Vermouth… Some Practical Hints

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This is a reproduction of a 1945 Wines & Vines article. It may be under copyright but I’m reproducing it anyhow to make the information more available and give the wonderful people at inter library loan a break. Hopefully this great body of work can help rejuvenate interest in aromatized wines.

by George V. Carson

As an old hand in making both dry and sweet vermouth, I have read with great interest H. Otto Sichel’s excellent article about vermouth in the March issue of Wines & Vines. There is no doubt in my mind that domestic vermouth is going to stay, especially as it is quite feasible to produce vermouth in this country on a par with the best French and Italian products. Some herbs now obtainable are not so intensive as those formerly imported from Europe, but in the not too distant future we may expect to import these again which will greatly ease the work of the vermouth producers.

There are a few points in Mr. Sichel’s article which might be elucidated with advantage. Speaking from many years’ practice, I would like to give a few hints as to the best way of producing both dry and sweet vermouth under present conditions of government regulations and market conditions.

There have been published innumerable vermouth formulas, both in Europe and in this country—some fantastic, some misleading, but hardly a single one of them can be used with good practical results. European houses try to keep their formulas secret and it is not likely that the published formulas actually are those being used in a recognized winery. Nevertheless, after many years of research and experimenting I can say that, with eight extract of herbs for dry vermouth and six extracts for sweet, it is possible to produce qualities as good as any manufactured in France or Italy.

I do not favor the addition of herbs directly to the wine. It is much better to macerate these herbs in fortified white wine of 21 per cent alcohol, in separate containers, stirring them daily for two to three weeks. Of these macerated herbs, one-half of 1 percent of some, and up to 5 per cent of others, are added to the fortified white wine, together with other wines or sweetening material to turn it into vermouth.

The maceration in white fortified wine or unbaked sherry material is quite as effective as any method used in Europe. There, brandy or neutral spirits, cut down to 20 to 25 per cent by volume, is being used in the process of maceration, with the cutting down being effective in some cases by water at or near the boiling point. It is new to me “that in Italy herbs are being macerated in spirits of about 170 proof” which is equal to 85 per cent by volume –a procedure which, in my opinion is more likely to kill the aroma than to bring it out.

According to article 86-A, regulations No. 7, approved October 6, 1937, amended-distilled spirits may be used for manufacturing essences “to extract and hold in solution the flavoring materials” for vermouth. However, as the distilled spirits for such essences have to be taxpaid, the above method, while being quite as effective, is more economical.

It is advisable, after the herbs have been macerated sufficiently, to make a trial blend in a small quantity to ascertain whether the combination is according to the quality desired or whether adjustments are necessary.

This trial blend should be observed for at least three weeks, so as to be sure that there is no excessive bitterness in the finished product. Artemesia and some other herbs have the tendency sometimes to develop an excessively bitter taste after some weeks, but it is a taste which cannot be detected immediately. However, if the trial blend is satisfactory after about three weeks in storage, the big blend can be produced in safety.

Speaking about herba absinthii or artemisia I would like to point out that, as far as I am aware, no law in this or any other country prohibits the use of these herbs for maceration, the product of which is harmless. The distillation of these herbs, however, is outlawed in most countries because the end product is absinth, a liquor that is considered harmful. As for the basic material to be used for dry and sweet vermouth, any sound, neutral white wine with a high total of fixed acidity fortified to 21 per cent for dry and 24 per cent for sweet vermouth can be employed. As the white wines with the necessary fixed acidity are scarce in California the addition of citric or tartaric acid as suggested by Mr. Sichel is indicated.

The same wines should be used for the maceration of the herbs.

For sweet vermouth the addition, beside sugar, of about 10 per cent of a good muscatel with greatly improve the quality, while dry vermouth needs only a very slight addition of sugar or sweet wine, refrigeration of the finished product is highly advisable.

It would greatly facilitate the production of vermouth if fortification of white wine, sweetening material and extracts of herbs were to be permitted in the fortifying room of a winery, as suggested in my article, “some suggestion to simplify regulations concerning the production of dessert wines,” published in no. 5 of Wines and Vines in may, 1943.

*******

This article seems to be a reply to another article in Wine & Vines by a Mr. Sichel. I do have a request in for Sichel’s article with inter library loan and hopefully will have it soon. One of the important things to take away from the article is Carson’s take on vermouth’s high art style of exclusivity. He theorizes that many of the available vermouth recipes might even be intentionally misleading. He is confident that 8 botanicals can make a vermouth though I think it would create flavors fun but less refined as in Carpano’s Antica. Carson’s maceration technique is notable. He infuses at the minimum of alcohol that can keep the wine stable so as not to over extract the botanicals. Carson claims the European’s do the same but differs in that he primarily uses wine as the base instead of water and a distillate. He claims it is for tax purposes but it also has the effect of preserving the natural acidity in the wine which is pointed out as a problem in California wines. (though its noted you can just add acid powder)

Carson’s maceration advice would probably help in production of cocktail bitters. I’ve tasted too many lately that were ruthlessly bitter in a negative way. In my opinion, bitters do not have to be bitter. They are merely a set of extracts that borrowed the name “bitters” from their previously medicinal heritage. To make them non potable the TCB should focus, not on making them objectionably “bitter” but rather on having a sufficiently high extract. extract. Being over a certain level probably sufficiently leads to non potability.

Interestingly, Carson explains vermouth’s take on wormwood. It is not illegal until its distilled and it comes across as the less it is talked about, the better (to avoid scrutiny). Carson never really talks about the analytical technique of constructing a formula and over all seems like he is making budget vermouth and not high art stuff. Amerine’s bibliography of vermouth has another article by Carson in it that is mainly about proposals for the tax code and the abstract notes that all of his suggestions were adopted.

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Advanced Kegging Basics

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I used to work in a restaurant with horribly impractical draft and soda systems that functioned like voodoo. I ended up with a lot of regrets about not understanding the systems and how to tune and clean them.  Slowly I realized that if I ever worked in a winery, brewery, or distillery (which I aspire to) I would need a thorough understanding of kegging because they are constantly used for utility purposes.  In beverage production, kegs are used for storing product in oxygen free environments, pressure filtration, topping barrels, and dispensing cleaning chemicals. Poking around the web you find that countless industries use Cornelius style kegs to dispense oils and chemicals).

Everybody seems to use utility kegging except restaurants and bars which strikes me as strange since they use beer kegs. What also strikes me as strange is that restaurant culture has absorbed so much knowledge of craft beer and wine (terroir, how it is made etc…), but never soaked up any winery/brewery wisdom on sanitation or dispensing technique. Very few bars have properly calibrated soda guns yet doing it is extremely simple with a brix cup, syrup separator and flat head screw driver. Bar tonic water might not suck as bad as it does if it were properly calibrated. Near every bar I’ve ever worked in has dirty fridges and unsanitary draft systems. People that clean taps for a living have told me that they won’t drink draft beer from their own clients. When someone changes a keg without sanitizing connectors in a contaminated environment it is like coughing on someone with bubonic plaque. It would never happen in a winery or brewery yet the final market place seems to be oblivious.

