Wormwood is just the beginning when it comes to making wonderful vermouth, as Alexis Buxton-Collins discovers at Adelaide Hills Distillery.
When Sacha La Forgia founded Adelaide Hills Distillery, he was still working as a winemaker and operating out of the corner of his boss’ shed.
“I used to fill one bottle at a time by hand, put the top on by hand, put the label on by hand,” he recalls. “It was outrageous.”
Since then, he’s won gold medals at international competitions, released a range of gins, liqueurs and left of centre experiments and moved to a new production facility in Nairne, which he shares with Mismatch Brewing Co. Eventually there’ll be a shared cellar door as well but for the moment it’s just a construction site that happens to have excellent views over the surrounding hills and apple orchards.
The driveway is lined with weeds, wildflowers and, as La Forgia points out, wormwood descended from plants brought out by early migrants. Now the fabled herb grows wild around the hills, and though he has no plans to make absinthe, he does use it in another concoction: vermouth.
The similarity between the words ‘wormwood’ and ‘vermouth’ is no accident. Though it was first produced in Torino in the late 18th Century, the drink get its name from ‘vermut’, the German word for wormwood and one of vermouth’s key ingredients. But this bitter plant is just one of a variety of herbs, spices, seeds, berries, barks, flowers and roots that are used to add flavour to a wine base when making vermouth.
Ingredients like orange rind, cinchona bark, cloves and juniper were traditionally chosen as much for purported medicinal qualities as for flavour. Indeed, studies have shown that bitter foods speed up metabolism, and vermouth remains a popular pre- (or post-) dinner drink, though flavour profiles are far more important than any supposed health benefits these days.
The resulting liquid is something like a mix between wine and gin, a natural fit for a man who spent years as a winemaker before launching Adelaide Hills distillery. Now La Forgia buys the wine in. Rather than using a delicate Adelaide Hills drop he has it brought up from McLaren Vale because it is “fuller, richer and carries the herbs better — it’s better suited to vermouth.”
Then he takes the herbs and infuses them in spirit to extract their flavour and colour before using that to fortify the wine. Sacha’s botanical blend is a mix of 36 ingredients sent over by a winemaker in Torino, though he’s tight lipped about what it contains apart from wormwood. And no, he doesn’t use the plants growing on his driveway.
Vermouth originated as a way to cover the taste of bad wine and extend its shelf life, but has since evolved into something far more refined. The blend of bitter and sweet notes with a mix of herbaceous flavours makes it an excellent way to add complexity to a drink and it has since found its way into classic cocktails like the martini and negroni.
La Forgia used these drinks as his starting point when developing his own range, creating a Dry Vermouth that could be used in a martini with his 78 Degrees gin, a Rosso that could pair well in a negroni with his Bitter Orange amaro and a Rosé that “was supposed to be a bit wild but we accidentally made it really serious.”
The French-style Dry Vermouth uses Chenin Blanc as a base while the Italian-style Rosso begins with Grenache that has been barrel-aged for two years. On top of the dominant herb package, Sacha also adds some native ingredients — the Dry has native thyme, wattleseed and karkalla for a herbacous and slightly salty flavour.
The Rosso meanwhile gets anise myrtle and lemon myrtle along with some finger lime and quandong and is significantly sweeter. Just how much is apparent when La Forgia reveals the levels of residual sugar: 7 and 100 grams per litre for the Dry and Rosso respectively. Each is bottled at 18 per cent alcohol, but because of the different starting points of the wines (12 per cent for the white, 15 per cent for the red), the Dry comes out far leaner and more savoury.
As for the third, accidentally serious style, the Rosé gave La Forgia some room to experiment. Beginning with the same Chenin Blanc base as the dry, he blended in Shiraz and Grenache. Then he added a blend of the native botanicals that went into the others, and the result is slightly sweet with forest fruit characters from the red wines.
He laughs that “this isn’t what we were trying to make,” but the result was too good to pass up.
Learn about pairing vermouth with food at the upcoming Vermouth + Fortified with Native Food discovery session at the Hot 100 Winter Harvest
Photography: Ross McNaughtan