Meet a craft alcohol lover who uses Aussie botanicals to make vermouth cool again

Vermouth is an aromatised fortified wine that has, until recently, had a bad rap. Maybe that’s because it was the liquor most likely to sit half-full and dusty on top of your parents’ kitchen cupboards. But while vermouth came close to extinction in the home bar, the botanically-infused beverage has remained a bartenders’ staple – it is, after all, the “other” ingredient in classic gin martinis.

Shaun Byrne from Melbourne cocktail bar Gin Palace is one of Australia's most passionate artisanal vermouth producers. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au
Shaun Byrne from Melbourne cocktail bar
Gin Palace. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

“People often don’t realise vermouth has a use-by date once the seal is cracked,” says bar manager Shaun Byrne from late-night Melbourne cocktail bar Gin Palace. “If vermouth tastes bad, it may just have been open too long.”

Even so, as with any wine, there are both great and poor examples of vermouth on the market. Shaun, who is also co-owner of Australian artisanal vermouth label Maidenii says, “One of my greatest pleasures as both a bartender and a vermouth producer is to educate people about vermouth.”

Dropping by Gin Palace early one evening, that soon becomes apparent. Here I learn that there are two main schools of vermouth – new world and old world. Old-world vermouths are Italian (think Martini & Rossi) or French (think Noilly Prat).

“Traditionally, French vermouth has always been dry and Italian vermouth has always been sweet,” says Shaun. “If you pick up a cocktail book from the 1800’s it will list French vermouth or Italian vermouth rather than sweet or dry. Nowadays, the French and the Italians produce both.

A selection of three old-world vermouths.
Three old-world vermouths: Lillet Blanc, Carpano Antica Formula and Noilly Prat Original. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

“In the past, vermouth was a means to an end. It was made with wine left over from a pressing, or that was oxidised, or too high in acid, or too flabby. Nothing went to waste – if the wine wasn’t nice enough to drink by itself, they’d flavour it until it was.”

The common thread between old-world and new-world vermouths is that they comprise a base wine fortified with spirit, which is then sweetened and flavoured with botanicals – the prominent one being wormwood.

“Broadly speaking, old-world vermouth uses a base wine that is neutrally flavoured so it can be produced to a consistent standard year to year,” says Shaun. “And broadly speaking, new-world vermouths place more emphasis on the base wine. It adds to the flavour just as much as the botanicals do.”

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Drop by Gin Palace and ask Shaun to make you a Negroni. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

Shaun’s knowledge of vermouth’s history and passion for its future inspired him to make his own.

“Maidenii started four years ago,” he says of his collaboration with winemaker Gilles Lapalus from Sutton Grange Winery in Castlemaine, Central Victoria. “I was playing around with homemade syrups and cordials in the bar and was inspired to make my own vermouth using high-quality base wine. I teamed up with Gilles for a tasting of 50 vermouths – I was interested that he could identify the quality of the base wine.”

They then collaborated on Maidenii using grapes from Heathcote and the Bendigo region, artemisia absinthium wormwood and 33 other botanicals. Twelve of these are native, including wattleseed, sea parsley, strawberry gum and river mint. The very first customer for Maidenii vermouth was one of the best restaurants in Australia – Attica. It’s taken off from there.

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Deliciousness in a glass. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

Maidenii now produces three vermouth styles: dry, classic and sweet (semi-dry). None have sugar added. Maidenii Dry is made with viognier from Central Victoria.

“It’s perfect in a martini,” says Shaun. “Mix 75ml gin and 15ml Maidenii Dry, stir and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange twist.”

Classic is made with syrah from Central Victoria and is great poured over ice straight from the fridge. “Drop in an orange wedge to pick up the citrus notes,” recommends Shaun.

Maidenii Sweet is made from cabernet from Central Victoria and is perfect in a Negroni. “It’s my favourite cocktail,” says Shaun. “Build it using 30ml of Maidenii Sweet, 30ml of Campari and 30ml of gin. I recommend The West Winds Cutlass Gin because it’s made using similar botanicals to Maidenii so it makes a really mellow cocktail. You can taste all the components.”
Oh, and remember: keep opened vermouth bottles in the fridge!

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Maidenaii Dry Vermouth. “It makes the perfect martini,” says Shaun. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

Try it yourself

Maidenii
Try the Dry, Classic and Sweet at Gin Palace, 10 Russell Pl, Melbourne (4pm–3am, seven days a week); maidenii.com.au

Gin Palace
Get Shaun to make you a Negroni. You won’t be disappointed. Alternatively, Gin Palace has a great selection of both old- and new-world vermouths. Give them a try at Gin Palace, 10 Russell St, Melbourne; ginpalace.com.au

Three more Aussie vermouths to try

Causes & Cures
Two styles: Semi Sweet Red Vermouth and Semi Dry White, created by Innocent Bystander winemakers in the Yarra Valley; causesandcures.com.au

Castagna
Classic Dry Vermouth: 100% estate-grown grapes from a biodynamic winery in Beechworth, Vic; castagna.com.au

Regal Rogue
The Bianco is a collaboration between Mark Ward and winemaker Lisa McGuigan with a base of Hunter Valley semillon; regalrogue.com

A selection of artisanal Australian vermouths.
Castagna and Causes&Cures are two more Australian vermouths to try. Photo credit: Nabeel Khan; nabeelscamera.com.au

NOTE: This story first appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine