If you are nuts…

21 Feb

So I like booze. –You are shocked, I know.  And I REALLY LIKE booze that I have somehow made or improved. So the idea of making my own Vermouth intrigued me. Vermouth is something I’ve cooked with and used for Martini’s so why on earth would I want to make it? Well my favorite Christmas present, Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread Buy the Butter,
describes it thusly:

“Vermouth is a fortified wine, infused with herbs, making it at home is a delightful and ridiculous project. The results can be delicious.”

Reese, who rates every recipe as “make it or buy it,” says about Vermouth “Are you nuts? If so make it.”

I think we know where this is going…

If you looked at the link to the recipe you will see that it is indeed a ridiculous project.

Vermouth is basically herb infused fortified wine, but it calls for dozens of herbs. Reese’s paired down recipe in fact had 2 dozen herbs, including obscure herbs I’ve never heard of like pau d’arco, gentian root, wormwood root and angelica, and then a truly bizarre mish mash of “every day” herbs and spices from multiple family groups. It included your sweet (or sweet and savory) collection like vanilla, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and anise. Some from the more savory family like saffron, oregano, marjoram, black pepper and bay leaves. And “regular” herbs one finds easily in the tea isle like chamomile and dandelion root.

I had my heart set on making Vermouth so I gathered the ingredients over the course of several weeks (see below for hints on buying the herbs for this) and got started one lazy Saturday afternoon.

As I was adding two pinches of this, and a pinch of that—

as a brief aside, if you try this at home, a pinch is actually a technical measurement equaling 1/16th of a teaspoon. So I doubled my recipe meaning that 2 pinches of oregano became a quarter teaspoon and 5 pinches of coriander became 10/16ths or 5/8ths or just over 1/2 a teaspoon. Easier, more accurate, and less messy!—

Any way, as I was adding ingredients by the pinch I began to wonder:

How will a tiny pinch of gentian root even be tasted, floating in the midst of 1.5 liters of wine, over a cup of cognac, and more than 2 dozen competitors?

How did someone come up with this recipe? 

WHY did someone come up with this recipe?

It was the box of dandelion root tea that gave me a clue. “Good for liver functioning”  I seem to remember something like that from my research into purchasing pau d’arco on the internet.

That’s when it hit me. This is an aperitif, something meant to be sipped to “stimulate the appetite.”  I finished adding my herbs and the cup of wine to the pot, set it to steeping and ran to teh googles:

Coriander: treatment of swellings, high cholesterol levels, diarrhea, Mouth ulcers, anemia, digestion, menstrual disorders, small pox, eye care, conjunctivitis, skin disorders, blood sugar disorders, etc.

Juniper berries: This is needed to relieve gas in the digestive system, help with good digestion and reduce bloating.

Star anise A warming spice, star anise is most widely used for treating digestive ailments such as abdominal cramps, bloating, belching, constipation, gas, indigestion and stomach aches.


Vermouth seems to have been developed as a digestive aid. Sort of like herbal tea on steroids.

There is a complete list of the herbal ingredients and their relative medicinal advantage at the bottom of the post, but let me say if you have issues with flatulence, you will love this list of herbs!  Also if you suffer a bite from a mad dog or get worms, there is some very useful info down there.

I am now even MORE EXCITED about this project!  I love intelligently designed food. and Vermouth seems to be such a food. But how will it taste?

As it steeped, I began to notice that it smelled phenomenal. The variety of herbs gave it a complex and delightful smell. It seems the herbs play well together. I was worried because sometimes too many competing elements can muddy the flavor and smell of something (think about mixing all the primary paint colors–you get brown). But this smelled, and more importantly tasted great. The vanilla and anise lend delightfully sweet tones to the broth but the herbs retain their herbaciousness. So I strained it through a coffee filter–

(–this process wasn’t very smooth. The fine herbs somehow managed to clog the coffee filter and I had to run it through my sieve and then through the filter, and then I squeezed it to get the liquid to go through…anyway, the result was a less than crystal clear broth to mix.  Whatevs. It tastes great.)

Anyway, to the cloudy infused wine I added the rest of the wine and poured in the cognac…

–oops, I didn’t have quite enough. So through the cupboard I dug looking for brandy which I usually have. Nada. But I DID find a bottle of dry Vermouth.

Huh. Didn’t know I had that.

I smelled it and the memory of what vermouth smells/tastes like came back and I remembered…ICK. I do not care for Vermouth. …”But the broth I made was so delicious I’m sure mine will be great” I think.  Empty handed I turned around to taste the slightly short on Cognac Vermouth.

