The Collector Vermouth




One of the best things about the photography exhibition that I put together for Bristol Food Connections is that it’s brought me into contact with new producers. This was the case when Poco suggested I photograph the makers of The Collector Vermouth for the exhibition there. Vermouth isn’t a tipple I can really remember drinking, but when I found out it’s made by the team behind The Ethicurean restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat. So off to Wrington I went, ready to learn all about vermouth.

The Ethicurean has been on my radar for a long time, but this is my first visit and I’m in love as soon as I walk up the path. It’s based inside Barley Wood Walled Garden, and the setting is simply stunning. The path from the carpark takes you up through the gardens (where most of the vegetables for the restaurant menu are grown) and into the beautiful converted greenhouse that hosts the restaurant itself. I meet Iain and Jack, two of the four collaborators on both the Ethicurean and The Collector, and borrow Jack for a cup of coffee and a chat about how The Collector came about.

“We began by making vermouth just here in the restaurant, just playing around with recipes because we had a lot of the ingredients out there in the garden,” he explains. They put the recipe in their book, and got a great response to it. “We thought it'd be really good to share the knowledge with everybody,” he points out; “And people started making it and really enjoying it, so we realised that we had a product that we could sell.” They launched The Collector as a product in 2015, and while it’s based on the same basic recipe that’s in their book, they use more in-depth techniques and processes to give a much more complex flavour. 

So, how exactly do you make vermouth, I hear you cry? Jack gives me a run down. “We use a total of 20 botanicals. Those range from all your very classic British herbs; sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram. We forage quite a few ingredients from the Mendips; things like Scots pine, gorse flowers, yarrow, wormwood. Then some are shipped; black pepper, cinnamon, vanilla. We use two processes; firstly a maceration process, where you put an ingredient like black pepper or cinnamon into a high proof spirit, something around 90%, for up to a couple of weeks to infuse and make a tincture. And then we use a rotovap, which is distillation under vacuum, and means you can extract flavours that you’d never be able to extract in a conventional distillation. These botanicals are then mixed with a Venetian wine called Malvasia, and we blend that with caramel that we make in the restaurant.”

Vermouth isn’t exactly a common drink in the UK, so how exactly did they end up getting interested in vermouth? “Vermouth and Amaro's for me have got such a broad range of flavours and styles that it's a category that I nerded out on really,” he tells me with a smile. “Matt and Iain felt the same way, so we started buying loads of Vermouth and trying it. We found that it just worked across such a wide cross section of food and drinks and times of day, and we were looking for that alternative that was a bit lower in alcohol, but also has the appeal of being a really complex drink.” The journey to their own recipe wasn’t straightforward though, as they discovered there was little information available about vermouth recipes. “There was lots of internet research, lots of chatting to vermouth producers and reading through the one book I could find,” he explains. “Production has been small, but it’s gone to the right places; our first outlets were fantastic restaurants and bars, so we’ve been very lucky in that sense.”

Talk turns to how to drink vermouth, and Jack gives me a run down of the different ways. “The simplest way is just over ice,” he explains. “We serve The Collector with a bay leaf because that's one of the key ingredients in our vermouth. In Barcelona it’s often served with a slice of orange and an olive, and a soda siphon on the side. And then of course you've got a whole huge range of cocktails, because a majority of classic drinks have some form of vermouth in them, whether its a Martini which is almost entirely dry, right through to a Manhatten which has sweet vermouth in them.”

So where is The Collector heading? “All of our businesses have always grown really organically, so we've just kind of taking it very slowly,” Jack comments. “We’re taking stock and working out which way we want to go with this. We certainly need to start looking at increasing our production; finding a slightly bigger place to make it as we currently make it in a tiny little glasshouse by the restaurant. At the moment we're still getting loads of press, and up there as one of the best products on the market, so I don't see any rush at the moment.”

Jack has to rush off, but it seems rude not to stay for lunch; the sun is shining and it’s a few hours until I need to be back in Bristol. The light is beautiful in the space, and jars of infusions and tinctures line the windowsills and ceiling beams. I eat my rarebit, staring out at the view of the beautiful walled garden and the rolling Mendip hills beyond.

I finish my meal with a slice of their famous sticky toffee apple cake and a glass of The Collector. It’s sweet, tangy and bitter. It’s impossible to pull out a single flavour, but the complex interactions of everything together is fascinating and delicious. The final tinge of bitterness still on my tongue, I tear myself away, but knowing I’ll be back really soon, and that vermouth will definitely be on the menu…

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