Vermouth hasn’t exactly advanced its way into pop culture. The only time I can recall someone drinking vermouth was the Queen Mother and I may have spotted a half empty bottle of Cinzano in a great aunt’s liquor cabinet once. However, times are a changin’.
Long favoured by royal circles, this once old and stuffy little tipple is experiencing resurgence. The aromatic wine has broken out of 18th Century Italy and is heading into the mainstream faster than Queen Elizabeth could shout “Hear Hear!”
We have learnt a thing or two from our European confrere over the years – the French and their history of pairing wine and cheese, aperitifs and digestifs in Italy, and the tradition of apertivo hour in Spain. With the recent introduction of aperitivo bars in Melbourne, it’s plain to see our city is following in their footsteps.
The classic aperitif, a humble drink known to help whet your appetite and open the palate in readiness for your evening meal, has turned a dusty old corner and come into its own. It won’t be long before Melbournites will have fully embraced The Art of the Aperitif and vermouth naturally becomes a part of our social pastime.
We’ll be enjoying vermouth like wine in the same style as the Italians, or sipping vermouth spritzers like the Spaniards. It’ll be a new kind of happy hour and as a delighted partaker in this spirited time of day, I’ll be leading the charge.
What Once Was Old Is New Again
An insurgence of new world vermouth is breaking into the Aussie market, and one of the World’s best is made right here. Proud and patriotic as I am, it tugs a little at the heartstrings.
Australia has a burgeoning wine making industry, exporting to over 100 countries and recognised as one of the leading producers in the World. Though the grapes were originally imported from Europe, we have wine regions all over the country and are able to produce all varietals and styles. Our large and extremely diverse land, climate, soil and conditions create the perfect environment.
Also, our Australian countryside offers unique botanicals – flowers, herbs, seeds, spices, roots and barks – that are very different to those that grow across the European landscape and the rest of the world. This is where vermouth comes in. The fortified wine is made with a base of wormwood and then flavoured with a variety of botanicals.
My Fair Maidenii
After eight years as Bar Manager at Gin Palace, Shaun Byrne has earned his reputation as one of Melbourne’s most experienced and respected bartenders. And now he is making his mark in a different game, taking his talent beyond cocktails to become Australia’s first producer of premium vermouth.
Like most entrepreneurial pursuits, Shaun’s vision grew organically out of working behind the cocktail bar serving martinis and negronis. With many of the timeless and popular classics blending gin and vermouth, Shaun could see that there was a gap in the market for a more consistent, reliable and stable product. It made no sense to Shaun that a bar would mix top-shelf spirits together with vermouths that were sub par by comparison.
Vermouth has a long history. Just as herbs are known as ‘old wives tale’ healing remedies, so too vermouth was used for its medicinal magic long before it became a social drink. It is documented that Hippocrates prescribed vermouth to help combat jaundice, rheumatism and anemia, amongst other ailments. As a tincture it didn’t exactly begin as a carefully designed beverage.
Traditionally vermouth is produced using the left over or substandard wine, to which botanicals and extra alcohol are added before the wine is fortified and sweetened using caramelised sugar. The lack of both consistency in the base wine and control in the production process results in huge variations in vermouth from batch to batch.
Shaun’s curiosity with mixing things began behind the bar with ingredients for cocktails. As creative bartenders do, he began making his own potions and infusions. Naturally, this alchemy extended to experimenting with ways to create a 21st century, modern day Vermouth. Whilst Shaun admits these first attempts to make vermouth were a disaster, the mixologist’s dream finally became reality on meeting a winemaker.
Farm to Table, Grape to Glass
Maidenii is a labor of love. The wholly Australian owned and operated company is a partnership between Shaun Byrne and third generation winemaker Gilles Lapalus. The pair combined their skills and knowledge to create the perfect Australian vermouth, which is enjoying great success both here and abroad.
Produced in Harcourt near Castlemaine in Central Victoria, Australia’s first vermouth is made in a temperature controlled, rustic old shed otherwise used for cooling apples. Set in one of the country’s most picturesque settings, the grapes are grown amongst the apple orchards and fully processed onsite.
Deciding which botanicals to include in Maidenii was almost as arduous as the journey to get from where it all started to today. After a sixteen-hour tasting of more than one hundred different botanicals, including Australian natives, the right proprietary combination of dry ingredients was chosen and Maidenii was born.
The grapes are picked and laboriously hand macerated by Shaun and Giles themselves in the rustic old shed. Grape grazing and wine making season usually falls sometime in or around February, but like all wine makers they are at the mercy of the climate and season. Now in its third year, Shaun and Gilles have noticed the subtle differences between annual batches. Recognising their vermouth has the same variants as wine; they have now begun to label Maidenii by vintage, a first in vermouth.
The Midas Touch
The moment your lips meet the glass, your adventure begins. As you swirl Maidenii around your mouth you’re on a treasure hunt of flavours with its magical combinations of botanicals, from delicate hints of citrus, wattle seed, spearmint and beyond.
Most of the botanicals in Maidenii are top secret, so you’re left to your palate to identify the different aromatics and flavours in each of the vermouths in the Maidenii range. All we are told is that as juniper is to gin, wormwood (the same aromatic, bitter, herbaceous plant used as an ingredient in absinthe) is to vermouth.
In fact, to classify as vermouth, the EU states that it must contain wormwood and at least 75% base wine. Maidenii contains 85% plus. I guess some are just naturally born overachievers.
Then There Were Three
Starting with just one, the range has expanded and now has three delicious vermouths.
Having syrah as the base wine, this vermouth is pale red in colour. Christmas on the nose with orange and grapefruit citrus, bay leaves, cherry, clove and wattle seed. Smokiness and anise in the finish gives it length.
Beginning with cabernet as the base wine, this vermouth is deep red in colour. On the first sip, the flavours with explode in your mouth with spiciness from mace (nutmeg). Blood orange citrus and dark berries, with a grapefruit zest giving bitterness and length.
Maidenii Vintage Dry
With viognier as its base wine, this vermouth is pale straw in colour. Herbaceous, floral and fruity with notes of cinnamon, apricot, strawberry gum, sea parsely, kafir lime, angelica root, anise and citrus. Can you identify the other twelve secret botanicals in the Vintage Dry?
As part of my Maidenii education, Shaun mixed up a cocktail with each as a suggestion for how to use the Classic, Dry and Vintage Dry in cocktails.
- 70 ml Melbourne Gin Company
- 20 ml Maidenii Dry
- Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.
- 30 ml Cutlass
- 30 ml Campari
- 30 ml Maidenii Sweet
- Build over ice in rocks glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
- 100 ml Maidenii Classic
- Pour over ice in wine glass. add splash of soda water. Garnish with a wedge of orange.
Click here for the Maidenii website.
Distributed in Australia by Cerbaco.