Annnnd…ick. Bitter. Bitter bitter bitter. Somehow the mix of cognac, wine, and herbs is tart and bitter and not tasty-though I can imagine it flavoring a beef stew. Bummer, and I have two bottles worth.

Well, one last option is to make a sweet Vermouth. So I followed Reese’s instructions to melt my sugar in a sauce pan.

Annnnd I burned it. This is not going very well. One might say this is becoming a disaster really quickly.  I try again and manage NOT to burn the melting sugar and add it to the liquid.  Reese says it will turn all spidery and crackly when you add it, not mine. It immediately turned into a giant lump of hard candy. With some poking and cracking I got it down to small pieces and waited for another 30 minutes before I could taste it and finally admit defeat.

FINALLY, my sugar was melted and the last chance for Vermouth was at hand. A little taste and….

Not awful. But it’s weird. Another little taste…

Unusual, kind of complex…maybe I better get a little glass. Another sip…

Hmm, this is pretty interesting.  Sip…

I kind of like it…sip

This is actually ok…sip sip.  Sip. Siiiiiip.  Where’s did I put the bottle?
Oh, I haven’t bottled it yet…

Yes friends, the sweet Vermouth is a hit. It is weird, kind of wild, and definitely wonderful. An unusual drink, probably not for everyone, but I think I adore it.

I will be making more of the sweet Vermouth I think and I found a recipe for Vermouth chicken (oh hells bells, where did I put that??) so I think I’m going to whip up a quick batch of dry Vermouth too soon. I seriously have enough herbs to make Vermouth for the entire East End of Pittsburgh!

Final thoughts? I LOVE this project. From the weeks of scouring for herbs, to the herb-lore clearly called upon for it’s creation, to the strange and tasty final product, this is exactly the kind of project that keeps me going and helps prevent me from getting discouraged about the universe!

Buying herbs:

You can buy them online and you can find most of the obscure herbs at various herbalists and tea shops. And you can spend a fortune doing so. Or, if you live in Pittsburgh, you can go to the East End Food Co-Op. That was my last but should have been first stop. They had every ingredient on the list (except wormwood oil, I used dried wormwood) but the REAL bonus is that you don’t have to buy a full 2 oz as you do most places. Seriously, what am I going to do with 2 oz (roughly 2 cups) of pau d’arco? For $1.42 I got enough dried wormwood and angelica for probably 5 batches of Vermouth. What more could you want?

Medicinal properties of herbal ingredients:

Coriander: treatment of swellings, high cholesterol levels, diarrhea, Mouth ulcers, anemia, digestion, menstrual disorders, small pox, eye care, conjunctivitis, skin disorders, blood sugar disorders, etc.

Sage: full of anti-oxidents, benefits to brain function (treatment of alzheimers) curbs symptoms of menopause like hot flashes, boosts intake of insulin so helps diabetes

Juniper berries: This is needed to relieve gas in the digestive system, help with good digestion and reduce bloating.

Pau d’arco: is a liver protector and may help neutralize poisons that infiltrate the liver. (also doesn’t mold—used as an anti-fungal. Lots of other uses too)

Star anise: A warming spice, star anise is most widely used for treating digestive ailments such as abdominal cramps, bloating, belching, constipation, gas, indigestion and stomach aches. In China, the herb is often consumed after meals to help dispel gas and bloating caused by food. It is believed that star anise activates the body’s digestive enzymes, which helps assimilate heavy foods such as meats and fats.

Oregano: The oil is sometimes used as protection against food borne illnesses. Although science has yet to confirm many of these claims, anecdotal evidence suggests oregano oil may provide some health benefits. Research has found it particularly effective against parasites, viruses, fungi and yeast.

Dandelion root: The health benefits of dandelion include relief from liver disorders, diabetes, urinary disorders, acne, jaundice, cancer and anemia. It also helps in maintaining bone health, skin care and weight loss.

Cinnamon: may help regulate blood sugar, has preservative affects including anti fungal properties, also fights e coli in unpasteurized juice, and for the ladies: In some studies, cinnamon has shown an amazing ability to stop medication-resistant yeast infections.

Cardamom seeds: According to traditional wisdom of Ayurveda, cardamom is effective in improving digestion. It helps those suffering from stomach cramps. It is a good stimulant and beneficial for those suffering from flatulence and gas.