Well, I can no longer be ignorant and will make best efforts to set a good example wherever I work. On to the fun stuff…

Cornelius kegs can theoretically (I’m working on proving it) be integrated into a restaurant program in a variety of ways. Used 5 gallon kegs can be acquired at times for free and often as cheaply as $20. New seals and fittings don’t cost too much more and restaurants usually have tons of spare gas tanks around.

For unpredictable, high volume applications kegs can be used to store fresh juices, quickly purged of oxygen in a spatially efficient format. The restaurant I just started at juices its own cranberries and at its best it can taste incredible but it doesn’t seem to get sold at a consistent pace and often oxidizes. Making small batches frequently as a solution can be uneconomical. The cranberry juice, which we make a couple gallons at a time, could simply be put into a keg and purged of oxygen in mere seconds. A cheap plastic “cobra” faucet could dispense it in the walk-in to our squeeze bottles without making a mess like we usually do. I’m really curious to test it, but the same could be done for notoriously perishable lemon and lime juice. Lemons and limes oxidize incredibly fast and can turn to “pine-sol” over night. Erratically high volume bars could potentially juice for a couple days if they could store their juice oxygen free. Purging as you add every quart could possibly prevent enough oxygen absorption that you could safely keep on hand 5 gallons of lemon juice say for a massive event taking place the next day (it remains to be tested [finally tested!]). In tight quarters, a pastry department could dispense a beautifully un-oxidized fruit soup at large and unpredictable volumes (kegging will only prevent oxidation, not eventual fermentation from wild yeasts).

EDITED TO ADD: KEGGING WILL NOT PREVENT ENZYMATIC BITTERING WHICH IS THE SECOND SCOURGE OF CITRUS JUICES. [ACTUALLY IT IS OFTEN CHARMING]

The next application is pressure filtration which has been developed for home brewing. Many restaurants now sell massive volumes of house made liqueurs and infused spirits that can benefit from “polishing”. Buchner funnels are small and expensive rivaling the price of a Cornelius keg filter setup. Chefs could possibly also use filtration for delicate waters and consommes. What needs to be tested is how well the filters can handle pectin which often destroys a wine filter by clogging it. [NOW A DAYS YOU CAN ALSO USE PECTIC ENZYZMES!]

The next thing that can be done with a Cornelius keg is filling it with syrup or concentrate and integrating it into a “wonder bar” soda gun instead of a typical bag in the box. The syrup can either go to a free water or a free soda water channel. Unfortunately the kegs contents have to be either blended with water or soda water at a ratio near 5 to 1. I don’t even think you can get as low as 2 to 1 because the screw that adjust the syrup will leak and potentially pop out creating a serious mess so you could never have a margarita dispensed from a typical soda gun. You would need a separate rig, which does exist, for the night club industry.

The most elaborate and impressive thing a Cornelius keg can do is force carbonate which dissolves C02 into a liquid which can either be dispensed on draft or counter pressure bottle filled into a beer or champagne bottle and capped. The possibilities of the technology are mind blowing but its easier said than done and you need a few hundred dollars worth of specialty parts.

Besides being clean, pressurized draft systems have to be “balanced” which means that what you serve has to be able to come out of the tap without foaming to death. The right pressure and spout for the right beer and most importantly in between, the right hose. The walls of the hose resist the liquid passing over it effecting whether CO2 comes out of solution or not. The resistance is relative to the material and the length of the hose and should be slightly less than your PSI. (I’m regurgitating this, I really haven’t figured it all out). Soda and force carbonated wine exist in pressures far beyond beer and I’m not sure if common home brew equipment scales up high enough.

EDITED TO ADD: EVERY PROSECCO I’VE EVER HAD ON TAP HAS SUCKED AND HAS BEEN BARELY CARBONATED.  UNLESS YOU TRULY UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE DOING DO NOT TRY IT AND WASTE OUR PRECIOUS DINING DOLLARS.

Ginger beer exists at beer pressures and I’m sure can be bottled easily enough, the tart and brut hibiscus soda of my dreams exists at champagne pressures and I’m sure is a trick to get into the bottle. Something else that is theoretically possible is to do something with distressed wines on the market. Many distributors have white wine that is too old. Some whites become frail and sickly (universally dead) while others just become so nutty they are obnoxious and one dimensional after they have lost their fruit contrast; desirable flavors in a sparkler. Trade the fruit for bubbles and you have got something interesting enough to drink. Let it sit under pressure long enough and I’m sure the bubbles will be of champagne quality (what you hear about champagne method bubbles being superior is likely BS). I’ve seen some great wines out there like vintage 2000 Grechetto sold for $2/750ml. The wine was liquid hazelnuts and would be a shame to see it go down the drain (60 cases).

These are all just ideas I’m slowly going to develop and test. I’d love to hear of any one else’s experiences with the technology.

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Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients

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[I have the latest version of Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients and I think all the information on Amaros was taken out many editions ago. If anyone wants to pursue it, I bet you need one of the first few editions where I think Fenaroli himself was editor.]

Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients is a reference in Amerine’s Annotated Bibliography of Vermouth. The abstract did not make it seem useful so I didn’t bother to track it down for a while, but wow!

I came across Fenaroli’s work by exploring the search term flavor contrast. The book, over all, is a sprawling mess of artificial flavors and chemistry that is beyond me, but then it breaks into a chapter on bitter flavors. The tone shows that Fenaroli had a soft spot for well composed bitterness. I won’t plageurize too much because the book (volume II) is available for preview on google books and the chapter on bitter flavors starts on page 600 and goes to about 616.

What makes the work so remarkable is that Fenaroli makes an attempt (it is not great, but an attempt none the less) to tackle arrangement and the interaction of bitter flavors with others. The chapter notes that creating bitter beverages is difficult because we are bound by tradition. It is noted that Britain and America have really only seemed to accept quinine bitters while other styles that are really important to western Europe didn’t gain much main stream traction.

Fenaroli points out that bitters is a hardly useful term because it is such a broad range of flavors and some seemingly similar face different acceptance by cultures.

The chapter eventually gets down to the nitty gritty and breaks down specific botanicals. Some botanicals are pointed out to be aromatic-bitter and some are plain bitter. Similar to the works of Harold Mcgee, complementary flavors are broken down into aromatic, pungent, and sweet. Commonly used ingredients are described in tables similar to Amerine’s, but Fenaroli also points out that a few botanicals may also have a terpeneless option (bitter orange, sweet orange, mint). I’ve seen terpene removal described in many sources but no one ever describes the sensory differences. Is Cointreau terpeneless and what about Clement’s Creole Shrubb? [1/6/16 Cointreau is terpeneless and see my later posts because I’ve done a ton on the topic] Is it for shelf stability so nothing separates due to storage temperature fluxes? I’ve seen terpenes separate from gin concentrates I’ve made. [It is for stability and because sometimes the aromas degrade after many years. It is also because they cast olfactory shadows and increase the threshold of perception of the underlying essential oil.]

One of the first details of arrangements claims that vanilla, licorice, star anise, and anise can be used as sweeteners to create contrasting effect in slightly pungent or sharp flavors such as thyme, peppermint, ceylon cinnamon, nutmeg, grains of paradise, clove buds, cardamom, juniper, mace, and ginger. [some of these ideas have recently appeared in Old Tom gins that are hitting the market without sugar.]

Fenaroli talks of exclusively bitter flavors but doesn’t really explain what to do with them. Tonic action is also mentioned as a property of some botanicals buts it is not clear what is meant. Tonic could mean any short term medicinal value or maybe tone-ic for an ability to change a shade of flavor. Sour orange peel often augments the fruit of a wine base but is also a known appetite suppressant.

The chapter goes on to talk about the structural decisions of making bitter beverages and breaks products down to styles that mainly deal with the level of extract and intensity of bitter. The classifications are fairly simple: white dry vermouths, white, highly aromatic vermouths, white lightly aromatic vermouths, red vermouths, red bitter vermouths, and cinchona-flavored red vermouths. A chart adapted to the classifications shows where many botanicals fit, but ultimately does not seem too useful.

A really unique tidbit from the chapter claims that its “possible to employ flavor distillates in all bitter formulations to create special effects“. This may mean that you can distill a bitter botanical like wormwood to increase the aroma but lose the bitter principle. [This is the million dollar idea.]

Fenaroli goes on to randomly point out a few botanical series that supposedly show great affinity. Unfortunately they do not reveal too much logic in their construction.

“angelica with: balm, cardamom, coriander, hyssop, marjoram, mint, thyme, vanilla.”

“calamus with: cardamom, cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, zedoary; or: calumba, camomile, cascarilla, cinchona, larch agaric, and rhubarb.”

“chamomile with: artichoke, bitter orange, cinchona, genepi, gentian, gentian (stemless), mint, summer savory.”

“cascarilla with: bitter and sweet orange, calamus, chinotti, cinnamon, grains of paradise, lemon, nutmeg, thyme.”

“centuary with: calamus, cinchona, condurango, gentian, gentian (stemless); or: bitter and sweet orange, cardamom, clove, lemon, locorice, mace.”

“condurango with: bitter orange, cardamom, chicory, cinchona, dandelion, lemon, rhubarb.”

Some of the ingredients I’ve either never heard of (condurango, larch agaric) or I have no experience with (summer savory, centuary) but overall from my limited experience, the series try to create a terraced dynamic among the contrasts.

The chapter goes on to repeat some the counter intuitive advice Amerine gives that tinctures should be between 21-30% in alcohol. Fenaroli adds to the advice by claiming alcohol content should be considered in the final formulation because it may enhance certain notes. So the everclear comes in after you’ve made your extraction to increase the proof. Sugar content should also be considered because it “contrasts the bitter bouquet”.

Another variable, rarely applicable today, is that flavors obtained vary with carbonation. Carbonation has a two fold effect. According to Fenaroli, “desensitization of the taste buds following an initial temporary stimulative effect, carbon dioxide also reacts chemically with the constituents of the flavor complex”. In the cocktail context there isn’t much room to age bitter sodas, but I wonder what happens when you compare flat normal Campari to a sample that was whipped with a whisk. This would impact the perception of shaken or stirred drinks.

The chapter moves more into formulations and arrangement with Fenaroli making some interesting analysis, “therefore, formulations in most cases are hinged on the combination either of bitter flavors with citrus notes or of aromatic notes with bitter flavors”. I think this simply means you need contrast. Amer Picon or Cynar is an example of a bitter paired with citrus and Fernet is an example of bitter with aromatic. Fenaroli interestingly goes into more detail on Fernet and Aperol.

“Fernet formulation, the flavor contrast lies between mint and saffron and related variations, such as anise and saffron. In Aperol, select, and other similar products, the basic flavor ingredients consists of a blend of soluble essential oils of sweet and bitter orange together with added amounts of vanilla or vanillin; the bitter principle consists of a complex bitter flavor formulated by using some of the herbs listed in table 5.”

Nothing monumental, but the specific examples support how one bitter focuses on aromatic accompaniments and there other citrus and “sweeteners”.

“In Fernet, which is flavored with the characteristic aromatic note based on saffron and mint combinations, neither citrus nor other essential oils are used (except for mint essential oil). The bitter flavor usually is obtained with a few herbs used in suitable ratios, such as angelica (roots), calamus, calumba, camomile, centaury, cinchona, gentian, imperatoria, larch agaric, rhubarb, st. johnswort, and zedoary to which aloe and myrrh resinoid are added. A large mint-to-bitter-complex ratio yields mint-flavored Fernet types. The flavor of products with a definite basic note (anise, artichoke, cinchona, gentian, rhubarb, etc) is rounded and upgraded using notes strictly dependent on the background note. This leaves very little room for variations and, therefore, permits only the addition of notes to refine and characterize the finished product.”

Wow, the last passage is a mouthful but really explains how arrangements can change, creating new products like adapting Fernet Branca to Branca Menta. The bitter principles are also built from many botanicals to make a sensation broader and more crescendoed. I’m not sure how a botanical could be strictly dependent on a background note limiting the potential of the blend but its interesting to see a logic emerging however unclear it is.

Fenaroli definitely leaves something to be desired, but its interesting to see a new and very analytical take on the subject.

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Advanced Sugar Management Basics

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[Keep in mind how old this is. I leave these around to show where I have been and when.]

For a while I’ve been trying to learn more about what I drink through quantitative beverage analysis (it also might come in handy as a wine maker or distiller some day). Curiosity really built up over so many occasions of tasting wines and getting into arguments if there was residual sugar or not. I wanted to prove that the wine in question had negligible unfermented sugar and therefore the “sweet” sensation was due to other variables. Answering specific questions like how dry are dry wines led to wanting to measure the structural variables of any mystery liquid. How would I model a fruit wine I was making myself or understand a liqueur I was trying to replicate?

With sugar content, when a solution contains both alcohol and water, tools like hydrometers and refractometers need adjustments to have meaning (brix refractometers over estimate sugar in the presence of alcohol and brix hydrometers under estimate sugar), but what are the correlations? and who has already constructed all the necessary empirical charts that are needed to make corrections?
[I have totally given up on brix and now only use specific gravity]

One way to find the sugar content of an alcohol containing mystery solution is to distill off the alcohol and dilute it back to its normal volume with distilled water. I’ve done this before in previous posts and though it works, its a bitch. It also over engineers the problem if you already know the alcohol content confidently which in the case of commercial liqueurs is by law printed on the label. Distillation also destroys the sample. (I will point out that there is also a crazy way for dessert wine makers to analyze their wines by using a formula that uses the over and under estimates of both a refractometer and a hydrometer).

When you know the alcohol variable you can easily use a short range hydrometer to find the sugar content of any liqueur bottling you posses (and maybe without even having them) without destroying product. This is simple because sugar increases specific gravity and we know by how much because there are lots of charts and the opposite is true of alcohol of which there are charts as well. If you find the effect the alcohol has on obscuring the specific gravity from revealing the true sugar content, the effect can be added to the obscured measure to reveal the true sugar content.

If it isn’t clear, the benefit of all this measuring is to either produce intuitively used products based on favorite models or to create relationships between products for the fun of intuitive substitution (you cannot easily substitute liqueur 43 for lillet because the sugar model is so different but you probably can substitute pineau de charentes or even st. germain for lillet). The other benefit is to reduce drink prices (or increase drink profits) by creating successful house made recipes with ingredients where you have a comparative advantage. If you have a walnut tree in your back yard you can probably make nocino cheaper than buying it. Modeling the sugar and alcohol content of great commercial nocino can help make yours great (intensity of aroma will be your only tough to crack variable). You will be able to celebrate walnut cocktails cheaper than anyone else and your celebration will be awesome because the intuitive modeling helps reveal the trees terroir relative to another.

