The vermouth heritage

Vermouth. This quirky, aromatic fortified wine often remains a mystery to the average drinker despite its presence in some of the most popular cocktails in the world. Vermouth is usually a side thought, often treated as the “other thing” in a martini. Even someone as cultured as James Bond is going to have a preference between shaking or stirring but will overlook the key ingredient of a martini. Yes, you could argue that the specific gin in a martini matters more, but without a splash of vermouth you basically just have a glass of gin, not a martini. While many of us have our opinions on martinis, whether to use gin or vodka, requesting specific brands or garnishes, all too often vermouth just ends up being the remainder. It is the thing that is added after we’ve put in our personal requests. Well the new the new T.W. Hollister & Co. brand of wines is trying to change that perception by crafting a line of vermouths that will be requested first when ordering a cocktail.

Family and friends

T.W. Hollister & Co. is a brand new wine label that will be launching their first Rhône-style blend this April. At the helm of the brand is Clinton Kyle Hollister, descendant of famed rancher and California developer William Welles Hollister and his wife, Annie Hannah James. From Glen Annie Ranch to Hollister Ave., the Hollister family’s impact on the Santa Barbara area is still visible to this day and the winery project was inspired by his desire to honor his family’s long history with horticulture while celebrating the vibrant wine history and culture of the region. The idea to develop a vermouth was a partnership between him and his childhood friend, Jesse Smith of Casitas Valley Farm. While the two first met in sixth grade at Santa Barbara Middle School, their history reaches beyond that as they were both born on the same day and year in the same hospital. It took them awhile to meet and even longer for them to share their first drink but the two remain fast friends to this day.  

Jesse fell in love with the relaxed, social vermouth drinking culture of Spain while traveling through the region with his family. About two years back he met Carl Sutton and approached Carl about coming out to the area to help develop a vermouth. Carl began to explore vermouths when he was operating his San Francisco-based winery, Sutton Cellars. His first vermouth was made in 2009 and took two and a half years to develop, initially looking at about one hundred different botanics before finalizing it to seventeen flavoring additions. He eventually chose to close his urban winery and now helps with the creative direction of the Cisco Brewers, Nantucket Vineyard, and Triple Eight Distillery conglomerate found on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. This intimate group of alcoholic beverage producers caters to the endless supply of tourists the island receives each year. It took the two years since Carl and Jesse first met for everything to get in place but last fall Jesse reached out to him and since then they have all been working hard to design their upcoming line of vermouths.  

But what is it?

First off, vermouth is a fortified wine. But it is different than others found in this family of beverages (think sherry or port) in that it has been aromatized with variety of herbs, spices, barks, roots, and other flavorings. Aromatized wines date back to ancient times where they were used for their medicinal properties. The fortified version we are used to originated in Germany during the 1500’s but slowly spread its way through Europe over the centuries. Historically, vermouth contained wormwood and the fortified wine actually derived its name from the German word for the herb, wermut. Absinthe also gets its name from wormwood, the Latin name being Artemisia absinthium, and when the ban on absinthe was implemented it pretty much put an end to wormwood being used in vermouth. Now that the absinthe ban is lifted, wormwood is finding its way into vermouths once again.

Vermouth often falls into two categories. The dry, pale bitter blonde “French” vermouth that one finds in martinis and the sweeter, semi-bitter red “Italian” style that is used in Negronis and Manhattans. These two styles have become so ingrained with their respective geographical regions that even if they are not produced in those areas, they will often still be referred to as “French-style” for dry vermouths and “Italian-style” for the sweet, dark vermouths. There does exist a third “Bianco” style that is a pale, sweet version but it isn’t featured as prominently as the other two. Botanical flavorings will be added to a light wine base that has been fortified with a spirit, most often the grape-based brandy, and then aged in barrels or tanks with occasional rousing. A caramel syrup (usually added before the aging step) is used to give Italian-style vermouths their color and sweetness. The proprietary melange of botanics is kept highly secret by the producer and can include a wide range of ingredients like quinine, coriander, cardamom, cloves, juniper, ginger, hyssop, chamomile, dried citrus peel and other fruits such as raspberries, just to name a few.

A Californian flavor

As with many products these days, the average vermouth you find on the shelf is being made from large scale industrial processes with questionable ingredient sources. When crafting their vermouths, the crew pulled from Jesse’s vast experience in permaculture and horticulture, sourcing as many local ingredients as possible and only using ingredients that came from farming practices that fell in line with their own views, such as using Goleta-based Good Land Organics Frinj Coffee. What ingredients they couldn’t find locally they ensured came from an organic, fair-trade source. Often times the sweetness and red color in widely-distributed Italian-style vermouths is being derived from industrial-made caramel and caramel coloring. When crafting their sweet vermouth, they handmade the caramel from organic, fair-trade sugar.

The central coast has an incredible ability to grow a diverse range of plants. In the future they plan on growing some of the botanics that they were unable to source locally for the first batch. With the vermouth they hope to push the boundaries on local agricultural practices and showcase the variety of exotic herbs and spices that can be grown in the region. As they went about selecting ingredients, they wanted a recipe that borrowed pieces from the vermouth culture but also captured the flavors native to California, such as different types of sage. Even though there is a local focus, they didn’t want to rule out any ingredients by restricting themselves to only California-native plants. The vermouth incorporates several varieties of citrus fruit, which although not native to California has become prevalent in the state, establishing it as a characteristic flavor of the region.

The trio designed both an Italian-style and a French-style vermouth which were recently showcased at The Apiary in Carpinteria. The tasting was held from 3-6 pm (the traditional vermouth-drinking period in Spain) and a small crowd filled the back hall of the building, tasting the different versions and smelling some of the botanics used in the mix. Both featured an elegant balance with the sweet vermouth having a light, silky caramel character with an herbal finish and the dry vermouth featuring a fruitier nose with a complex bitter finish. These particular vermouths were not specifically designed for sipping (even though they both went down very easy) and are more geared towards being a go-to ingredient in craft cocktails. This was the first production and as the vermouth line develops they see it as an evolving project. One that can develop its own character and depth of story, honoring its heritage while defining its own voice. To learn more visit to receive updates on its release.

Photo by Clinton Kyle Hollister

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, February 21, 2018


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