Nutmeg: and mace both come from the nutmeg tree and have very similar medicinal properties. They are infrequently used in the West because of their toxicity at high dosages, but nonetheless are important medicines, employed principally to stimulate the digestion and to treat infections of the digestive tract. Nutmeg has also long been valued as an aphrodisiac and as a remedy for eczema and rheumatism.

Rosemary: can improve vitality in the individual, and it can effectively stimulate digestion, as well as relieve flatulence and distension, thereby enhancing the appetite and increasing the flow of digestive juices. It can help in the flow and movement of food and wastes through the body, thus removing stagnant food within the digestive system, and also improving sluggish digestion. This helps to a large extent in the assimilation of nutrients from the food into the body. The bitters present in rosemary stimulate liver and gallbladder function, increasing the flow of bile and aiding digestion of fats

Chamomile: The main action of the chamomile is that it brings about relaxation in all the smooth muscles throughout the body of an individual. The herb acts on the digestive tract and rapidly brings relief from any muscular tension and spasms, it alleviates disorders such as colic, and it can reduce the amount of abdominal pain, and remedy excess production of wind and abdominal distension in patients. The other major affect of the herb lies in its ability to regulate peristalsis along the esophagus, resulting in the treatment of both diarrhea and persistent constipation in a patient. The chamomile is well known for its ability to soothe all types of problems related to the digestive system, particularly when these are specifically related to persistent stress and tension affecting the person.

Angelica: All parts of the plant will help relieve indigestion, gas, and colic.  (The name angelica derives from the Medieval Latin herba angelica, “angelic herb,” so called from its supposed special powers against poison and plague. It was believed to protect against contagious diseases (including the plague), ward off evil spirits and enchantments, bestow long life, and even neutralize the bites of mad dogs.)

Gentian: Physical systems such as weakened digestion, leading to excess abdominal gas, persistent indigestion, and poor appetite can be relieved due to the stimulatory effect of the herb on the digestive system.  (…it is also considered to be a major anthelmintic agent, aiding in the quick elimination of intestinal worms.  Ew. Good to know, but ewwww.)

Marjoram:  In traditional folk medicine, sweet marjoram was used as a remedy for asthma, indigestion, headache, rheumatism, toothache, earache, flatulence, epilepsy, and to help relieve the pain of childbirth.

Fennel:  Spasms in the digestive tract are relaxed by the effective carminative properties of the herb and in addition, the herb also helps in relieving excess abdominal wind, it aids in bringing about a reduction in colic and in reducing the discomfort of hiccoughs, in this role the fennel is an ingredient in the gripe water used to reduce colic. Disorders such as long term indigestion, problems like heartburn, persistent constipation and abdominal pain can be treated using the fennel as a herbal remedy, traditionally the ability of the fennel to increase digestion was known, and it was added to cooking food for this very reason.

Ginger: has been used to help digestion and treat stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea for more than 2,000 years. Ginger has also been used to help treat arthritis, colic, diarrhea, and heart conditions.

Bay leaves: The bay laurel leaves are also used as an ingredient in cooking, where they aid in the process of digestion and absorption of food in the stomach. Bay laurel leaves possess many of the same positive effects as seen in the spearmint – botanical name Mentha spicata, and the rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis – especially in assisting in the breakdown of heavy foods, such as protein rich meat.

Cloves: is seen as a cure for problems such as nausea and as an aid to eliminating excess gas in the stomach and the intestines,

Saffron: The active components in saffron have many therapeutic applications in many traditional medicines as antiseptic, antidepressant, anti-oxidant, digestive, anti-convulsant.

Pepper: they have also been used for their ability to reduce excess gas in the intestines and the stomach. Aside from these, these compounds have also been used to stimulate the activity in the human heart and kidneys in medicine.

Wormwood:  The herb has several medicinal qualities and that includes increasing hunger (appetite), augmenting digestion by enhancing the secretion of digestive enzymes as well as bile from the liver and gall bladder and inciting peristalsis (wavelike movement of intestinal muscles that propels food along the digestive tract). As the plant’s name suggest, wormwood can also be used to throw out worms from the body and it is also a superb medication for anyone suffering from weak, lethargic digestion, contaminants as well as jamming in the gut. It is also beneficial in solving liver disorders in people suffering from a sensation of being run down and incapacitation during convalescence.

Vanilla: this may be added primarily for flavoring though it does seem to be recommended for fever and it may help treat dyspepsia and ulcer

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