One way to start measuring things if you are lazy or lack the requisite hydrometer is to look at specific gravity tables of commercial products that exist all over the web. These tables were all created for the sake of layering liqueurs in pousse cafes. Gary regan’s (the link breaks periodically but is from books.google.com) is by far the best though it should be considered that many brands (d)evolve over time. Regans’ chart expresses sugar relative to alcohol, so because its not yet a useful number, you simply add the specific gravity influence of the alcohol listed on the label which can be converted with this chart (which also periodically breaks). Once you find the specific gravity of an alcohol water solution that has the same proof as the liqueur, you add 1.0 minus the specific gravity of the particular ratioed alcohol-water solution to the obscured gravity to get the true sugar content un-obscured by alcohol.

Unfortunately your not out of the woods yet. You are still dealing with specific gravity which does not mean much to a pastry scale. To convert specific gravity to g/L or brix you can use the “circular of the national bureau of standards C440” (easily googled to find the indispensible PDF) for easy conversion.

So now with the alcohol printed on the label and one narrow range precision hydrometer you can figure out a sugar content in under three minutes! No refractometer, no distilling.

(Another way to find the density without using a hydrometer is to simply use a kitchen scale) because density = mass / volume. This method can be useful for dealing with volumes too small for a hydrometer though accuracy is sacrificed.

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Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth

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I had requested an article from inter library loan to try and learn more about vermouth production. The article was from the 1948 Wines & Vines publication which is really hard to come across. Hopefully some day they will all be digitized and archived on the web but until then I might just have to type them up and break some copyright laws. Tragically, the article is not overly useful and has a secretive tone. I got the reference to the article from Maynard Amerine’s Vermouth: an annotated bibliography and it seemed like the most promising place to start.

I’m going to plagiarize the entire article and retype the scanning that was sent to me for the sake of education.

Bo, M. J., and M.J. Filice

1948. Gold medal sweet vermouth. Wines & vines 29 (8):27.

From Amerine’s abstract:

“The author’s describe their method of flavoring the sweet vermouth that won the Gold Medal at the 1947 California State Fair: acceptable wine base, herbs (from a secret Italian recipe of 1924), and the process (details given). The authors controlled the plant part used, its source, and the effect of plant particle size. Experiments showed that source of herbs was important. Some herbs gave better results when granulated, other when powdered and others at specific particle size. Their process involved leaving the wine in contact with herbs (starting at 60 degrees C and leaving for 24 hours). The finished vermouth was then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavoring and aromatic components.”

The article:

Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth by Michael J. BO and Michael J. Filice San Martin Vineyards Company

In this article we wish to present the inside story of San Martin Sweet Vermouth, Gold Medal winner in competition at the California, 1947, State Fair, and to discuss the basic principles adhered to in its preparation.

THE WINE BASE

In selecting our wine base we turn to well-aged special dessert type wines only, which are stable, clean and clear. Samples of these wines are taken to the laboratory where a series of small scale blends are conducted. Blending is carried on until a base, balanced as closely as possible in total acidity, volatile acidity, and alcohol, is obtained–and one which is consistent, in flavor and aroma with previous wines used.

We want our wine base to possess a certain delicate aroma and flavor, because we have found that it is complementary to our particular formula. It forms a harmonious blend with the herbs employed both in aroma and flavor. It gives a finished product possessing the characteristics strived for.

Experimentation with several other wine bases obtained through various blends and the use a a neutral wine base in conjunction with our particular formula have failed to give us the same quality and desirable characteristics.

From this we concluded that, in order to bring out the best qualities of a combination of herbs used in any particular formula, the wine base used was definitely an essential factor. Every effort was made to find one that would do most to enhance our herb recipe.

THE HERBS

The selection and combination of the herbs used in developing a vermouth formula is almost unlimited.

The plant portions utilized are the seeds, flowers, barks, stems, leaves and roots. Each of these portions taken from the same herb plant, in most cases, will produce from shades to marked differences in flavor and aroma.

During the many years required to develop our formula to its present composition, we had as a basis for our work a secret Italian recipe, obtained through family sources in Italy about 1924. The combination of herbs contained therein gave us to a close degree the characteristics we desired, but not exactly what we wanted.

We sought, therefore, to change the imported recipe to an extent necessary to make it conform exactly with what we had in mind. Through the long experimental process of adding other herbs to the formula, substituting and eliminating, we found that herb recipe that met with our satisfaction.

We then decided to investigate the possibility of improving and refining that which we already had, without making any material changes in the constituent elements. This decision narrowed the avenues through which improvement might be realized to primarily the following three:

1. To conduct experiments using different portions of the same herb plant than the one called for by the formula.

2. To purchase herbs from different reliable botanical firms, both in this country and abroad, compare their qualities and note what effect each would have when exclusively used in our formula and when used in combination with herbs obtained from other firms.

3. To explore the effect of herb particle size in the extraction of desirable flavors to the elimination of those least desirable.

The first mentioned series of experiments brought about one advantageous and desirable change. The portion used, in the case of one herb, was changed from the seed to the root.

In the second series of experiments, results noted in the laboratory proved that the same herb purchased from several different botanical houses did not in all cases afford the same quality in the finished product. We therefore confined our purchasing of individual herbs to those firms whose particular product did more, in our estimation, to improve our vermouth. Such tests have been preserved as an integral part of our vermouth production.

In the third approach, extractions were made of whole, chopped, granulated and powdered portions of the different herbs used in the formula. Results of subsequent comparisons, demonstrated that certain herbs yielded a more preferred extraction when in granulated form, and others when in a powdered form. From that time forward our herbs have been ordered, specifying particle size, in conformity with the above mentioned tests, with the same desirable results in evidence.

THE PROCESS

Following the determination of the wine base blend in the laboratory, a corresponding large scale blend is made in the cellar, the total amount being based on the quantity of vermouth we have decided to produce.

Approximately 5 per cent of the prepared wine base is pumped in the vermouth processing tank and heated to 140 degrees F. The herbs, accurately weighed, are placed in the hot wine and all openings of the tank tightly closed in order not to lose any of the volatile aromatic constituents. The herbs are allowed to stay in contact with the hot wine for a period of 24 hours, after which the remainder of the wine base, at cellar temperature, is added.

The mass is allowed to stand for 24 hours more and is then circulated daily, by means of a small pump, for a period of seven days. On the seventh day, a sample is drawn and checked for flavor and aroma. This procedure is followed daily until the desired flavor and aroma have developed. Under no circumstances do we allow a complete extraction of the herbs, because with our particular formula we have found that partial extraction of the herbs gives us a much smoother vermouth, free from harsh tannins, etc.

When the maceration is completed, the sugar content is adjusted to 10 Balling by the use of concentrate and pure cane sugar. It is then filtered and, if necessary, stabilized in the usual manner.

