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Herb, barks, roots, rinds? Vermouth is guilty on all counts


'It massages the anticipatory senses, stirring hunger and more thirst' .... Whitey's wallowing in two intoxicating Vermouths from the Castagna clan.

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Vermouth. Wermut. Wormwood. Artemisia absinthium. Absinthe. Now’s there’s a revealing thread in the linguistics of intoxicating drinks.

The business of spicing alcohol is as old as China. Herbs, barks, roots, rinds … all manner of aromatic flavourants have long been handy to mask the nasty bits of bad spirits as much as to offer ancient natural medicines to fix everything from fleas to gout and boredom. Which are some of things wormwood is reputed to fix.

Medieval herbalists, mostly single women, were often tortured and executed as witches if caught with wormwood. Fortunately, the church of Rome had chilled out by the time Cornish miners sensibly brought it to the English colony of South Australia.

Burra, Moonta, Kanmantoo, Callington: all the copper mining towns had strings of cottages with wormwood hedges by the mid-1800s. They used it to insulate their ceilings to deter flying insects, stuffed it in their mattresses to keep the fleas away and made tea from it for all sorts of gastric, hematological and neurological problems.

Miners would grab a wad of it each morning to cushion their candlewax-coated felt “hard” hats; if there was an accident underground they’d use it rough ‘n’ ready to staunch blood flow and disinfect the wound.

Usually regarded as the most bitter of herbs, wormwood got a bad rap when its scientific name was used on the powerful spirit – absinthe – that was flavoured with its distillate or its ethanol-steeped oils. Its key ingredient, thujone, was blamed by the French absinthe manufacturers for the diverse ailments suffered by addicts to that drink. We now know many of those reactions, often fatal, were not so much the result of thujone consumption, but were poisonings caused by treacherous distilling, and the inclusion of lethal shit-cheap alcohols other than ethanol in the finished product.

One has to consume a ridiculous amount of thujone to be truly endangered. Like a bale of wormwood. You’d be pretty crook.

In his unmatched bible of plants, their classifications and uses, Mabberley’s Plant Book (Cambridge University Press 2009), Professor David J Mabberley offers this typically crisp summary of the thujone in Artemisia absinthium:

“A ketone (thujone – similar to THC in cannabis) medic., disinfectant, pl.-pest control since time of Pliny (AD 77) & absinthe (liqueur harmful prob. due to methanol), digestive used in Pernod 1797 (recipe from a Swiss Dr. Ordinaire) until banned.”

The French outlawed absinthe during the 1900s, instead depending on wormwood-free pastis and anise to shake money from their strong aperitif and digestif ethanols. But since scientists like Mabberley have brought better knowledge of the reality, producers like Pernod have reintroduced very fine absinthe products.

Vermouth never went away. This wine-based infusion – rather than spirit-based – got its name from the French pronunciation of vermut, the German word for wormwood, the bevvy’s primary flavourant. It’s been made for centuries in Europe, sweet or dry, red or white, strong or mild. Makers keep the lid on their recipes, but additions of many herbs and spices are all in the mix, from chamomile to coriander, quinine to cardamom and juniper to ginger, with extra bittering agents like nutmeg and citrus rind.

Also kept well under wraps is the actual wine alchemy. Unfermented grape juice and wine of various stages of oxidation are the host to the herbals; distilled grape spirit is added to stabilise and strengthen the blend.

A favourite enlightened wine dreamer is Julian Castagna from the north side of the Victorian Alps at Beechworth. With his wife Carolann and son Adam, he’s been making a ravishing set of dry table wines there for 20 years. Recently, he skwoze two brilliant vermouths into the stable.

These are venerable mountains in the recent mudflats of craft and vermouth noir. These folks rock.

Castagna Bianco Vermouth Aperitif 2016 ($45; 16.5% alcohol; glass stopper) is “more than 30 biodynamically-grown botanicals blended with the spirit of Beechworth”. Its main vinous ingredient is Viognier, which doesn’t get much of a chance to show its head through all those bits and pieces that the Castagnas planted or which Julian’s discovered sniffing and chewing around the bountiful Castagna gardens.

Jeez the damn thing smells glorious. Only a boofhead would dare to make a stab at its ingredients, but its russetty autumnal hue segues to big oozes of gingery marmalade with stuff like nutmeg, juniper and cassia bark getting ready to be sauce. Maybe the Viognier helps with the ginger.

It also has fat dumplings cooked in all that sort of aromatic direction with golden syrup. The bouquet climbs right out of the glass and occupies the table to a depth of about 200ml. It’s a fragrance one easily spoils with a severe chill or too much soda. I like cool cellar temperature; maybe one ice block if the summer’s too big.

As a drink, it elevates to hover above your forehead like a medium-weight Tinkerbell, between dry and savoury-bitter to sweet and gently-stewed. It hints at architectural angularity in its stern acidity and juniper berry/bay leaf tannin, but then there’s a wave of just the right depth of that gentle blood orange and sightly pineappley dumpling syrup. It massages the anticipatory senses, stirring hunger and more thirst. It flares one’s nostrils in a wolvish way.

Careful. Never snap at Tink.

If that wasn’t enough trouble, Castagna Classic Dry Vermouth Aperitif 2015 ($45; 17% alcohol; glass stopper) is all the above, turned up a few notches, dried off and aged, with a great deal more velvet and satin, darkness and depth. It’s the Bianco’s taller dusky sibling in a tux, hair slicked back to match the black patent dancin’ pumps with the grosgrain bows. Silk socks. That faint reek of cigarillo. Not quite sinister, but the warning lights are all on.

Here, that marmalade is more along the lines of the inedibly bitter Laraha orange of Curaçao, which took 500 years to evolve from the introduced Seville orange, which didn’t much like the Caribbean climate. And the golden syrup is replaced by a smidge of treacle. Fortunately, the Laraha zest and rind provide the most complex citrus bouquet, which here seems just very slightly smoked.

I’m not suggesting that’s what’s in here, but that’s what it’s like. Think Campari jam on toast. Beneath which those dark hues lie, glowering, in wait. It quickly makes me feel nicely smoked and lacquered, at least. Toasted.

You know that acrid gunpowder smell when dried cumin and fenugreek seeds hit the red-hot cast iron? That’s the sort of dark hues I’m suggesting, in all this honey and fine citrus syrup.

I could fall over in it, right on my kisser. Bugger the tango. Floor’s so gooey I might as well stay right down, grinning like a lune.

PS: If you’re a guitarist, don’t risk your work nails trying to remove this ultra-tight glass stopper with its perfect food grade polymer o-ring. Get a Bat Chain Puller. Crank it. To the tune of I Heard it on the Grapevine, hum “I blame it on the wormwood.”


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