More than just a mixer: Australian vermouth comes of age

Dead Ringer bar manager Dominic Causley-Todd serves Regal Rogue vermouth over ice in Surry Hills, Sydney.
Dead Ringer bar manager Dominic Causley-Todd serves Regal Rogue vermouth over ice in Surry Hills, Sydney. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Vermouth is finally having its moment in Australia with local winemakers and distillers shifting it from a mixer and afterthought, to premium home bar must-have.

A fortified and aromatised wine, vermouth can be sweet, dry or bitter and found in cocktails such as the negroni, but a new movement of drinkers prefer it neat.

Best served as an aperitif, the vermouth boom is also bringing the pre-dinner drink ritual back, with more Australians keen to follow the Italians and Spaniards in the social habit.

Elise West, co-founder of Melbourne boutique vermouth brand Madlore.
Elise West, co-founder of Melbourne boutique vermouth brand Madlore. Photo: Scott McNaughton

Elise West and Josh Stilwell started boutique Melbourne vermouth brand Madlore in 2019. "We're all about refreshing the vermouth scene by bringing new flavours to the market," says West who works with native botanicals and makes her own fruit syrup for their range.

"It's all about a balance between fruitiness, acidity and botanical flavours that makes our vermouth pleasurable to drink on its own."

Madlore's popular Ode to the Green Fairy vermouth riffs on the delights of absinthe without the heavy booze load – it's best served over ice and never as a shot. West and Stilwell fuse herbs, spices, fruit and flowers with wine and wormwood in their contemporary nod to an ancient aperitivo.

Regal Rogue vermouth, which launched in 2011
Regal Rogue vermouth, which launched in 2011  Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

Today, there are around 20 vermouth distilleries in Australia, compared to just two 10 years ago: Maidenii and Regal Rogue.

Maidenii founders Shaun Byrne and winemaker Gilles Lapalus saw a gap in the Australian vermouth market in 2011 when they started experimenting with the drink, which has its roots in 18th century Italy. It was the pair's decision to source quality grapes and infuse the fruit with native botanicals that turned their curiosity into a lucrative business model.

"When we started making vermouth, 90 per cent of it ended up in cocktails," says Byrne.

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"Now we're seeing more people drinking it on its own. It's definitely where the drink trend is going in Australia. As gin has grown, so too has vermouth. Coincidence or not, there is evidence the two are working in tandem."

Mark Ward founded Regal Rogue around the same time Byrne and Lapalus were launching Maidenni. Using grapes from Orange in NSW, Regal Rogue's current selection of four vermouths will be certified organic by the end of 2021.

Ward agrees the days of just using vermouth in a cocktail are behind us. "It's finally being understood in the context of the great wine used as its base, and as a stunning liquid you don't need, or want, to mix to enjoy."

Embla chef Dave Verheul's seasonal Saison vermouth.
Embla chef Dave Verheul's seasonal Saison vermouth. Photo: Dave Verheul

In Melbourne, it took a lockdown to inspire owner-chef of Embla restaurant Dave Verheul to launch his Saison vermouth label. After serving small batches at his Russell Street restaurant, Verheul brings a new perspective to the distilling world with seasonality his key point of difference.

"I'm more about fruit and herb driven flavour profiles and focusing on one ingredient at a time," he says. "I approach vermouth making as I do food."

For his Fallen Quinces vermouth, Verheul showcased pineapple quinces grown near Seymour on the Goulburn River, plus saffron, blood orange, bay leaf, dried jasmine flower, rhubarb root and organic Australian wormwood.

Meanwhile, Adelaide Hills winemaker Brendan Carter of Unico Zelo has added a yuzu vermouth to his drinks portfolio. 7000 bottles are being manufactured this year, up from 1200 when he launched the vermouth three years ago.

"The rise of the artisan cocktail and distillation crowd has pushed vermouth's cause forward," says Carter.

"In the past decade, we've seen the rise of the natural wine movement … it's raised questions about how people want to drink their wine and in that conversation is vermouth. It's really taking the Australian wine narrative forward."

Five Australian vermouths to try

When it comes to shelf life, vermouth should be stored like wine, but poured like a spirit. Once a bottle is opened it will keep in the fridge for about 30 days.

Regal Rogue Vermouth Bold Red 16.5% ABV, 500ml, $33

One of the world's first dry red vermouths. Serve over ice with a wedge of fruit and add soda to your liking.

Unico Yuzu 16% ABV, 750ml, $35

Sweet vermouth from the Adelaide Hills full of Japanese citrus and exotic flavour. Serve chilled and neat.

Maidenii Dry Vermouth 19% ABV, 750ml, $45

Created with a classic martini in mind: that's one part vermouth and three parts gin, stirred over ice, strained and garnished.

Madlore Ode to the Green Fairy 16.2% ABV, 500ml, $44

Serve 45ml over a cube or two of ice for aromas of star anise, angelica root and coriander

Saison Vermouth

Dave Verheul's small batch vermouths are released seasonally and sell out fast. Follow Saison's Instagram for information on when Verheul's winter vermouth launches, this year starring unripe green walnuts.

with Callan Boys