The finished vermouth is then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavorings and aromatic components. When this condition is considered, through periodical tastings, to have been accomplished, the vermouth is bottled and held in storage as a backlog for future market requirements.

********************************************

So I see how they are very analytical and systematically tried many different options but I could have figured that out myself. I would love to find more logic to particle extraction like maybe powder things that can be fully extracted like an orange peel and go upwards in particle size as you want to minimize the extraction like your wormwood or overly bitter roots.

What I’m looking for is a language that was used to describe the shades of difference producers sorted through. How do you describe the different shades of something elemental like orange peel? and what is the difference between quality within herbs and terroir?

What are the mechanics of the wine base and how do they function relative to particular herb formulas. Perhaps formulas with less fruit modifiers rely less on a high extract wine base and neutral wine bases came to be because producers would build more fruit modifiers into their herb formulas and therefore streamline their massive productions as well as hedge against year to year variance. Does the language in these articles ever get more useful than “it forms a harmonious blend”?

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Reconstructing Cointreau

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In a recent post I deconstructed Cointreau to learn its many mysteries.

I learned Cointreau’s sugar content to tell more about it’s structure. I translated the g/L sugar measure to something volumetric to explain the starting alcohol content before dilution by sugar down to 80 proof. This sounds complicated but I can now reassemble the shell of the liqueur in under a minute.

What I never figured out is the extract intensity of the oranges which I figured I could only do by taste (really rustic recipes say about three oranges).

Well, at the restaurant I got a couple cases of stunning sour oranges and I put all the peels in high proof alcohol to make a flavor concentrate. After a couple weeks, the concentrate was ready to strain and make a few liters of Creole Shrubb with Cointreau’s intuitive to use proportions.

The sugar content was no problem to hit perfectly and getting very close to the correct alcohol content was not that big a deal, but wow is judging the intensity tough.

Orange is such a cloyingly outrageous flavor. As soon as you taste or even smell one sample you have no chance of differentiating the other. You can’t even tweak it in the same sitting. The aroma fills the room and you must revisit everything the next day. Well after patient days I think I nailed a realistic comparison down. No problem except it brings up some more questions.

What does my infusion of orange peels have that Cointreau’s distillate leaves behind? Terpenes?

Do I even want the same intensity as Cointreau? or do I want more? I primarily use Cointreau in tart drinks like Sidecars and Margaritas. Unfortunately, I also primarily deal with people that for some reason can’t handle a classic 2:1:1 Margarita because it is too tart, too refreshing, too subtle & too elegant. The unbalanced nature of cocktails in general makes the Margarita plagued by the sweet-tart phenomenon of amateur dessert wines. The rules of balanced wine says that as sugar and acid increase in a wine, extract has to increase as well or the wine will taste like hollow artificial candy.

In the unbalanced direction driven nature of cocktails, the “sweet-tart” is fun and desirable by some but feared by so many that need to be weaned onto cocktails. If you increase the orange extract could you have squeamish drinkers enjoying classically proportioned Margaritas? I’m going to try and figure it out.

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Vermouth: An Annotated Bibliography

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This is a book report from my collection of experimental agriculture literature put out by the University of California.

A Tale of Aromatized Wine

Vermouth is a strange topic. Almost everyone who drinks cocktails has heard of the infamous beverage, but outside the sweet type in a Manhattan, few people still consume vermouth. Many historians are aware that vermouth was wildly popular in the past but are uncertain as to why. The short-cut answer is usually that vermouth was considered medicinal, due to its botanicals, and was consumed therapeutically. An alternative, more probable answer is that the natural wines of the vermouth hay day were not very good and consumer tastes out did producer ability to make good natural wine, especially the dry white type.

Producers were held back from making good wine because yeasts got stressed by rustic techniques. Strained yeast often misfire the desired clean ethanol, instead producing higher, fusel alcohols and congeners that induce headaches if consumed in excess. Stressed out wine was likely the case with much of the world until maybe the last thirty or forty years before producers adopted tricks like maintaining low fermentation temperatures to caress the yeasts. Another case against the drinkability of common wine was the yields. If producers could not find markets able to sustain grand cru wine yields that so much of the world is able to slap a vintage on today, the wine would have a diluted taste that many a peasant’s palate would even reject.

The vermouth concept has advantages over primitive natural wine because producers do not have to stress the yeasts in the wine reducing congeners and there is the further ability to add grand cru levels of extract (and due to their good taste they did not take it much farther than that). A wine maker could go with a cleaner low alcohol wine and then fortify it to avoid vinegar spoilage, which was so common in rustic wines, by raising the alcohol content above the limits of acetic acid producing vinegar bacteria (15.5% or so). If the fruit of the wine was eroded by a bad harvest or too high a yield, flavor could be subsidized with orange peels and chamomile flowers, which are botanical anchors to near every vermouth formulation.

Now that producers actually had a stable beverage, unlike the volatile stocks of natural wine slowly turning to vinegar, vermouth makers could add even more sophisticated and amusing depth of flavor to beat the linear and monotone nature of boring ordinary wines. After the vermouth concept became popular, fewer drinkers had to vie for that coveted hillside producing the best grapes. Any imbiber could dabble in complex flavors within products meant for the masses. There are still lots of developing wine regions that have undrinkable white wines by many standards (they command very little money and you see few of them in the market today) and these are probably not coincidentally regions with high rates of vermouth consumption (anecdotally anyhow). I would take a glass of dry vermouth over so many Portuguese dry whites any day of the week. In many wine producing regions long ago, there was vermouth or blandness.

Some of the theories of why vermouth used to be so significant to daily drinking are tucked away in the abstracts of Maynard Amerine’s: Vermouth an Annotated Bibliography (you can finally buy it as an ebook!) which was published in December of 1974. Even in its strange format (literally an A to Z bibliography with short abstracts written by Amerine, the wine technology guru, a strange and interesting tale of aromatized wine is told. For starters, the work was done with funds from the Mario P. Tribuno Memorial Fund given to the University of California to “advance knowledge pertaining to vermouth” (use of the scholarship apparently has been broadened to the study of wine aroma). The Tribuno name should be vaguely familiar because it is the name of the relic of a product currently owned by The Wine Group (formerly owned by Coca Cola), who is the same conglomerate that produces Franzia (aromatized with natural flavors! unfermented peach juice supposedly). An obituary for Mario Tribuno listed him as the former president of the food company GB Raffetto which produces Giroux grenadine among various other bar mixers. Mario P. Tribuno was a pioneer of American vermouth production and led the American industry. The Tribunos were even cocktail enthusiasts. According to one entry in Amerine’s bibliography Mario’s son, John L. Tribuno, who took over Vermouth Industries of America, easily acknowledged the martini as responsible for 95% of American dry vermouth sales in the 1950’s as well as the start of the ever drier martini.

The references depicted by Amerine’s concise abstracts range from the 19th century to deep into the 20th. A big wonder of this novel collection of references is Amerine’s unique ability to handle roughly five languages that frequently appear (English, French, Italian, German, and Russian). The text really demonstrates how the University of California’s programs were able to unify the world’s wine technology. Publications like the American Wines & Vines consistently reappear with insightful articles (English language!) that draw you in to a world where many people grappled with vermouth’s secret formulations. Amerine also points out exciting Italian works from early in the 20th century which he deems to be extremely important that are far beyond the grasp of most enthusiasts language skills (1935. Il vino vermouth ed suoi componenti is listed a standard text).

