Vya Vermouths at the Roadhouse

by Ari Weinzweig

I love when an ingredient I’ve always taken for granted and has never seemed particularly exciting turns up in a form that’s about fifty times better than I’d ever had it.

Which is exactly what’s happened for me in 2005 with Vya Vermouths. If you haven’t yet tried them and you have any interest in wines and aperitifs in particular, I really recommend that you come by and ask for a taste. For me at least, Vya has brought Vermouth to a whole new level.

When I asked Roadhouse bartender Bob Brunelli what he thought of Vya Vermouths, he said, “I like ’em because they actually taste like wine.” Which is odd, but actually, oddly true. They do taste like wine. They do taste good. And they’re something you’d want to drink, as Vermouth was intended to be, on its own. Of course, he’s right, and of course, IT IS A WINE so that’s the point. Giri — who’s worked with wine around town for many years, said much the same thing: “It’s remarkably good. It’s very complex—it actually tastes like it has something to do with grapes, which is unfortunately rare in a vermouth.”

Vermouth History

Although everyone’s heard of it, a lot of folks probably don’t even know what vermouth is. So to get that out of the way first, vermouth is a wine that’s “seasoned” with various botanical herbs. Maybe it was the herbal tea of the 18th century? It was meant to be drunk on its own where its complex and interesting flavors could be appreciated.

Historically, vermouth dates back about 200 years. Vermouth was first made commercially in a sweet red style, crafted by one Signor Carpano in Turin in 1776 from his grandmother’s home recipe. In 1813, Joseph Noilly made the first dry white Vermouth in the village of Marseillan on the Mediterranean coast of France and that vermouth is available today as the very good Noilly-Prat. Vermouth, like absinthe, was originally made with wormwood. (Since absinthe and its history are currently so in vogue, I’d guess that this fact would help to sell more vermouth). In fact, the name is derived from the German “wermut” or the old Anglo-Saxon “wermod,” for wormwood. Wormwood is naturally very bitter, so sweeteners and herbs were added and vermouth was born.

While most vermouth being poured today is pretty passively mediocre, an added ingredient to stick into cocktails, Vya—made by Quady Winery in Madera, California—is, as you can already hopefully tell, something special. It’s a vermouth that I think you’ll likely want to drink in as many forms as you can get it. Literally everyone I’ve given a taste to has been wowed by this stuff.

“The idea,” founder and Vermouth visionary Andy Quady explained to me, “was to create a vermouth which didn’t have to be compromised to create a low price. Most producers use wines that aren’t suitable for regular drinking. But since they’re putting flavorings in it they can get away with that. They use an activated carbon and ion exchange to strip out color and flavor, and they add flavorings to it. They’re cheap and very stable.” The Vya approach is, as I think it should be, to taste both the wine and the botanicals, in what has to be a balanced blend. Quady makes make two Vya Vermouths—dry white and sweet red. Both are delicious.

The white is built on a pair of base wines—Columbard and Orange Muscat—which are blended with 15 different herbs and botanicals, including lavender, sage, alfalfa, and linden. It’s super smooth, almost creamy on the tongue. Nice round aroma. Lively but in a really soft, subtle way. Like nice soft but interesting jazz, you can be fooled into thinking it’s almost too soft. But let the finish come on, exhale a bit and you suddenly start to notice the different herbs and botanicals. (For those of you, like me, who are cheese eaters first, wine drinkers second, it’s akin to a great summer cheese made from Alpage milk). The herbs are subtle. They don’t dominate, but they’re there. And they’re delicious and very refreshing. For me, it’s a little taste of summer on a cold dark winter’s night.

As much as I love the white, the red Vermouth might be even better. It’s made with a base wine of the Orange Muscat and Valdepenas and flavored with an array of herbs and botanicals that include citrus rind, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and galangal (the wild Asian ginger root). In fact, Ric Jewell—former Front of the House Manager , and exceptionally knowledgeable about wines—wrote me, “The red is the real find.” All I had to do was put my nose into a glass of it to know that he was right. The aroma is amazing. Sherry-like, smooth, not at all cloying. Really, really deliciously good, with subtle hints of red fruit and berries . If you want to try one new thing to drink this month, I think this ought to be it.

Something Special at the Bar

Vya is the only vermouth we have at the Roadhouse—it’s what we automatically use in all our mixed drinks. Mind you, this is no small investment in quality—Vya costs us about three or four times more than what one pays for everyday Martini and Rossi. It didn’t surprise me that Andy Quady was happy we’d made the move. But I was a bit surprised to hear his comment that, “You wouldn’t believe all the expensive places that won’t carry it because they think it is too costly for their bar.” For us though, it’s no different than any other work we do. We buy Anson Mills grits or Niman Ranch pork, better butter for the croissants, Valrhona chocolate the Pain au Chocolat, or Daterra coffee for our espresso. You have to start with great stuff to get great stuff. And if we’re going to have great cocktails, they have to start with great ingredients like fresh lime juice, fresh lemon juice . . . and this exceptionally good vermouth from California’s Central Valley. Ask for a taste next time you’re at the Roadhouse!

You can order Vermouth to drink on its own. It would make Andy Quady happy. “I’m on a mission to get Americans to rediscover the aperitif,” he told me. The white goes particularly well with slightly salty pre-dinner treats like olives, toasted nuts and the like. “I mix the two Vermouths together,” Andy added, “about two parts of the dry and one part sweet—that’s a delicious aperitif. “ Not only does it taste good, but a vermouth aperitif actually “wakes up” the taste buds and makes the food that comes later in the meal a bit more interesting.

The dry white vermouth is, of course, great in a martini. Check out the entire Roadhouse Classic Cocktail menu on line or at the Roadhouse—it’s in the Dirty Martini and the Scofflaw, just to name a couple of drinks. And it’s one of the stars of the Classic Martini. Of course it’s great in Manhattans. You can also try it in some of the other Classic Cocktails—Blood and Sand, the Oriental, and the Martinez, which was the likely historical forerunner of the Martini.