Vermouth – Red, White, and Wild


Whichever way you look at vermouth, there’s more to it than your mainstream Italian mega-brand’s choice of red white, or extra dry. It all comes down to herbs. And for us, that means an opportunity to forage. 

Like Absinthe, the critical ingredient for the label “vermouth”, is Artemisia absinthium, common name ‘wormwood.’  The Artemisias are a genus in the daisy family, rich in essential oils (which carry terpenes, see article here >). Varieties of Artemesia commonly grow in the wild in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In Capetown, Roushanna Gray introduced us to the Artemisia afra, more compact with the arid conditions, finer leaves but the same silvery undertones. In the Alps, Andy Hamilton sought out wild wormwood‘s glossy silvery spires from the passenger seat on mountain passes. 

We on Islay don’t have wormwood, but we have abundant supplies of Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris. It is slightly less bitter than wormwood; very palatable on, what seems to me, a petrol – menthol – sage spectrum. It’s an ingredient in The Botanist. The flowers are bud-like pale spires, can be slightly blue, which sway around at the top of each soft weighty stem; seeds are wind-dispersed. The distinctively silver-backed leaves and their stalks are great to tincture and to make syrups with. 

Those silvery undersides

Aromatised, fortified wine

Vermouths are built on either a white wine (bianco) or red wine (rosso) base. Other ingredients are aromatic herbs, perhaps a little sugar, and a little more alcohol to fortify it to 16 – 18%, the strength which will forestall further fermentation.

From the French Alpine ecosystem, light and dry Dolin is the ingredient of choice for many bartenders. Their website states “The exact recipes are a closely guarded secret, but there are up to 54 different plants used, most notably wormwood, but also hyssop, camomile, genepi, chincona bark and rose petals.” We have foraging empathy with the Great British Vermouth based near Edinburgh [see article here > ] and employ their fruity creation regularly in The Botanist Tour cocktails, particularly in Corpse Revivers . Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth made in Sussex is clean and exceptional – our top favourite for Botanist martinis. Don’t get me started on a tangent about negronis – that other mouth-watering bittersweet boozy cocktail in which vermouth and gin are key ingredients…

And now what began as a medicinal tincture in ancient China more than 1000 years BC, and wound its way through the cultures of India and ancient Greece, before settling into its familiar aperitif form in that country which so loves its bitter beverages – Italy – is now becoming a new frontier of experimentation, with great successes like Lustau coming out of the sherry-making tradition. In its simplest form, as aromatised, fortified wine, anyone can try making “their house vermouth” literally at home, with a little knowledge of the available flora.

Sum of a summers’ day in Islay

In my household, the addition of flavoursome herbs to wine started when we were left with a glut of average rosé after a party. I stuck a big sprig of rosemary in a bottle of wine and left it in the fridge for three days, where it wrought a massive improvement. Bitter yes, but fragrant, complex  – and that was from just one common or garden herb. It became a useful if not perfect addition to our home cocktails.

Then one summer’s day in Islay, we set ourselves the challenge of making a scratch vermouth, starting with a bottle of white wine, decanting it into a larger empty bottle, and adding suitably interesting plants with which we crossed paths in the course of a day’s drive around Islay – our “Backseat Vermouth v1”.

Of course Mugwort went in, and a few super-bitter cones of Bog Myrtle, some wild carrot florets, pineapple weed, nettle, yarrow, floral tannic bramble leaves. We left everything in the bottle to infuse for a couple of days, then filtered it out, added a little strong neutral alcohol, a little syrup (made from the naturally sweet root of comfrey which we figured we may as well use as we had it already collected), and started having fun with it. It wasn’t perhaps some crowning masterpiece you would want to bring to market, but as important as the results was the process we went through to get them. It memorably captured the classical unities of time, place, and person. I’d definitely do it again – maybe making a forest vermouth, or an Autumn vermouth, or a holiday-in-Corsica vermouth (sigh)…

If there is Artemisia to be had where you are, there’s nothing to stop you from going wild.


Further reading


Mark Williams excellent article and instructions on making foraged vermouth >

Read more from Dolin > or Blackdown > 

Vermouth 101 >

Sherry Makers getting in on  the action >

Read about Andy Hamilton’s pilgrimage to one of the great Italian makers >

More about mugwort > 

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