Are you ready for your all-Minnesota martini or Manhattan? The time is almost near as St. Paul micro-distiller 11 Wells’ inaugural vermouth, Dry Wermut, should be in stores in a couple of weeks. And it’s something special.
Vermouth is the aromatized and fortified wine, which started as a European medicinal and grew to become the foundation of so very many cocktails, from martinis (gin + dry vermouth) to Manhattans (whisky + sweet vermouth) to Negronis (gin + sweet vermouth + Campari.) 11 Wells is the St. Paul distillery in the historic Hamm's Brewery, founded by Bob McManus and Lee Egbert (who previously founded, and still runs, Dashfire Bitters). But: A Minnesota vermouth?
Yes! “I can see why no one has done it here yet,” Lee Egbert told me on the phone. “It’s the most complicated thing we’ve made to date—aside from the elderflower,” which is another upcoming project we’ll leave alone for now. Why so complicated? First, they had to make wine, which they’re doing with cold-climate grape varieties. (The first batch came from New York, because they got started too late for the Minnesota harvest, but they’re working on getting those grapes for the next batch.) Then they had to distill some of the wine into brandy. Next they split out a great number of portions of brandy, each to macerate a separate botanical in. For instance: Wormwood! In Europe vermouth must, by law, contain some of the bitter green herb famous for its longtime U.S. ban. (Eventually people wised up that it was overproofed absinthe that was making people nuts, not the green leaves of wormwood. You can grow some in your garden today, easy peasy!)
Many American vermouth makers leave out the wormwood, because Americans are not, as a rule, fans of bitter flavors. Not so for Egbert: “We got our hands on every single type of wormwood you can get, all the European vermouths have wormwood, the word vermouth comes from the German word for wormwood—we wanted to honor that. It grows wild here, actually. You might have tripped over it in the park and not even known it. We’re trying to get some farmers to grow it. By the way, tell some farmers to grow it, there’s a huge underserved market.” (Done and done!)
Once the various botanicals have soaked in brandy, Egbert himself adds them back to the wine with enough brandy to get to 20 percent alcohol. It is a little higher than most commercial vermouths, but a level that Egbert hopes will stay a little fresher for home use. (Store your vermouth in the refrigerator, and don’t let it gather dust in the liquor cabinet folks; it gets stale and oxidizes.)
How is it? I like it! Straight up, the first thing I noticed was a big camphor nose (that’s the wormwood) followed by a nice lemon-peel quality and a nice graphite and white pepper finish. Over time, maybe a dozen interesting herbal notes creep forth, and it gets more and more interesting through the course of the drink. I think it’s at its best with a few ice cubes, as they serve it in Spain at the stand-alone vermouth bars called vermuterias. Thus showcased, it is bitter but delicate, and pairs prettily with briny green olives and cheese, though I’ll note it also seemed to be distinctly crying out for fresh oysters. (Oyster bar owners, take heed, and give a newborn vermouth what it demands!)
I tried it in different gin martinis—but I thought the vermouth was so powerful that it took over the martini. (I was raised on French Dolin in my martinis though; I yam what I yam.) I do like this Dry Wermut in a Manhattan though, which is opposite I know, as it’s traditionally sweet vermouth in that drink. Well, I went there anyway, testing with 11 Wells' own Rye whiskey as well as some Evan Williams bourbon and Old Fitzgerald bourbon I had on hand, and it showed well in all of them, adding interesting bitter and herbal notes without disappearing in the whiskey. In short: Tons of fun. A must-have for the bartender in your life.
How can you get yours? Keep your eyes open! They’re already making cocktails with it at Spoon & Stable, and it should be on local liquor store shelves in a couple of weeks, probably first at Surdyk’s, South Lyndale, Zipp’s, and France 44. Bottles should cost around $25 for a 375.
You'll also be able to pick one up at the 11 Wells cocktail room, which now has a target opening date of October. Oh, and they're already working on a sort of Campari, so we can have all-Minnesota Negronis. By Christmas time, Egbert hopes to have every single thing you’d need to make a Midwest Manhattan, including brandied Michigan cherries and sweet vermouth.
“From the very beginning, my dream was to make a Manhattan from scratch. We’re almost there.”
Picture it, folks: You’re in an ice-fishing house, staring at the line dangling in that cold, cold ice hole. Your buddy says: You want a little something from the old abandoned Hamm’s brewery? Then he pours you a Manhattan. Is 2015 the year the Manhattan got ready for pond hockey?
704 Minnehaha Ave E., St. Paul, 651-300-9328, 11wells.com