We had a visit from Michael Kaplan of Great British Vermouth Ltd this week. I had always assumed vermouth-making was an alpine exercise, or something to be accomplished in the vineyards of France or cellars of northern Italy. According to Michael, not only is the etymology of the word vermouth Old English (dating back as far as the 5th century!), this temperate land is also particularly well-placed to create the fortified aromatised wine, which finds its way into several classic cocktail recipes. The white wine base that the company use at their base in Edinburgh is from the chalky South Downs. The other components are English neutral grain spirit and 24 bitter aromatic herbs.
Michael goes on. “Britain is, botanically, the most gifted country in the world from the point of view of its wild herbs, and the flavours that you can gather from it. The range of environments means that you are working with splendid, but varied flavours. And the British tradition of herbalism means that a lot of people are experienced in how you extract the flavours from those herbs in the best possible way.”
Some of the vermouth’s 24 herbs are foraged, others – including the defining wormwood Artemesia absinthium – are cultivated specially in association with local business, the Secret Herb Garden. We were surprised and delighted to hear about our role in Michael’s original inspiration.
“The interest in this actually came from tasting The Botanist. All of the flavours there are just so exciting, and so lovely, and are within arm’s length. They’re growing under our feet; they come from our country. So there’s no need to send to France for a vermouth. The owners of the Secret Herb Garden is a friend of friends, who said, ‘We grow all this here; it’s here! Let’s do this, starting tomorrow.’ So, we started tomorrow… We did a lot of research, a lot of testing, keeping each herb infusion separate. We were making 250ml batches to different concentrations of different things. Eventually, around the thirtieth experiment, we said yes, that’s the one that works, and then we scaled it up.”
We asked Michael what he was looking for, exactly, in terms of the breadth and depth of the flavours he was playing with.
“The wine itself is very neutral, so you’re thinking, what wine notes should we add, what fruit? How are we going to make the acidity more sophisticated, so it’s not just acid? So herbs can give you those lemony touches and so on; it’s a bit like making a scent, you’re thinking about woody notes, citrus, floral, and of course also the bitterness.
“Vermouth thrives on bitterness, but the bitterness has to have content. Humans distinguish about 50 different bitter flavours, so you can actually play with bitternesses, just as you play with more obvious flavour. Bitter tastes can be short or long, hot or cool, and they’re more earthy, more spicy, those sorts of things. You’ll taste each in slightly different places on your tongue. And I think the reason we distinguish them is that many of the compounds in herbs are beneficial, but others are toxic, so your response to them is either ‘this is a bitterness I like’ or ‘this is a bitterness I need to spit out now’. People are sophisticated in this field, pretty much through natural selection.”
See more on The Great British Vermouth website >
Read a fantastic article from @MarkWildFood about foraged vermouth >
New cocktail recipe using #GBvermouth here >