What is the most interesting trend in the vermouth world right now? It’s not the constant premiumisation of mediocre products, the on-going development of the Riserva category in Italy or the quest for organic vermouths. No, if you’re trendspotting, look no further than Jerez: two of the biggest sherry houses have released new vermouths in recent months, and they’re likely to change how you think about the category.
As readers of Spanish Wine Lovers should know by now, Spain is in the middle of a vermouth boom. Alongside new products, this renewed interest allows ultra-local vermouths made according to old, perfectly unique traditions to get out of their niche and (sort of) break into the mainstream.
Sherry, a very traditional wine in its own right, has seen its own renaissance over the last few years, especially in the United States (unfortunately not in Spain itself). So what does the fact that, in 2016, both Lustau and Gonzalez Byass have diversified their portfolio with a vermouth, not only made in the Sherry triangle but sherry based, tell us? Is it a cheap way to jump on the bandwagon? No. They are just reconnecting with their own past.
Back in the late 19th century, at the very start of the Spanish vermouth industry, sherry producers called on their expertise with fortified wines to come up with aromatized versions and carve up their own place on a new market. As it is often noted, the pioneer Spanish vermouth makers were in Reus and Barcelona, but companies from Jerez soon followed – in fact, one of the earliest advertisements for Spanish vermouth was published in the daily La Vanguardia by Del Pino y Compañía, a producer from Jerez.
Until the late 1970s, the portfolios of sherry producers were much more diverse than some credit them for. As both distillers and winemakers, they proved apt at putting on the market any sort of product – not only vermouths, but also quinine-infused wines (quinas or kinas) and even aniseed spirits or gins.
Obviously, the wine products of secondary importance were made with lower quality sherries, such as Creams. The ups-and-downs of the wine economy led them to rationalize their activity in the early 1980s. They focused on their own sherries and brandies, and rather than produce other type of spirits they gradually became importers – sherry houses are involved with some of the best-selling gin brands on the Spanish market and, of course, there has always been a very close link with whisky distilleries…
Until very recently, the only available Jerez vermouth was Canasta, launched by Williams & Humbert in 2008, way before the vermouth trend exploded. Not much care was put into the product: a Cream with extra sugar (!), aromatized with extracts bought to a third party. The bottle has just received a facelift but if the liquid doesn’t, Canasta will lose ground. There is a lot of talent at Williams & Humbert, so hopefully something will be done soon.
In early 2015, private bottler Roberto Amillo unveiled his “Jerez style” vermouth. Made with old Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez and 30 botanicals, it was immediately successful, way beyond what Amillo had ever thought possible. Suddenly, people realized mixing noble sherries to make a vermouth was not a crazy idea.
Good ideas never fail to reach big houses, and so it was not surprising that Lustau released their own ‘Jerez vermut’. It’s a great product based on wines selected by the much missed Lustau ‘capataz’ and winemaker Manuel Lozano —an amontillado and a Pedro Ximenez, both over ten years old. They were of course blended with an extract of various botanicals, including wormwood, gentian and orange peel. Lustau Vermut is ‘jerezano’, but remains very Spanish in style, not too bitter and with a slightly sweet finish.
While the Lustau recipe was brand new, Gonzalez Byass decided to take another direction for the vermouth they released shortly before the summer - the stunning vintage label is a strong hint. Called La Copa, it is based on an old recipe from the bodega, adapted to current conditions and preferences. Like Robert Amillo, they went for oloroso and Pedro Ximenez, with traditional botanicals such as wormwood, orange, cinnamon or cloves. Its character is markedly more sherry than the other vermouths we mentioned, which makes total sense for an old recipe.
La Copa and Lustau Vermut de Jerez are perfect fits for a Spanish market eager for authentic vermouths. They also fit in the strategy of sherry houses looking for products that will make up for the relatively low interest for their core wines on their national market. They played key roles both as importers and distributors in the recent gin craze and there was no way they would let the vermouth opportunity pass them by – especially keeping in mind the historical connections.
But it is on the international markets that both releases really could be game-changers – in the United States in particular. Both houses have great networks stateside and Lustau has been very good at positioning their sherries as go to bottlings for American cocktails bartenders. Much of the sherry renaissance over there has been cocktail-driven and luck has it that the Adonis and the Bamboo, the most iconic sherry cocktails along with the Sherry Cobbler, see it mixed with vermouth. The prospect of making one with a sherry-based vermouth is just too alluring for bartenders not to embrace the opportunity. Beyond the interest for lovers of old drinks, the new vermouths will most of all bring something completely new yet authentic to the US market – and it’s bound to create a lot of interest.
If Lustau and Gonzalez Byass are as successful as we think they can be, they will pave the way for boutique products such as Roberto Amillo’s and surely drive other Jerez houses to follow in their footsteps –in fact, Fernando de Castilla has done just so, with their recently released PX and oloroso-based vermouth. This can only be good news for vermouth lovers. We are going through exciting times, and they might just get even more exciting.