If you spend even a little time with Adam Ford and you’re at all interested in vermouth, you’re bound to find yourself in an argument. Ford, the owner of Atsby Vermouth, has spent the past three years trying to transform the public’s perception of the spirit. Late last year, he took his next step with Reserve, a product that he proudly proclaims to be America’s first aged vermouth.
Changing long-held prejudices is a struggle. Ask a handful of people about vermouth, and you’re likely to hear the same three ideas endlessly repeated: It’s cheap, it goes in martinis and Manhattans and it often tastes like nail-polish remover mixed with caramel. Every once in a while, someone will point out the lesser-known facts that vermouth takes its name from the German word for “wormwood” and that for many years it was the only tipple that was legally allowed to contain thujone, the active ingredient in absinthe. But by and large, it’s known as the crusty bottle in the back of the liquor cabinet that you pull out when you want people to leave.
Ford’s vermouth bucks the standard clichés. First, there’s the taste issue. Atsby, which comes in three blends – Armadillo Cake, Amberthorn and now Reserve – is complex, herbaceous and distinctive. Amberthorn is slightly fruity, with hints of sage, basil and pine, and Armadillo Cake has notes of vanilla, sarsaparilla, allspice and dried fruit. Reserve, which is Armadillo Cake that has been aged for almost three years, has a smoother, more integrated flavor that blends the spirit’s bold, fruity tastes with its richer ones, yielding a drink that is mellower and smoother. Unlike most vermouth, it tastes great on its own, neat, with a little squeeze of lemon.
But while that complexity makes for a great drink, it makes for a terrible martini. Atsby isn’t designed to disappear into gin or vodka like a standard dry vermouth. Pair it with most gins and you’re going to have some conflicts. Pair it with vodka and you’ll get a herbaceous, complex…vodka. When it comes to Manhattans, Amberthorn adds complexity and depth, but the finished product is, at best, a distant cousin from the drink that you’re used to.
Atsby’s complexity also comes with a price, which is another dividing line between aged and traditional vermouth. While most vermouth doesn’t taste very good, consumers can console themselves with the fact that it also doesn’t cost very much: Martini and Rossi, the top-selling brand, regularly retails for under $10. By comparison, Amberthorn and Armadillo Cake retail for $27 apiece, and Atsby Reserve sells for $45 per 500-ml bottle. The old saying about getting what you pay for applies, but for consumers who are used to paying $9 for a fifth of basic dry vermouth, that $45 price tag may be a shocker.
Then there’s the wormwood issue. The bitter herb is a classic part of the basic vermouth recipe, but it’s absent from Atsby. Ford, whose day job is working as a criminal attorney, is quick to present the case for withholding wormwood from a spirit whose name derives from the herb. “I’ve written 180 pages explaining why wormwood has nothing to do with vermouth,” he laughs, referring to a book he’s putting together on the spirit. “The emphasis on wormwood is snake-oil salesmanship. In the 1700s, when Antonio Carpano was developing vermouth, Italians were rediscovering their culinary heritage. Wormwood had a reputation as an aphrodisiac and Carpano exploited the myth as a selling point,” he explains.
For that matter, he notes, the thujone imparted by wormwood is also a red herring: “Sage, which we put in both Armadillo Cake and Amberthorn, has more thujone than wormwood,” he says.
But what of the name “vermouth” and its connection to wormwood? Ford is quick to dismiss the connection, arguing that name notwithstanding, wormwood has little or nothing to do with the concept of fortified, aromatized wine (of which vermouth is the best-known category). On some levels, Ford has a point: Herb-infused wines date back to the ancient Greeks, and wormwood-infused vermouth dates back to the 1700s. The current incarnation as a low-flavor spirit really only dates back to the Mad Men era, when vermouth was simplified to appeal to a bland American palate. In this context, Atsby’s offerings are working to restore a spirit to a standard that has all but disappeared over the last 60 years.
Ultimately, though, a question remains about what, exactly, that spirit is. For drinkers who are familiar with Lillet, Dubonnet, Byrrh or other wine-based aperitifs, it’s clear that there’s a rich potential for aromatized, fortified wines that don’t contain wormwood. On the other hand, the fact that those brands aren’t classified as vermouth could help explain why they are harder to define – and, not incidentally, hard to find in a liquor store. Atsby, by comparison, has used its vermouth moniker to find traction around the world, in countries as far-flung as Singapore, the U.K. and Denmark. It has also worked its way onto some of the top cocktail menus in the U.S.
“I’m rehabbing a spirit,” Ford says proudly. The question, however, is whether he’s really revitalizing vermouth — the Ford Pinto of wine-based mixers — or doing some sort of culinary archaeology into a mythical, long-forgotten classic. Personally, I hope that it’s the latter. After all, does any liquor cabinet really need a top-shelf Pinto?
Atsby Reserve Old Fashioned
2 1/2 ounces Atsby Armadillo Cake Reserve
1/2 ounce Sazerac Rye
1 dash of Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Bokers Bitters
- Pour all ingredients into a mixing glass.
- Stir 40-50 times, and strain into a cocktail coupe.
- Garnish with a bing cherry.
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