One can learn a lot from the straight forward abstracts and see an interesting story unfold. Historians agree that Carpano produced the first vermouth in the late 18th century which was (and is via its popular low volatile acid replica!) kind of primitive and rustic relative to what we see today. Carpano’s intent was probably a therapeutic tonic. Afterwards the Cora’s came about in the mid 19th century which started the modern vermouth era with a likely transition from medicinal to a pursuit of the sublimely flavored and easily accessible, which was quickly followed by everyone else. An 18th century Carpano vermouth replica has become very popular in the present cocktail scene as a way to replicate the experience of mid and late 19th century cocktails, but if the Cora’s product style became the mainstream, and was structured more like what we drink today (slightly less extracted and more complex) rather than the fun, but simplistic (yet definitely amusing to drink) Carpano Antica Formula then what the early pioneering bartenders used was probably more similar to the current vermouth incarnation than the Carpano replica product.

A reliable picture of the structure of what people were drinking at the beginning of the 20th century is painted by the surprisingly sophisticated analysis summarized by the abstracts. Even a hundred years ago, vermouths were probably not clumsy and overly intense. One source, unfortunately without a relative comparison, claimed that French vermouths of the day do not really have a lot of aromatic essences and another from the 1920’s compared the intensity of vermouth’s sugar free extract to be that of a dessert wine.

The bibliography shows that vermouth production was spread across the globe with so many cultures consuming the aromatized wine, but not always of top quality (still probably more amusing than the average natural wine). Vermouth was so relied upon that many papers collected by Amerine proposed laws and methods of analysis to detect fraudulent flavors and watering down of the wine bases which really shows how serious the vermouth beverage medium was taken. Rather rigid guidelines of structure (sugar, acid, alcohol, extract) were drawn up that narrowed the ideal of the vermouth aesthetic among producers. The differentiation of current mainstream vermouth production is so narrow that many connoisseurs are unable to reliably differentiate the brands.

One of the most interesting references of the bibliography is a paper by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Internal Revenue. Amerine’s abstract subtly seems to leak admiration for the position of the author Peter Valaer who had access to anyone’s formula that wanted to have a government approved product in the U.S. The Treasury Department conducted thorough analysis of all taxed products and found that many American Vermouths (but definitely not all American!) used “odds and end” and defective wines that were considered high in volatile acidity (vinegar!), which showed the role of vermouth as a means to doctor the hard to swallow, though it was widely noted by the emergent vermouth connoisseurs that bad wine could not be covered up. Peter Valaer also wrote a book in Amerine’s bibliography called Wines of the World written from the same vantage point of the IRS laboratory. Valaer notes that from the producer supplied formulas, most dry vermouths contain ten or fewer botanicals compared to the twenty botanicals of typical sweet vermouths. It is also pointed out by Valaer that many producers use the same formula for their sweet and dry vermouths but with less botanical intensity in the dry.

The abstracts assert that after WWII, vermouth production continued to climb and the Americans got a big domestic sales advantage due to global conflict slowing down importation combined with a significant rise in domestic production quality. Reports criticize overall global production by citing problems like the watering down of wine (vermouth should be more than 75% natural wine) and the use of artificial flavor extracts. These concerns illustrate the fact that vermouth was still thought of as wine by conscious consumers and though enhanced, was still an attempt to celebrate viticulture. Any adulteration had to be done with a traditional minded artistic constraint. The avid straight vermouth drinker of long ago would probably put down his/her brand for a taste of today’s straight, terroir driven grape wine.

Global vermouth production was huge mid century despite sophistication (the commonly used negative application of the word) issues plaguing the market, therefore a large amount of the references are devoted to analyzing products and showing methods of detecting fraud. The market even faced aromatization issues among wines notably in the south of France that were sold as natural grape wine supporting the theory that consumer tastes could not always be met by natural wine production.

The second half of the 20th century started with continued optimism for the U.S. domestic vermouth market but was marked by changes in tastes. In 1965 John L. Tribuno predicted vermouth sales would double within a decade but noted that 1960’s tastes necessitated a lighter flavor in vermouth (lighter whiskey also became fashionable) citing that 90% of dry vermouth was used in martinis. Tribuno’s own article for Wines & Vines pointed out that martinis pre WWII were 2:1 gin to vermouth but over 20 years had evolved to 8:1 and 12:1. Around the same time, the San Francisco Wine Institute “stresses the fact that cheap, young neutral-flavored wines are used as a vermouth base in Europe” which is a departure from the high quality distinct Muscat variety recommended earlier in the century. Whether consumers today have inherited these bland wine bases is hard to say, but Noilly Prat has recently just switched back from its leaner Americanized wine base (likely a product of the 1960’s) to something fuller bodied that the firm had maintained in the less cocktail-centric European market. Amerine actually exposes his own skepticism in an abstract from a 1963 source regarding Noilly Prat. Amerine’s parenthesized comment of “(this is surely not current practice)” refers to a basic wine book author’s claim that the firm ages 800,000 gallons of wine in the sun in 160 gallon barrels for 18 months to mature their wine base. Today it is widely believed that Noilly Prat actually uses such an elaborate process, making their dry vermouth product quite the outlier in the market.

English tastes, at the end of the 1960’s, really showed how significant the vermouth market was to a producing country. A source claims that in 1968, 70% of the Italian wine imported into England was vermouth while only 44% of Italian wine imported into North America was vermouth. If Vermouth represented small percentages of Italian wine production, these markets (especially the English) also show how disregarded (and probably not stable enough for export) the natural wine of a major vermouth producing country was.

The story told by the bibliography essentially ends with market statistics from the very late 1960’s but sourced from the 1970’s close to the bibliography’s publication date. In 1969 Cinzano and Martini & Rossi spent nearly $500,000 on spot radio advertising while Vermouth Industries of American (Tribuno brand which dominated the american market) spent only $74,000. On magazine advertising Martini & Rossi spent $800,000 of the $1.5 million spent by imported vermouth producers relative to the $113,000 of Vermouth Industries of America. Domestic vermouth producers faced an onslaught of advertising but did very little to counter it. More data shows that in 1970 Vermouth industries of America spent even less to tackle the bombardment of foreign producer ads by spending only $80,000 relative to the $1.47 million by imports.

At this point, the story told by the bibliography’s abstracts really leaves you hanging. A 1975 Consumers Union Report on Wine and Spirits still shows the top selling domestic producer Tribuno as favorable in quality but we know they are doomed to obscurity today. Eventually, Tribuno Vermouth will become merely a brand with all its sensory quality stripped away, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when that happens. American vermouths got caught up in the Barbarians at the Gate phenomenon of the 1970’s and 80’s where brands were raided, bought up and shuffled around conglomerates. Tribuno likely got shifted to a conglomerate that could not handle its complex, artisanal nature (good vermouth is hard to make). The conservative corporate cultures could not handle the blitz of highly competitive advertising from competitors. Even if Coca-Cola had expertise battling Pepsi or if RJ Reynolds knew how to fend off Marlborough, American vermouth brands likely became insignificant divisions of giant companies and could not get significant advertising money allocated to fend off Martini and Rossi who had ads by Andy Warhol.

