We in the United States certainly are at the forefront of a renaissance – in the true sense of the word – of drinking culture. Craft is a word spoken ubiquitously, and the same goes for bio-dynamic, artisanal, batch production, so the list goes. People are starting to care more for what they put on their palates and in their stomachs, in what order, and how those libations suit the surroundings, the atmosphere, accompanying foods, the time of day and context, etc. Did I mention this is a good thing?
Yet, flavored vodka, industrial white rum, grape juice in wine bottles, and all the negative age-old predispositions towards entire categories of beverage products remain strong, and are likely to do so for a very long time. I recently overhead someone explaining that we are currently in a vermouth bubble.” Interesting, I thought. Yes, the number of decent vermouths in the US is on the rise. Yes, that number is likely to increase still further (partly thanks to our company, Fasel Shenstone). Yes, there are innumerable hashtags adjacent the words vermouth, aperitif, negroni, manhattan and so on. But does all of this indicate a bubble? All I could do for an hour after overhearing this was consider the question “what is a bubble?” If the 500th vodka brand successfully launches daily, how could a category with only a handful of decent products be in a bubble?
A bubble, for me anyway, always implies a few necessary prerequisites. First, there is a highly saturated market in which we have too many people chasing too small a market. In this case it would be too many vermouth producers chasing too few vermouth drinkers. A bubble also implies the average person is trying to ride a train that has long since departed, a train whose elite, in-the-know passengers have already cashed out. Finally, to be eligible for bubbleability, the value of that thing which is entering a bubble (or “being bubblized” as we say) would have to be susceptible to becoming of absolutely no value overnight, that is to say the world could go on without it.
So, you may at this point be asking what the hell are the fingers behind these words, and the brain behind them, getting at. Well, not to burst your bubble, but when we apply these three rules to test the current state of vermouth in the US, all the bubbles burst. First and foremost, every high-end bar in the US carries the same four vermouths, and lower-end bars all carry the same two or three. When you ask the owners, beverage directors and bartenders why this is so, it ultimately comes down to the issue of availability, or in the low-end bar’s case, cost. In fact, many admit to stocking average vermouths, and express that they would like to have better ones if only the options were not so slim. I am no economist (well, actually, in terms of education I am, but now I am a legal bootlegger), but if there are a whole lot of customers looking for a whole lot more expressions of vermouth, particularly at the higher end of the market, how can there be a bubble? Bars stock 10 Amaris, 20, 30, 40 whiskies, gins and vodkas. Little corner wine shops will stock 50 different Riojas, and 100 different cheap Bordeaux. Meanwhile, only two to four vermouths sit behind the bar, all of similar style, being used all over the menu, and in large volumes.
On to point 2. As an owner of a growing an fine wines and craft spirits importing business, we have been reaching out to a number of highly respected, quality focused wine and spirit distributors over the last few months. I was on the phone with the CEO of a very forward looking wine and spirits distributor in California, and he said “look, I like you but I just can’t do it, vermouth is a service product, we only carry it because we have a few customers who need it…well pretty much everyone needs it, but that’s not important. It is not something we want to spend time on. We don’t want more vermouths in our portfolio.” They have one vermouth, and it is widely accepted as horrible. Not only is the average person closed to vermouth, saying it is disgusting and only for mixing in poor cocktails, so too are the leaders of really great wine and spirits companies still not grasping what is happening behind restaurant and bar doors in trendy cities.
I regularly serve dark wine-based aromatized wines to friends, old and young, to determine what they truly think. It will have an olive in it, possibly some orange bitters and a dash of Campari, and they will not see the bottle. Ninety percent of the time they love it. Even the beer guys who dont care that much for wine love it. Well, when I let the vermouth cat out of the bag they are shocked. Why does this matter? Flavored vodka is in a bubble. Spiced rum is in a bubble. Craft beer is trending that way, but still has enough people chasing enough beer labels. Vermouth is barely understood even by industry professionals. Even in the most educated drinks circles, Dolin Rouge and Cocchi di Torino are still thought to be impressive products. They are acceptable at best compared to Spanish vermouths and some of the new Italian vermouth. The proverbial bubble train has not even boarded, let alone left the station. Maybe in 5-10 years. Maybe.
But could vermouth disappear overnight and the world go on? Technically yes, if we think of the world as life generally, and don’t mind living without good cocktails. For me, though, and my friends around me, our world would end. Moreover, the high-end bar industry would be screwed as well. Every bar has vermouth, and any decent bar uses it. It is a staple product. There is in fact a trend towards better and more diverse selection of vermouth. Yet this is not a hollow trend that will fizzle out. You may not care for vermouth, ask for it, know what it is, know how it is made, call out vermouth brands, know how to serve it, or be able to point it out behind a bar (hopefully because it is in the fridge, where it should be). But ask any beverage director and they will tell you that a bar program sans vermouth would be next to impossible.
So, is vermouth in a bubble? Indeed the number of vermouth products in the US market has probably doubled in the last 5 years. Sounds like a bubble – oh wait, doubling to fewer than 30 products, of which 10 are true to the category, high quality and respectfully priced. Vermouth is a category with very few decent products and surrounded by ignorance. Meanwhile, it is also a fundamental pillar of the emerging culture of quality ingredients, exceptional and original drinks, a philosophy that is still in its infancy and reserved to a limited set of great venues across the US. What a contradiction.
The truth is that I am not going to answer the question, but if I was pressured for a response I would say the following: “how many new brands of f vodka hit the market last year alone?” Suffice to say that the US needs more vermouth, not less, if not for the betterment of drinking culture, then for my spectacular aperitif habit.