As the craft cocktail movement has gained pace over the last decade, all the classic ingredients have come up for reinvention. From the basic spirits — whiskey and gin — to the stuff that makes them sing — bitters, mixers and liqueurs — the exploding craft industry hasn’t been content to stick to the classics. One of the latest to undergo a facelift is that stalwart of the cocktail repertoire, vermouth. An aromatized, fortified wine which first appeared in 18th century Italy, vermouth in both its sweet and dry varieties appears in some of the oldest and most traditional cocktails out there: the Martini, the Manhattan and the Negroni, to name a few of the most famous.
Interrobang Vermouth was founded in 2012 by Carr Biggerstaff and his partner, both Oregon locals with a background in the wine industry. The name refers to a cross between an exclamation point and a question mark, designed in the 1960s as a new style of punctuation to use at the end of an excited question. As the wine industry reinvented European wine varieties across the Pacific Northwest, and with the craft cocktail movement making moves in local centers like Portland, these two vintners decided to give vermouth a makeover. “We decided to resurrect small-batch handcrafted vermouth as it was traditionally made in Europe,” Carr says. “We perfected a centuries-old traditional German recipe for sweet vermouth, and did the same for a southern French dry vermouth recipe.”
Their experience in the wine industry and their location in Newberg — the gateway to Oregon wine country — was a major boost. “We take finished Pinot Noir and dry Riesling, then fortify the wine base with Clear Creek [Distillery] brandy,” Carr explains of the process. “All of our botanicals — there are 12 in the sweet and seven in the dry vermouth — are organic and/or sustainable.”
As Carr tells it, the revival of vermouth has not been all about cocktails, although the increasingly vibrant bar scene will always have a place for local, small-batch ingredients. For all its fortification and flavoring with botanicals, vermouth is a wine at heart, and the team’s love of wine is at the root of the project.
“In Europe an aperitif is very common way to start an evening, we wanted to bring that back to the New World,” Carr says. “The notion of having an aperitif to set the palate and start the evening off, which isn’t some whiskey bomb, is very appealing. Once people try vermouths the way they were intended to be drunk, they’re wowed by it.”
Once you’ve learned to appreciate vermouth for its unique qualities, try a restrained cocktail which will allow the vermouth to shine: a dry sparkling wine with a half-ounce of dry vermouth, or a sweet vermouth with lime and tonic on the rocks on a hot day. Of course for all you cocktail lovers, Interrobang vermouths work brilliantly in the classics, but why not try this custom drink, named for the Tom Waits song (and later a play) Frank’s Wild Years?
Frank’s Wild Years
Makes 1 cocktail
1 part Dark Rum
1 part Interrobang Sweet Vermouth No. 47
¼ part lemon juice
Simple syrup, to taste
Garnish: lemon slice
Shake ingredients on ice and strain into a tumbler with crushed ice. Top with a splash of soda and garnish with a lemon slice.