In the fall of domestic producers like Tribuno, it is only an assumption that quality changed along the way exacerbating their demise. At the end of the 20th century, Americans are often thought of as entering a dark age of connoisseurship with no ability to notice the shadows of their former selves that many domestic products had become. We can only hope that the foreign vermouths we are left with today have maintained most of their integrity but the 1960’s introduction of bland wine bases may have taken its toll. In the cocktail scene of the 1980’s and 90’s, Fuzzy Navels and Apple Martini’s without vermouth robbed the spotlight of the Manhattan and Martini. The cocktail market for vermouth likely dropped off a cliff while aperitif consumption faced irrelevance due to significant improvements to natural wine. Many countries subsidized modernization of wine production so stressed yeasts and a lack of markets supporting wines of noble yields became a thing of the past.

In the present, vermouth has finally become relevant again as pre-prohibition style cocktails are back in vogue and gastronomic adventurers try to drink everything. Hopefully the story of vermouth can be continued definitely beyond 1974 and its back story can be pieced together by more than just a collection of abstracts. A richer understanding of vermouth’s history could cement the relevance of the quality producers we still have today so we do not lose anymore and better understanding could also create opportunities for new producers in the future. With some work, hopefully we will see the Mario P. Tribuno Memorial Fund directed back at solely advancing knowledge pertaining to vermouth.

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Deconstructing Cointreau

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The distiller’s wiki claims Cointreau has 250 g/L of sugar which would be a brix of 22.9. I definitely think it is sweeter. Only one way to find out!

The goal of the experiment will be to find the true sugar content and originating alcohol content and volume before sugaring. From this down the road we can make a base that a certain g/L of peels can be added to approximate Cointreau’s intensity.

I keep seeing all sorts of g/L measurements all over the web. Grand Marnier is 254 g/L while Kahlua is 490 g/L

I used a 500 mL sample, distilled off the alcohol and diluted back to 500 mL with distilled water and let it cool back to room temp. My specific gravity hydrometer says 1.1 which is 260 g/L. and my more accurate brix hydrometer reads just less than 23 which validates it.

260 grams of sugar undissolved volumetrically looks like slightly more than a cup. The dissolved volume that it takes up is about 154 mL (using the water test) so the original pre-sugared alcohol content of Cointreau would be 400/(1000-154) or 856 mL of 47% alcohol spirit!

Now we can confidently replicate the structure of Cointreau. All we have to do now is find a gorgeous source of oranges, slowly add their peels and come up with a guideline for orange intensity.

As for me, I’m going to jump the gun on a solid guideline and make some seville orange flavored St. James rhum liqueur!

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Deconstructing Sweet Vermouth

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My aim here is to sacrifice a bottle of Stock’s sweet vermouth to learn something about it. Most importantly, its official sugar content unobscured by alcohol that can only really be found by using distillation.

Before distillation and separation of the alcohol, the vermouth’s brix can be tested obscured by its alcohol content to see how much it throws off the hydrometer (11.25 brix). Most people’s understanding is that sweet vermouths are much higher in sugar so maybe the alcohol (16%) throws the hydrometer off more than I thought (I really just estimated the reading would be off one or two percentage points).

I put the vermouth into the still with an equal volume of water to essentially split it in half. The half left in the still is sugar, water, acid, and whatever aromatic compounds do not distill. What comes through is alcohol, distilled water, and what ever aromatic compounds that are volatile.

After the run and re-cutting what was left in the still to the original volume with distilled water (because a small volume escaped the system) the hydrometer shows a reading of 15.5 brix. This result seems likely because it is within Maynard Amerine’s guidelines for sweet vermouth.

Now we have something intuitive to shoot for in our home made vermouths.

During the run I was also able to taste the distillate as it came out of the the still. The results were very cool in that it smelt exactly like it does out of the bottle. You do see some of the separations of the botanicals as they move through in waves. The orange phase is the most distinct and intense showing how important shades of orange are to a sweet vermouth. I thought I noticed a whisper of vanilla along the way that I never tasted before in Stock and towards the end I noticed heavier wormwood-maybe herb-like aromas.

Now the 15.5 brix measurement of sugar can be translated to grams/liter so we can think of it in another way. With the help of the grams/liter translation, the volume the vermouth’s sugar takes up when dissolved can be found so that we can solve our two variable equation for sugaring and fortifying our wines to stock’s 16% alc. y 15.5 brix model (port often uses a 18% alc. by 6 brix model so if you substitute it for vermouth you will need to compensate with extra sugar for a drink that isn’t too dry!).

A formula that I’ve come across but never really used is weight in g/L = sg * brix * 10

brix 15.5 = SG 1.06326 so —-> g/L = 1.06326 * 15.5 * 10 = 164.8 g/L

Which is 5.81 oz. if you can’t handle metric

(what is interesting is that the tables in the back of Daniel Pambianchi’s Techniques in Home Wine Making show different results. His would be higher by more than 20 grams. So did I go wrong anywhere? I used the Circular of the National Bureau of Standards to get my specific gravity for 15.5 brix. The circulars table also computes the g/L of sucrose so it is an awesome resource to the liqueur maker.)

Now we can see what 164.8 grams of sugar looks like undissolved volumetrically in an oxo measuring cup. using whole foods organic sugar it looks like 3/4 of a cup (different sugar types will make it vary slightly).

When dissolved this will compress. but by how much? Supposedly there are wine makers tables for such things but I haven’t been able to locate any. Pambianchi does note that adding 250 g to 1 liter of water yields a new volume of approximately 1.2 liters.

A useful table may not be that important since we are primarily going to be using the same sugar content over and over. We can probably rely on a one time experiment with sugar and water.

A sugar-water solution and my scale shows that 164.8 g/L dissolves and compresses to become about 86 milli liters in volume (2.9 fluid oz.)

This gets us closer to how much we have to over fortify the wine to bring it back to 16% when sugar is added. More algebra could solve it exactly but the numbers are looking round and it should be noted that alcoholic beverage labels, even on wines, are allowed to have a one percentage point margin of error so if it was really 17% alc. but printed as 16% alc. they would be off by more than 5% and be okay. We could just fortify to 17.5% before we add our sugar and be done with it (we don’t even know how accurate the wine we use to start is anyhow!).

My understanding from Amerine’s books is that we want as little alcohol as possible so our beverage will not be hot tasting or cost us lots of tax money. Sweet vermouths commonly are 16% alc. while dry vermouths are usually 18%. Being over 16% alc. puts both over the very important acetification point (vinegar bacteria) but sweet vermouth may be able to be slightly lower because its large sugar content protects it from various other lactic bacterial spoilage thresholds (I really don’t know but 18% is a key number for those). Another reason for the differing alcohol contents could be because within a producer’s production process, both sweet and dry (before they are aromatized) come from the same fortified wine stock. The volume of the sugar in the sweet dilutes the alcohol to 16% (with an accepted one percentage point margin of error!).

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Dry Rum & Dry Gin? I like mine wet…

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[This post on spirits acidity was written about five years ago and some how generated a huge amount of google search returns. In the time since, my understanding of the matter has gotten a huge upgrade, but there is still a lot of questions.]

