by Victoria Bourne
Vermouth lives in a strange space. Not quite wine, not quite liquor. And often, in this country at least, it languishes in a dusty bottle on a shelf only to be pulled out for the occasional martini or Manhattan.
Flying Fox Vineyards aims to make vermouth a star again. The Afton-based winery has since 2017 produced seasonal varieties of sweet vermouth, a brandy-fortified wine infused with locally sourced fruits and botanicals. They’re available in limited quantities – the winery produces about 150 to 200 cases of each annually depending on the vintage and volume of wine made – and they tend to disappear.
“We’ll never have all four together at one time,” says co-winemaker Elliott Watkins. “Each one will slowly sell out into the next one.”
But getting Flying Fox into the vermouth-making business took some convincing, Watkins says. There were skeptics among the five-member crew who said discouraging things like, “‘No, nobody likes vermouth, why would you waste time doing that?’” Watkins says.
Vermouth is a centuries-old concoction with medicinal origins. Named for the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood, “wermut,” the herb is said to relieve digestive issues and gives vermouth its bitter zing. Considered an aperitif to be served before or after a meal, it is a disarming marriage of sweet and bitter flavors that comes with a hard-to-pin-down bouquet on the nose.
It was popular in the U.S. before Prohibition hit and ruined everyone’s good time and has been buoyed more recently by the craft cocktail trend. Customers spent more than $1.9 million on vermouth in 2019, says Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority spokeswoman Dawn Eischen. The top sellers were Italian-made: Martini & Rossi Rosso Sweet, Carpano Antica Formula and Martini & Rossi Extra Dry.
In Europe, vermouth is experiencing a renaissance in countries like Spain where younger generations have claimed it as part of their dining culture, drinking it neat, on the rocks or with a splash of club soda while hanging out with friends. There are taps – and bars – devoted to the stuff.
Watkins and fellow Flying Fox winemaker Emily Pelton were on a California trip in early 2017 when they had their vermouth epiphany. West Coast winemakers told the pair about their experiments in vermouth and botanicals, but Watkins and Pelton faced opposition when they brought the idea back to Virginia.
Think of Flying Fox as the younger, hipper off-shoot of Veritas Vineyard & Winery in Afton. Located off Route 151 in an old yarn and fabric factory that’s been transformed by leather couches into a social-club like feel, Flying Fox is run by second-generation Veritas vintners: three siblings – co-winemaker Pelton and her sister and brother, Chloe Watkins and George Hodson, and their spouses, Elliott Watkins and Tralyn Hodson, respectively.
“There’s five of us to kind of bounce ideas around, which can be great, but it can also be a nightmare,” Watkins says. Undeterred, he and Pelton started experimenting with flavors and different levels of bittering. Using some leftover wine, they threw in overly ripe strawberries picked up from a local farmer and enlisted the services of Jeff Fletcher at nearby Woods Mill Distillery to produce grape brandy, which was also distilled from Flying Fox wine and provides the fortifying kick to the vermouth, reaching 18 percent alcohol by volume.
Watkins says it was a steep learning curve, but after a few months they had something for their skeptical cohorts to try. “We took them a glass and told them, ‘Taste this.’” And that’s all Watkins and Pelton needed to get everyone excited by this new project.
Now in its third year, each Flying Fox vermouth reflects the bounty of the season – spring strawberries, summer peaches, ginger and turmeric in the fall, apple and cinnamon in winter. The base wines are generally white – a pinot gris or viognier – or for winter a red, such as a cabernet franc. They grow their own aromatic wormwood in a garden plot at Veritas, and continue to experiment with dried botanicals, such as gentian root, an earthy-natured bittering ingredient, and various sweeteners such as light and dark brown sugars.
Their Virginia vermouth is sold at Flying Fox in bourbon shaped bottles with handcrafted labels. The underlying premise was always to create something to be enjoyed on its own, rather than in traditional cocktails, so people can sample the vermouth alongside other Flying Fox wines in the tasting room.
“That’s a great driver because our sales would not be anywhere near where they are now if people weren’t given the opportunity to taste it,” Watkins says. The vermouth is also distributed in limited quantities to retail locations in Charlottesville, Richmond and Washington, D.C.
It’s hard to say if vermouth is catching on elsewhere in the state. Rosemont of Virginia Winery, located more than 2 ½ hours away from Afton in La Crosse, released a limited run of 140 cases in April that it produced in partnership with D.C.-based Capitoline Vermouth. Winemaker Justin Rose – who is also president of the Virginia Wineries Association – says it was a way to join the craft cocktail scene while sticking to wine-based products. He’s heard vermouth rumblings elsewhere, but nothing more definitive than that.
And Mark Brandt, winemaker, brewer and co-owner of Richmond’s Garden & Grove Brewing and Urban Winery says he’s thinking about revisiting a “beermouth” – a beer-based vermouth aged in wine barrels – that he’s experimented with a couple of times since 2016 and offered on tap.
Back in Afton, Watkins says they took a risk on vermouth but they’re not reinventing the wheel; they’re simply introducing it to a modern-day audience and giving it a Flying Fox spin.
“It just took off faster than any of us could have imagined.”