Drink Week Part Deux: Balsamic-Cherry Vermouth

Housemade vermouth

If you thought I could constrain myself to just one installment of Food in Jars' Drink Week, clearly you do not know me well at all. 

For the second year in a row, I am coordinating the DIY contests at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland, coming up this September. So if you're in northern California, and you've got some preserves, pickles, home brew or homemade condiments that you think are the cat's meow, you better get them ready for submission. We'll judge the heck out of them.

Last year, we had a category for infusions and liqueurs, a subject dear to my heart. In building the panel of judges, I sought out cocktailians, mixologists and expert boozehounds of all stripes. Among them was my friend Michael Cecconi, a recent transplant from New York. There, he was something of a mixology hotshot, having worked with and eventually taken over for the illustrious Dale DeGroff's role teaching at the Institute for Culinary Education, where he still teaches. Cecconi may have been a newcomer to the Bay Area just one short year ago, but he's already made a name for himself as head bartender at the newish Two Sister Bar & Books in Hayes Valley. So when I was cogitating on ideas for something new and different for Drink Week, he was the first person that came to mind.

Cecconi gamely offered up what I considered to be something of a holy grail -- a housemade vermouth recipe, something I had researched but never encountered a recipe that felt right to me. His had a foundation of balsamic, dried cherries and a copious dose of pink peppercorn, a surprising mix to me, but one that intrigued nonetheless. The net result is something that you can use fairly interchangeably with sweet vermouth, but with a deeper, dark fruit flavor and a high, spicy note from the pink peppercorns. 

My primary instinct was to use it in a Manhattan, which Cecconi supports (with his hopped grapefruit bitters; I used my own rhubarb bitters, but if you had to go store-bought, I would recommend Peychaud's), but he also offered up another cocktail idea. I'm a huge fan of the Negroni, and he in fact developed a variation that paired house vermouth with equal parts Campari and Aperol, highlighting the fruity and spicy flavors of the vermouth, rather than burying them under a too-heavy hit of Campari. (And really, it's hard for me to say anything has too much Campari.)

But you can't pull off this high-concept Negroni with any old gin. No, it must be as thoughtful a choice.

Recently we had the occasion to attend a very interesting and entertaining seminar via the Commonwealth Club called How to Drink Like a Locavore, moderated by the always lovely Virginia Miller of The Perfect Spot. The panel was a who's-who of top-tier Bay Area distillers, including St. George Spirits, Charbay Winery and Distillery and Old World Spirits. These are a gregarious and affable lot, and listening to them rib each other and prattle on about their trade riled me up. I think most of us who are devotees of the DIY lifestyle are wired toward the pursuit of exploring the Next Big Thing, and I have always wanted to try my hand at distilling. Alas, it's not something you can do at home. Legally. *cough* 

I've long been a fan of St. George Spirits, and a trip to the Alameda distillery is a very enjoyable excursion indeed. Recently, they rolled out not one, not two but three versions of gin, each nuanced in their own way. The other night we enjoyed a vertical tasting of the three with a friend, who received a charming set of wee bottles of each. 

I'm a late comer to gin, and in fact still don't really love the big-name brands like Tanqueray and Bombay. I am finally able to see through the palate-bludgeoning flavor of juniper to get through to the rest, but I don't see why I have to. Hendrick's was my gateway gin, gently junipered and balanced with cucumber and lavender. It helped me see what gin could -- and in my opinion should -- be. 

We tried the St. George gins first on their own, then in a gin and tonic with Fever Tree tonic. Tasted straight, I felt that the Terroir was the most subtle and nuanced, perfect for drinking straight; the Botanivore had stronger floral notes; and the Dry Rye was, as the name implied, exceedingly dry, with a woodsiness and heavy juniper note. When paired with the tonic, though, the Dry Rye really stood up, playing off the natural bitter flavors of the tonic. The others seemed to coax out sweetness which, while not unpleasant, missed the mark compared to the Dry Rye.

Given the natural bitterness of Campari and Aperol, Dry Rye is the clear choice, at least for this cocktail. Trust. 

Housemade Vermouth

Courtesy of Michael Cecconi, head bartender at Two Sisters Bar and Books

  • 1 qt. balsamic vinegar
  • 2 c. dried cherries
  • 1/2 c. pink peppercorns
  • 1-1/2 c. brown sugar
  • 2 bottles red wine
  1. Combine balsamic, dried cherries, and peppercorns and let rest overnight (if you have the time, if not, skip to next step).
  2. Add that to brown sugar in pot and bring to boil for 20 minutes.
  3. Blend with immersion blender, then separate out solids with fine mesh strainer.
  4. Double the volume with an equal amount of red wine. Refrigerate.

The Dark Knight

Courtesy of Michael Cecconi, head bartender at Two Sisters Bar and Books

  • 1 oz gin
  • 1 oz balsamic-cherry vermouth
  • 1/2 oz Campari
  • 1/2 oz Aperol
  • orange twist garnish

Recommended style of red wine?

Depending on the wine, the flavor could be dramatically different, right? Can you point us toward what you used?

I used a (cheap) Italian red,

I used a (cheap) Italian red, one that was fairly fruity. But I think the balsamic, cherries and pink peppercorns would bulldoze over any subtleties in the wine. I'd probably avoid really big, tannic wines like cabs, and stick with lighter bodied wines like Pinot or syrah. And definitely don't overspend.

Does the Housemade Vermouth

Does the Housemade Vermouth contemplate using regular balsamic vinegar or white balsamic? I'm just thinking how appealing the final color would be with the usual brown balsamic.

I used Aceto Balsamico di

I used Aceto Balsamico di Modena, which is a traditional product. You can purchase inexpensive yet still authentic product in grocery stores. (See Vanessa's post on buying balsamico here: http://www.italyinsf.com/2008/06/30/the-true-story-of-balsamic-vinegar/) You could use white balsamic, but keep in mind that you are pureeing dried cherries and pink peppercorns, so even through a fine mesh sieve it won't be as clear as commercial vermouth. But the taste is extraordinary.

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