Vermouth Rising: D.C.’s Show of Hands’ Ode to An Unsung Spirit
February 7, 2023 @ 12:00pm
Tucked inside The Roost — an innovative 12,500-square-foot Southeast D.C. “culinary clubhouse” featuring food vendors serving domestic and global eats, coffee, beer and libations — is Show of Hands, a budding craft cocktail destination helmed by spirits director Nick Farrell.
Farrell oversees an eclectic drink program of 20 imaginative cocktails, 175 whiskeys, 125 other spirits, low-ABV concoctions, house-made liqueurs and a special menu showcasing a rich selection of vermouth-forward cocktails. The latter occupies a distinct station among local D.C. bars focusing on bringing the popular spirit to the forefront. He likens the move to giving a backup singer the mic, unleashing them to set the baseline and command the stage.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon, Farrell invites District Fray to get schooled in the history and art of vermouth tasting and mixology and to explore its evolution.
In our time together, Farrell traces the genesis and rise of the present-day fortified wine long heralded as a bar staple and “backbone” of several iconic classic cocktails, including the Martini, Manhattan and Negroni.
According to Farrell, early vermouths had two distinct styles: sweet and dry — the former conceived in Italy and the latter in France, just beyond the Alps.
“Vermouths were in some ways the earliest wines,” Farrell says. “People were making wine almost accidentally; they were carrying grapes around in their satchels that would get crushed during the day — those would start to ferment and then they realized they had something actually healthier to drink, because the alcohol would kill bacteria. People [began] dosing their water with wine, but nobody knew how to make wine really well, so they’d flavor it with a whole bunch of different things.”
The subsequent infusion of herbs, botanicals and other ingredients added to the palatability of vermouth helped solidify its medicinal properties. Vermouth, conceived in Torino, Italy, and derived from German wormwood, was acknowledged as one of the earliest aperitifs and digestives.
“Wormwood [an herb synonymous with vermouth and absinthe] is a bittering agent that gets your stomach juices going and is good for digestion,” Farrell says.
This backstory is certainly foundational to any aspiring vermouth aficionado, but does little justice to the spirit’s dramatic flowering Show of Hand’s menu elevates. Today, there’s an abundance of styles and flavor profiles to kindle a deeper expedition into and appreciation of the spirit — from sherry-based to saki-based, regionally-birthed and everything in between.
One such local variation is a peachy summer vermouth from Flying Fox Vineyard in Afton, Virginia. Flying Fox creates the blend by macerating Virginia peaches in wine along with wormwood and a touch of sugar. Lastly, the mixture is accentuated with various herbs and botanicals, such as grapefruit peel, mint, juniper and rosemary. It’s outstanding, to say the least.
Show of Hands’ vermouth menu is unexpected, surprising, indulgent and versatile — all qualities of the spirit’s evolution.
Regarding what makes quality vermouth, Farrell suggests it’s comparable to the analogy “garbage in, garbage out,” pointing to the importance of focusing on quality at every step of production.
“If you’re working with better wine, you’re working with better base botanicals and you’re taking more time to make it,” Farrell says.
Farrell says makers are increasingly integrating their own wines, utilizing elongated and colder steeping of the base spirit (resulting in “mellower and brighter flavors”) and extending post-steep resting time (at least two months) to yield the best vermouths.
It is the caliber of vermouths that best catch the curatorial eye of Show of Hands that makes their shelf so coveted.
Regarding menu favorites, we recommend the Black & White Cookie (Capitoline White Vermouth, mascarpone, vodka, barley, vanilla, cocoa, lemon) and the Vermouth Cobbler (Lustau Sherry Vermouth, falernum, pear, allspice, seasonal fruit, citrus).
We also suggest sampling the Spanish-style Vermouth Service: a healthy pour of vermouth, a bottle of club soda and a colorful accompaniment of artisanal meats, green olives, orange and lemon slices and rosemary sprig garnish.
Lastly, catch their Swiftie Sundays, which celebrates “the music and cocktail-influence of Taylor Swift,” where unique cocktails are paired with a Taylor Swift track.
Whatever you visit for, bring an open mind and palette for Vermouth.
Show of Hands: 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, DC; theroostsedc.com/showofhands // @showofhandsdc
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