Developing the Vermouth Formula
By Otto F. Jacoby of the Berkeley Yeast Laboratory
The first requirement in establishing a vermouth formula obviously must be to know what type of product is ultimately desired. It is not impossible to produce a domestic vermouth which comes very close to the foreign product. But to duplicate the foreign vermouth exactly is highly improbably because the herbs and other flavoring bases are not the same here as in other countries; nor do the imported herbs and flowers, some of which should be fresh when used, retain their desired characteristics after shipment and often too long storage. Our domestic herbs, bearing botanically the same basic name as foreign varieties, are useful, but of very different character just as certain types of grapes grown in Europe differ in character when transplanted in our soil and climate.
It is unfortunate that in America the problem of a quality product is so greatly over-simplified through the decision that the desired product is to be as close an imitation as possible of some foreign product. It would be much more to the point to have the objective of producing a strictly American or California Type Vermouth, and preferably one that reaches its zenith of taste when mixed with a well-prepared California Brandy. We usually have our cocktails prepared with Gin and French (Dry) Vermouth or with Bourbon and Italian (Sweet) Vermouth, but a cocktail with American or California type Vermouth mixed with our native Brandy has not yet been prepared because the true California Vermouth does not exist.
It is a fallacy to think that good herbs can come only from Europe or other foreign countries. Our own mountains, deserts, and seashores provide a wealth of native flavoring ingredients with their own specific characteristics. The point to bear in mind is that the use of these herbs should bring out a fine distinctive flavor which would be recognized proudly as our native vermouth.
As far as laboratory exercises are concerned, the first step is to build up the herb library. Just as another library consists of an assortment of books, the herb library consists of a complete assortment of herbs, flowers, roots, fruits, barks, etc. One step farther along the line, it consists of an assortment of extracts of herbs, each ready for use in experimental compounding. The extracts are far superior to the herbs themselves for experimental mixtures and preliminary formulations. They are more easily handled, measured and standardized; they also permit minor adjustments in an experimental mixture.
Our present herb library at the Berkeley Yeast Laboratory consists of 225 bottles, each the extract of a different herb or flavoring material. We are adding to it regularly, as it is still far from complete.
Preparing the extracts is simple, but still requires some care. In an extraction with water, certain characteristic of the herb are extracted, in some more the desirables, in others more the undesirables. The same is true of extractions in alcoholic solutions of different strength. I have found that extraction with a fortified white or sweet wine of 20 per cent alcoholic content affords a good balance in this respect. It gives the most efficient extraction from the point of view of securing a desirable balance of extractives, and of securing the greatest concentration of desirable constituents. These extracts are held in the library in contact with the herbs. They are suitable for all practical purposes for approximately 18 months with no great danger of decomposition.
The selection of herbs is an art in itself. Various published formularies will list generally about 50 or so of the widely known herbs and seasonings. The actual selection of flavorings should go further than that, however. Every non-poisonous plant with a pronounced taste or odor could be potentially an ingredient for any beverage. The concentration required may amount to only a few drops in a gallon, but these few drops may be just the amount needed to balance the formula and bring it to completeness in satisfying the palate, and in accenting or diminishing the effect of the other constituents.
Balancing the Formula
After the herb library has been developed, and a reasonable approximation to the formula has been reached, the important step of balancing the formula must be considered. This is a slow but interesting task. To achieve the final balance of taste requires a very sensitive palate, and also requires more than one palate. The practical value of a vermouth or other compounded wines depends entirely upon consumer acceptance, and tastes vary widely among different individuals.
The compounder has the initial responsibility of reaching the general overall taste that is required for the vermouth or compounded product under consideration. After that he must check the reactions of his own palate with those of as many other collaborators as possible. The reaction of each taster should be noted.
Different herbs and different essences excite different taste buds within the mouth. If one cares to taste any vermouth slowly, deliberately and critically, he will be able to note the actual geographic location of the taste buds within his own mouth which are stimulated.
The final vermouth must have a round taste on the palate, and at the same time retain the essential basic characteristics of the product that is desired. Bringing the formula to masterly perfection may take months or years of continued checking and experimentation in this way.
Speaking more grossly, the formula must also be balanced as regards acidity, tannin, sugar and other, constituents which can actually be measured chemically. As compared with the balancing of taste, this is a very simple matter.
Analyzing the Herbs
The essential constituents of the herbs are their peculiar components which contribute to the taste and odor. These are present only in minute amounts, and as yet are not subject to chemical analysis. Inasmuch as the concentration of these constituents may vary from one lot of herbs to another, a quality comparison would be the proper procedure.
