Bartenders pride themselves on their unflappability, being able to dispense a triple shot of Fernet with the same cool mien as a bottle of Bud. But if you want to see a barman’s chill exterior crumble, here’s a suggestion — order four shots of vermouth, up, with a lemon water chaser to clear your palate. Chances are good that the mask will slip for a moment as he or she pours the syrupy concoctions into shot glasses and lays them before you.

The reason for my vermouth flight was simple: I was gearing up to taste Atsby, a small batch vermouth that recently hit the market, and figured that, in order to write a fair review, I would need to sample the competition. This didn’t seem like a particularly big sacrifice at the time. A few hours later, as I dealt with a stomachful of syrup and a bad case of sugar shock, I rethought my strategy.

My notes from that evening are a little depressing: syrupy sweet, with notes of film canister…tastes like corn syrup served from a metal canteen…

It isn’t hard to figure out why vermouth has such a bad reputation — not to mention flavor. Most blends are made with bland wine, boosted with grain alcohol and inexpensive sweeteners. While the herbs and botanical flavorings tend to be trade secrets, the low price and questionable flavor of the standard vermouth suggest that most producers aren’t using top-of-the-line ingredients.

Franzia mixed with dulce de leche…eye makeup remover with hints of thyme and caramel…

It doesn’t have to be like this. Vermouth has an impressive pedigree: it takes its name from the German word for wormwood, the key ingredient in absinthe. In fact, for years, it was the only legal source for thujone, the psychoactive compound that gives the green fairy her wings. This may help explain why the martini, perhaps the most lyricized of all the classic cocktails, has a reputation as an aphrodisiac: in addition to reducing anxiety, thujone is famed for its ability to warm the heart…and other extremities.

Nail polish remover with overtones of dandelion and chalk…Crystal Light mixed with everclear and Dr. Pepper…The bartender looks worried…

Even apart from the absinthe connection, vermouth has a certain mystery. Long before herbal digestifs and amaros like Chartreuse, Jagermeister and Campari pushed their way into the American liquor cabinet, vermouth was firmly established, one of two herbal-infused tipples that are part of the base standard that every would-be Jerry Thomas has to have in reserve.

The other herb-infused hooch, gin, is in the middle of a renaissance, with microdistillers around the country putting out small batch versions that come jam packed with a rich herbal kick that leaves Gordon’s in the dust. As anyone who’s had a martini with Rogue gin — or Dorothy Parker’s or Bluecoat or even plain old Hendrick’s — can attest, the new batch of gins are worlds apart from the muck your parents swilled. Unfortunately, vermouth hasn’t kept pace.

Adam Ford hopes to change that. Last year, his company, Rhys and Rylee, released Atsby vermouth, a pair of blends that, he hopes, will change the way people view the classic fortified wine. Gone are the second-rate wine, heavy sugar and denatured alcohol that characterize most of the breed. Instead, Ford makes his vermouths from unoaked New York chardonnay, small-batch apple brandy and a collection of intensely flavored sweeteners and botanicals.

“I wanted to create a product that’s full of substance, full of personality and full of real character,” Ford explains. “I wanted my customers to experience the joy and beauty of vermouth as a stand-alone drink.”

Ford was not a big fan of vermouth, at least until his wife got involved. “She’s Italian,” he notes. “She started drinking vermouth at seven or eight, when her parents served it to her in a tiny wine glass.” On their first date, she ordered a glass. Ford didn’t react well. “I was disgusted,” he laughs.

The great conversion came in Italy, where Ford and his wife trekked around Mont Blanc. “After roughing it for days, we ended up in Courmayor, a resort town in Italy,” he recalls. “Everyone was drinking vermouth, so I tried a glass. It was the coolest drink I ever had.”

Atsby, Ford’s attempt to bring the taste of Courmayor to America, is a vastly different take on the classic vermouth recipe. Amberthorn, the drier of Ford’s two formulations, is lightly sweet, and has a piney, herbaceous flavor with hints of sage and basil. Although far more flavorful than the traditional mix, it blends nicely into a martini, offering a smooth, clean finish that is slightly evocative of a forest in winter.  

Atsby’s other blend, Armadillo cake, has a sweeter, more woody flavor. Notes of clove, cedar and allspice hit straight off the bat, before blending into richer tones that are reminiscent of dried fruit. It holds its own with brown liquors, and Ford likes to blend it with Blanton’s bourbon.

While Amberthorn is drier and Armadillo cake is sweeter, neither blend is syrupy sweet. Ford emphasizes that he was not looking to reproduce the classic red/white, sweet/dry, Italian/French dichotomies that dominate the vermouth market. “I wanted something American,” he stresses. “Something fanciful.”

That goal underlies his decision to forego wormwood in his blend. Grande wormwood, the ingredient that gives absinthe its kick and vermouth its name, is illegal in the U.S., which means that Ford would need to compromise with American wormwood or, worse yet, some form of thujone extract. “If I had added some microscopic amount of wormwood and then put it on top of the list of ingredients, then it would have been a lie,” he explains. “And it would have defeated the purpose of making an American vermouth.”

Thujone or no, Ford has accomplished his goal: although the herbal tones of Atsby evoke European liqueurs and digestifs, the flavors are rich and warm — and decidedly tailored to an American palate. Purists may argue about what constitutes the essential vermouth, but one thing is beyond question: Atsby is that rarest of things — a uniquely, distinctly American aperitif.

Try out these cocktail recipes with vermouth on Food Republic: