An interview with Co-Founders Woody Hambrecht + Heather Hawkins by Helena Price
What’s the story for how this partnership came together?
Woody: Heather was a noted bartender in the Atlanta bar scene. Greg Best—essentially the father of the cocktail scene in Atlanta—introduced us. I was looking for a partner on the vermouth at the time, and it wasn’t long before we realized that my background as a winemaker and her background as a spirits expert would make for a great team.
In 2013, not long after we met, we happened to have a huge vintage of chardonnay—way more grapes than we knew what to do with. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to use what we had grown on our own ranch as the base for a vermouth.
So Heather and I joined forces and started working on our first vermouth - a Bittersweet Amaro. It took us two years to refine and perfect the recipe, and we released it to the world in fall of 2016.
What first piqued your interest in vermouth?
Woody: I used to live in Berlin. There's this whole culture of people enjoying these aromatic wines, aperitifs, digestifs, and you know, it's just not really a big part of our culture here in the states. It just seemed like it was time for us to have something like this here. You can see a general interest growing in the vermouth space and it felt like the right time to jump on the opportunity.
Heather: When Woody proposed a vermouth project, I was in. The opportunity to make something unique that a wide array of people could enjoy. I saw it as a challenge, which I really appreciated, and as a creative opportunity to study and create herbaceous and botanical flavor profiles. I love teas, I love flowers, I love plants, and all of those flavor profiles that go along with them. It was really cool trying to figure out how to extract flavors and combine them and try to do so in a way that is natural and that would make something that people would enjoy drinking.
What was your approach to making your vermouth? What did you want to do differently or better?
Heather: When I approached our first vermouth, I wanted it to be balanced. I didn't want it to be too sweet. I wanted it to be a mixture of sweet and bitter so that people who were working with it could also add cordials or sugar, or not add anything at all just depending on what their tastes were. I wanted it to be more versatile and workable with the large majority of cocktails.
I wanted to focus on natural ingredients and natural products and not artificial flavoring. I wanted something that would be in the best interest of the consumer. Something that they could enjoy and know it's not being fabricated in a way that will compromise their health or their well being.
Woody: I wanted us to make a product that we're proud of. I’m a third-generation winemaker, and my family culture is so heavily influenced by food and beverage, and having a deep relationship with the industry. This felt like a new way to collaborate—to do something a little different than just wine. Wine production is all about nuance and improvisation, and vermouth is more about building a tried and true recipe and sticking to it. It’s a totally different process than making wine and I wanted to explore that.
As far as the product itself, we both felt it was important that we create something that was both enjoyable on its own and also very mixable. We wanted to make something that Heather’s peers in the cocktail industry could really enjoy behind the bar and use with tequila, mezcal, and other spirits.
And I think that's what makes us so unique, is that it's delicious both in cocktails and on its own. You can go to Octavia, one of the most celebrated restaurants in the country now and order it neat. Or you can go to Al's Place, another top restaurant in the country, and find it in one of their suppressor cocktails. It’s awesome to see how it is so universal—that was our intention and apparently people perceive it that way too.
Describe the process of making the first batch.
Woody: My contribution to the recipe was the grapes. We had an excess vintage of our organic chardonnay on our ranch, and it was the perfect opportunity to do something different with it. Heather was the mastermind of the recipe.
Heather: The recipe development process for the bittersweet took about two years. It was about six months of just reading and research and getting an idea of what I wanted to work with. Then gathering as much of the ingredients as possible—tons of herbs, botanicals and plants. Then it was tinkering—blending different tinctures together and doing different steepings, testing combinations that eventually were less and less terrible. I tested different percentages and ratios of sugar and alcohol until we had a recipe that felt really balanced. Once I was happy with what I had, the next question was: How do I translate this jar into something much bigger?
Eventually we turned that jar into a gallon, and then five gallons, and eventually a barrel and then many more barrels. So it was basically creating a kitchen recipe and then trying to make it work on a large scale.
How do your respective backgrounds in wine and cocktails impact that way that you approach making vermouth?
Woody: Working as a winemaker has brought both accountability and attention to detail. We have a wine club that depends on me to make great wine year after year—if I didn’t, we’d lose our customers to the thousands of competitors out there. I think that experience has really helped me approach the vermouth with the idea that this is a project that’s really fun and different, but at the end of the day, the product has to be better than the rest.
Heather: My years of experience as a bartender has allowed me to deeply understand the palates of both the general public as well as a more esoteric group of individuals who specialize in cocktail making. Knowing both audiences and what they like really helped in developing a vermouth recipe that felt versatile enough to be enjoyed by either party.
Woody, do you carry any particular winemaking philosophies into your work on the vermouth?
Woody: Really it's the attention to detail and the handcrafted nature to this vermouth company that we've started. There are so many additives that people don't realize are in the wines that they're drinking. We never add liquid tannins or concentrates. We make all of our tinctures in-house and many of our ingredients we actually grow on the ranch we live on. What we can’t get on the ranch, we get locally from Sonoma County. It’s truly a handcrafted product from our home.
Heather, what philosophies do you carry from all of your work in the cocktail world?
Heather: I’ve watched the cocktail industry shift in different ways over the last 15 years. In the early 2000’s, it was about being fanciful—syrups, lighting things on fire, and other crazy things. Over the years, things have shifted back to a more classic cocktail culture—cocktails with three, four ingredients at most, booze-forward, very few frills. It’s an emphasis on the minimal amount of altering for spirits. So when we were creating the recipe for the vermouth, I really wanted to do something that was elegant but simple—something that did the most amount of work with the least amount of ingredients or additives.
What do you guys think makes a great vermouth?
Heather: Locality. I think there's something to be said for the fact that a lot of vermouths specify where they're from or their family's recipe, giving it a sense of place and feel and inspiration. It's a representation of land, weather, tradition, all factors that make the product what it is.
Woody: I think a good vermouth is one that, when you taste it, you know that it's handcrafted, that it doesn't have high-fructose corn syrup in it, it doesn't have commercial concentrates in it. When you can really taste, essentially the terroir, really. All the components. And like what Heather said earlier, when they're in balance.
What do you guys think sets your vermouth apart from what you're seeing out there?
Heather: Vermouth was originally created as a medicinal product, where medicinal herbs were incorporated with wine and then fermented so it was safe to drink. We approach our vermouth in a way that pays respect to its original intent—using ingredients that are ultimately good for you, ingredients grown ethically and sustainably on our ranch, and leaving out common industry ingredients that are bad for you, like artificial sweeteners. We tried to go back to vermouth’s roots and make something we could really be proud of.
Woody: My main winemaking philosophy is that good wine is only as good as its ingredients, and we approach our vermouth the same way. By putting the best ingredients we can into our vermouth, we’re making the best product possible.
We believe a quality product comes from quality ingredients. It’s a philosophy we’ve long applied to our careers as wine and cocktail makers.
We want to make products that are truly local, home grown and hand crafted. Most of our ingredients are grown ethically and sustainably on our ranch or locally in Sonoma County, California. We never add liquid tannins, corn syrups or concentrates.
We want to make products that are balanced, natural, and enjoyable to drink. Something that’s versatile but works well on its own. We want to honor the vermouth’s roots while bringing something new to the table.