, from zest or peel [to] whole citrus,” says Morris. You have a lot of botanicals that are elements of a cocktail, and you have plenty of ‘floaters,’ or leftover wine that’s at risk of oxidizing.”
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Faced with bottles of about-to-turn wine, citrus, aromatics, and spices, many bar programs are realizing the chance to create their own house vermouths in a simple process that turns what might be waste into profit.
Kevin Peterson’s scientific background helps him hone in on a perfect formula for vermouth at his Detroit bar, Castalia, a unique space that functions as a perfumery by day and transforms into an intimate cocktail bar at night. Peterson and bartender James Hodge worked together on the bar’s multitude of tinctures, tinkering with various formulas and, as a result, began examining the science behind vermouth. The variety of botanicals, herbs, and spices already used in Castalia’s tinctures helped Peterson whip up several different types of vermouth, all displaying the spirit’s characteristically complex notes.
Making perishable wine into slightly less perishable vermouth is a battle against time. “There are three big enemies of flavor: light, heat, and oxygen. Especially in the scent realm, the idea is that oxygen can be a fairly reactive molecule, and when it gets into the liquid, it can pull atoms off of existing flavor or scent molecules and turn them into something else,” explains Peterson. “And the way that that happens in fragrance is that a lot of times your lightest and brightest notes are the ones that are most susceptible to being attacked by oxygen.”
Adding a higher-proof spirit to wine halts the oxidation process before it can advance and spoil the flavor; other elements, including wormwood, also have antioxidant properties. “I recognize that I’m not saving the planet by creating vermouth but it’s an exercise in reminding yourself of those values,” Morris says. “And vermouth is purely that. It is a waste-streaming dream. It exists because you’re trying to save things that would otherwise go bad.”
Morris and Peterson both encourage using locally made wine, as well as herbs and aromatics native to your region. Besides resulting in a vermouth that is unique to its region, using local plants sourced from neighbors decreases its environmental footprint.
How to Make Your Own Vermouth
To make your own vermouth, mix wine and a mostly neutral spirit (unflavored vodka and brandy are both safe choices) in an 8-to-1 ratio. A proper vermouth will clock in somewhere between 15 and 18 percent alcohol by volume.
Next, combine aromatics, citrus, and spices in a fine-grained tea bag for easy straining. Traditional Italian vermouth requires that one element be from the Artemisia absintum family, the most common of which are mugwort and wormwood. And don’t worry: Wormwood does not cause hallucinations. Rosemary, cardamom, anise, sage, juniper, and gentian are also commonly found in vermouth; baking spices work, too, in small doses. Cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla can be great, but will quickly overpower the flavor.
Afterward, place your wine and fortifying spirit in a sealable container. Add the tea bag with infusion ingredients and seal tightly, and place the container in the refrigerator. Once per day, open and adjust to taste by adding or removing some ingredients. The vermouth should be ready to drink after about a week, but practicing a little patience will enhance flavors.
Want to speed up the process? Peterson has a chemical shortcut: If you have a sous vide, try putting all the elements together at 150 degrees for about an hour and a half. “Normally, a tincture would take something like two weeks to extract the flavor out of the botanical,” he says. “But if you do it this way you can go from two weeks down to about 90 minutes.”