The power of vermouth
by J.K. Fox
SAN JUAN ISLAND DISTILLERY sits on the west side of San Juan Island, WA. It’s a true product of the Northwest: cabin-like in structure, sometimes sun-warmed, sometimes damp with seasonal deluge. The flora that surrounds the distillery both defines the area’s topography and the flavor profile of the distillery’s products. Their gins and liquors are an exercise in foraging and the distillation of an island terroir. They harvest a huge variety of local botanicals, from madrone bark, and island juniper to nootka rose and salal. All of these efforts create a highly unique, partially seasonal inventory that exhales the scent of a green island coastline.
The quality and philosophy of the place and its products resonates a professional seriousness, however the team are not without their sense of fun. “We’ve always loved cocktail hour”, says head distiller Suszy Pingree. Indeed, run your eye down the recipe cards available at the distillery and you will see the team have made the large majority of the spirits, liquors and bitters listed there. Think their award winning Spy Hop Gin rubbing up against a sweet dash of cider syrup, or the woody spice of Madrone Brandy freshened by a citrus punch of their Tangerine Brandy.
Their newest creation contributes to the growing trend for craft vermouth (and the awareness that one does more with it than swill it around the glass before tipping it out) and in doing so tips its hat to the forever-popular classic: the martini.
“The resurgence we’ve seen in the past for local craft gins, we now see that in vermouth,” says the distillery’s Gin Botanist Kari Koski, “We want to be able to make authentic cocktails. If you can make a proper martini, it’s the gold standard”. Passionate about their quality gins, she explains that she and Pingree wanted to infuse the island terrior into every part of the martini. It wasn’t enough to provide a quality gin, with a vermouth they could control how the botanical notes of each spirit complimented and supported each other. The cocktail would be classic and recognizable, true, but with a character and complexity all of its own.
Working with San Juan Vineyards, the island’s winery, the team began with the local Madeleine Angevine,; the driest white on offer. Then began six months of work; the testing, tasting and refining familiar to all distillers. The result is their oak-aged Rainshadow Dy Vermouth. As Koski explains, part of the process was an exercise in pairing; pairing the dryness of the wine with a set of appropriate botanicals whilst baring in mind the eventual pairing with one of their gins. The final product has 30 botanicals, including juniper, green cedar and tarragon. “We wanted it to have a truly dry finish” explains Koski, warning against the bad habit of keeping vermouth too long or unrefrigerated. “It becomes cloying or rancid,” she says, and of course in doing so muddies the martini’s dry rush of flavor.
Both Koski and Pingree are delighted with the final Rainshadow vermouth. Their gin of choice for the cocktail is their Salish Gin, a powerful, highly botanical creation featuring island-grown juniper and very little in the way of floral notes. The result? Dry, crisp and clean on the palate with botanical multiplicities one can only guess at. A true classic with a Pacific Northwest twist.
2 oz Seaside Gin
1 oz Rain Shadow dry vermouth
Stir together with ice, drain into glass and garnish with a pickled sea beans.
The Sweetness of Pommeau
Pommeau is the dark horse of the cocktail bar. Easily underrated because of its simplicity, it has a fundamentality agricultural background but a connoisseur’s capability. Originating in Northern France, pommeau is a blend of fresh apple juice and apple brandy that is blended and then barrel aged. Historically this was a way to recondition brandy barrels, adding fresh apple juice and fermented cider to the barrel to get the tannins from the apple juice into the wood. Like all old world classics it comes with its own shot of mythology, in this case the tale that Normandy farmers would take a shot of pommeau after breakfast and before the day’s work. The amber liquid is versatile and sophisticated despite its fresh juice content and makes for a creative sweet vermouth substitute. The team at San Juan Distillery adds layers to layers by adding their eau de vie to their pommeau. They recommend it in their own, entirely delicious version of the Martinez.
Martinez Recipe :
2 parts Barrel aged Spy Hop gin
1 part pommeau
Apple bitters & and a drizzle of Luxardo maraschino liqueur
Garnish with orange twist
Stir over ice and serve.
… The End …