There are more detailed ways of doing this, but for the practical purposes of a cellarman the simple method of comparison of dilutions between the standard herb tincture of the library and the freshly prepared one from the newly received herb of the same species is sufficient to warn him in case of contrast in strength and to give him a chance to adjust the correct measurement in his formula before manufacturing.
In case of weaker appearances in new herbs, some cellarmen prefer to apply the original quantities as given in the formula and complete the correction in flavor when the vermouth has fully extracted the applied ingredients. In any case, the preparatory quality check would be something like this:
We have one established standard herb essence, No. 1, in our library and have just prepared another test essence of the new herb with the same ingredients as No. 1, called No. 2. In order to compare No. 1 with No. 2, four 500 cc graduates are used. Graduate A receives from 1 to 5 cc of the standard herb essence, No. 1, the amount depending entirely on the strength of the concentration and the potency of the type of flavoring material. Graduate B receives the same amount as graduate A, but the essence is taken from the test essence No. 2. Graduate C and D will receive essence No. 2, but one slightly less (20 per cent) and the other slightly more (20 per cent) than graduate B.
Now all four graduates are filled with distilled water up to the end-mark, are thoroughly agitated, and are ready for the organoleptic test.
We soon find out whether graduate B, C or D will come nearest to graduate A in taste and odor. We could taste the samples best in snifters and should number each graduate in order to avoid confusion. By finding out where there is the closest similarity of B, C and D to A, we can determine whether to add more or less of this tested herb to balance the formula.
After the formula has finally been established through this prolonged series of tasting, the final test is made in the commercial production of the new vermouth. The wine base for the vermouth is preferably a relatively neutral white wine such as Riesling or Sauterne type which is fortified to 20 per cent alcohol content.
Whether or not any sugar is to be added to the wine depends entirely on the type of vermouth that is to be produced. If as in Italian vermouth the product is to be dark in color, it often pays to sweeten it with a grape concentrate that has been heated in an open pan and concentrated still further, to a soft ball (235-240 F).
The syrup mostly caramelizes during this process and contributes the dark color; at the same time the taste that it imparts is considerably smoother and blends in better than when caramel color is added. If coloring should be removed, as sometimes is necessary in French Vermouth, carbon should never be used in the finished product, as it also removes some of the flavoring constituents, ruining the carefully established blend.
In adding tannin to vermouth, it is recommendable to use grapeseed tannin, because it keeps the product “within the cycle of its own nature.” If a few grapeseeds (not stems) were crushed with the grapes before fermentation and incorporated in the wine through its entire life, it would probably produce an even finer blend in the final vermouth, as well as helping in the fining of the product. Including a small amount of phosphoric acid with the citric that is added seems also to give a “shock” which causes the acids to blend in more smoothly with the bitter components of the vermouth.
In the extraction process the flavoring materials are placed inside cotton bags which are suspended in the wine. This keeps particles of the herbs from being retained by the wine and the extraction from being carried on longer than desired. The convection currents in the wine tank, together with mechanical agitation, serve to distribute the extractives uniformly through the wine. The extracting tank should be equipped with a cloth-covered false bottom, again to hold back any herb particles that may have escaped from burst cotton bags, when the wine was withdrawn.
After the extraction, the wine is balanced through the addition of tannin, sugar, acids, or other required materials. Then it should be allowed to rest for one week and then filtered. Pectinous resistance in the first filtration process would be easily overcome by treating the young vermouth beforehand with pectin-breaking-down-enzymes.
Following this filtration, the wine should stand for at least three months, during which time the several congenerics can blend completely. A cloudiness may develop during this time through purely natural causes in this blending process, and the cloud could of course be removed through fining and proper filtration methods.
Certain phases of the development of the formula and the production of vermouth are purely mechanical, but the production of quality products is still essentially an art, the same as production of quality liqueurs.
It will remain an art rather than a science until each separate constituent can be analyzed objectively, and until the inferential effect of each material added to a blend is subject to analysis. Until this day comes, the analysis of the various components and the effect of various additives must still be made by a carefully developed palate and an instinct that is partly inborn and brought out only after a long practice and experience in flavors.
A compounded wine also can be manufactured for tax purposes through the addition of commercial vermouth extracts or essences to any wine base. By using these the flexibility of a character product one desires diminishes and makes the addition of herbs lacking in the essence always necessary.
A quality vermouth product is produced only by the cellarman who lives with the product and whose life and professional pride is tied with it. There is much creative character and proud workmanship left in us so that we could imitate successfully the honored cellar guild of past centuries and their masters in our comparatively young industry. “The quality of one’s products should be the integrity and honor of the maker.”