A fairly accessible and historically significant paper on the topic is Studies with Brandy. I. pH by Guymon, Tolbert, and Amerine who were giants in beverage technology.  These papers were planned as a series but due to the “exigencies of war” (WWII) only the paper on pH and another on tannin from barrel aging were published.  Strangely, these two papers do not appear in any bibliographies that I can remember.

I’ll try and pull some unique things out of the paper and I’ll leave everything I’ve written previously in tact below.

“The pH of seven whiskies varied from 3.68 to 4.78, the highest value being a new whisky.” I think the pH of even the new whisky here is lower than some would think due to a significant amount of volatile fatty acids.

 “In rum Valaer (1937) found the pH to vary according to the source, exceeding 5 for Cuban and Puerto Rican rums.  The pH of rums distilled in this country was lower.”  The pre-Castro cuban rums referenced here have a higher pH because they were relatively more neutral and closer to a vodka.  So when we look at these old papers I suspect the pH of new make spirits can say a lot about congener profile.

“The low pH values of young brandies were attributed to the use of distilling material higher in sulphur dioxide.  A portion of the sulfur dioxide passing through the still is dissolved in the distillate and is slowly oxidized from sulphurous acid to sulphuric acid.  Presumably this is not always the cause of low pH in brandies, for 20 authentic French cognacs, in which the sulfate content owing to oxidation of sulfite is relatively low, the pH was found to vary from 3.76 to 4.98, averaging 4.14.”  What they are getting at here is that back in the day a lot of wines intended to be table wines went through the still and because table wines get added sulphur they ended up with a confusingly low pH even though they were probably well rectified and deficient in fatty acids.  When a wine is constructed specifically for distillation sulphites are never added.

“pH’s as low as 2.24 and as high as 7.97 were found in certain anomalous samples reported by Valaer in a private communication giving in detail the original data.” This foot note is historically very interesting.  Peter Valaer was the great IRS chemist who probably saw and deconstructed more spirits of more types than any ever in the history of beverage science.  The foot note shows that the UC Davis guys new Valaer personally beyond just his papers.

“It is therefore evident that the pH of commercial distilled spirits ranges from 4 to 5, that it tends to decrease during ageing, and it appears that rum has a higher average pH than the other distilled spirits.” I think the rums they refer to here are the fairly neutral “dry” rums.

“Some of these abnormally high pH’s are probably due to the distillation of neutralized distilling material and the consequent lack of volatile acids in the distillate.” Neutralizing distilling material with baking soda is practiced by home distillers making spirits from Turbo Yeasts.  Often their fermentations get “pricked” and excess acetic acids needs to be neutralized before distillation but at the risk of converting an ammonium salt into volatile ammonia which can corrode the condensor producing a distillate tinged with blue verdigis.

“The buffer capacity of new alcoholic distillates is so low that the addition of only small quantities of either acid or alkaline substances results in abnormally high or low initial pH; for example the use of alkaline water for cutting may result in high pH. Caramel syrups are not stable in alkaline solutions and the brandies with a high pH precipitated most of their caramel as a gummy, reddish mass.” This reference to buffer capacity might be why UV vodka referenced in the original post is proud of their pH neutrality. Cheap vodka might have a lower pH because un-desired fatty acids remain in their distillates.  When an old fashioned is batched (guilty!), the sugar probably does not precipitate because the pH is far lower than the fairly pH neutral spirit they are referencing which is basically the brandy equivalent of grape drink.

“Newly distilled brandies with a pH below 4 are also abnormal. Valaer (1939) found a number of the young California brandies of very low pH and, as already mentioned, he explained this on the basis of their high sulfurous-sulfuric acid content.” California used to make sloppy shit! but if you look back at the early days of wine as described by Allan Hickenbothan at Roseworthy in Australia, back in the 1920’s they had a 30% failure rate on wines meant to be table wines and they were all sent to the still.  After Hickenbothan discovered the significance of pH and started acidifying wines, what they sent to the still decreased to 5%.

 

*****

Lately I see the word dry confusingly placed on all sorts of spirits from gin to rum and I don’t really understand what it means. dry is even confusingly used in wine speak. Many people can’t make heads or tales of whether a wine is sweet or not. Is there unfermented sugars or are people referring to levels of acidity? many people think rums are sweet because they are made from sugar but that sugar is transformed into alcohol as well as not-volatile so if rum has sugar it is added post distillation. Well whats the deal?

If like wine, dryness often ends up referring to acidity, what is the acidity of spirits? Should un-aged spirits mostly be the same and there be some difference in aged spirits? is there perceived sweetness due to high extracts in spirits like some times is encountered in wine?

The UV vodka website proudly claims their product is close to pH neutral relative to other budget producers who acidify their product for some spirits tax loophole. This makes really no sense to me but the budget producers would definitely have some dry booze. Could these practices in neutral spirits be born out of some sort of tradition? Should my C.J. Wray dry rum be fairly low in pH? and if it is, would the result be due to additives or stuff naturally going through the still?

Maybe to solve some of the mystery I should calibrate my Hanna Instruments pH pen and have a go at the spirits that are laying around.

Calibrated with fresh solution.

Whole foods distilled water. pH??? Well my distilled water was below 7 which is kind of a bad omen, but maybe acid is attached to my electrode from my cleaning solutions etc? Maybe the temperature is messing with things? Well I put on a new electrode, calibrated it and I still can’t get a 7 out of this distilled water but maybe its is messed up.

C.J. Wray dry rum pH 4.85

Gordon’s dry gin pH 6.90 <— switching back and forth and this rockets back to 6.90 so the pen works?

Myer’s platinum white pH 4.42

Clement VSOP pH 3.78

Back to the calibrators… things check out… more or less… I tried to go back and forth between samples to duplicate my initial numbers. More or less they check out.

Batavia Arrack Van Oosten pH 5.02

Seagram’s Distiller’s Reserve pH 5.13

Trimbach Framboise raspberry brandy pH 6.80

lemon juice pH 2.37 (time for a cocktail!)

So wow, I don’t really have too much confidence in the tester but I think it can still teach something about what we drink. It is strange how drastically different Gordon’s and the Trimbach are from the others. Your choice here would apparently have a large impact on balancing a sour. Are the results here the reason the rum & coke is more popular than the fairly acid neutral UV with coke? Harold Mcgee puts black coffee at pH 5.0 and yogurt at pH 4.5. So are the results here negligible because we pile on the sugar with our mixers or are these pH factors important in shaping consumer preference over the long run?

Now I’m curious how the more mainstream gins that I work with at the bar stack up, and how does all this acidity get there in the first place? any insights?

I haven’t really put things to test on what comes through my still, but now I’m even more curious and I think I’m going to have to test some things… distilled, citric, malic, tartaric, and acetic acids… and it was the last of my bottle, but if I added baking soda to the low pH Clement would it have fizzed? could I neutralize that acidity?

Do some dry gins have more acidity now because the palate needs it in a martini (or maybe not, it is my assumption from loving dry wine) but no one wants to get it from dry vermouth. So does a great marriage of gin and dry vermouth like you see in weird reviews really have to do with finding a most harmonic pH?

Quite a lot of new mixology questions.

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