Aside from a Binaca-spritz worth of vermouth in my usual dry martini, I admittedly shrug off the ingredient as a puckery-dry liquid that would fog up the clarity of a hard-earned gin. That is until I finally made it into Vaca, Amar Santana’s hip Spanish tapas joint in Costa Mesa. Admittedly, I’m probably the last person in O.C. to make it in, but today seemed perfect to geek out on something I’ve ignored for far too long.
Vermouth. It comes from all over the globe, but usually Italy and France. It’s an aromatic fortified wine that has a plethora of botanicals, herbs, barks, and spices. There’s sweet, dry, and white (blanc) vermouth, all differing on the palate, with varying degrees of fruity-floral notes on the sweet side, and a pleasant herbaceous earthiness on the dry side. Vaca embraces the vermouth renaissance with 14 vermouths in its lineup, including a tasty sweet house version.
The house vermouth is worthy of a pre-meal sip on its own, served on the rocks and garnished with an orange twist. Although technically “sweet”, it finishes on the dry side with a warming holiday vibe. Cinnamon and citrus dominate the flavor profile, but I pick up tart cranberries on the finish. It’s fun to hunt for the 18 other botanicals. Two cocktails on the menu employ the house Vermouth, both vastly different, yet are related like brothers from another mother.
Lam-Bruto is Vaca’s take on an Americano, letting the restaurant’s house vermouth shine. Shaken with St. George Bruto Americano, grapefruit, and sparkling Lambrusco and poured into a collins glass over ice, dark ruby highlights poke through the sexy drink, and the fizzy head on top is just too sexy drink, with its fizy head on top. The drink explodes with Italian personality, causing me to gesticulate wildly with every sip.
On the boozier side, Vaca’s Palmetto vermouth cocktail gets a warming boost from Hamilton 86 Rum. Chocolate notes from the bitters round out the fruity-spicy-citrus vibe, changing its complexity from sip to sip as the huge ice cube melts. The house vermouth plays a supporting role, similar to a Manhattan, yet still lays down the castanets, this time, making me want to flamenco with Amar, or maybe it’s the booze talking? Either way, dancing flamenco with Amar would be awesome.
It should be noted, bar director Michael Rooney has plenty to geek out on at Vaca, and was slightly saddened I didn’t want to go on a sherry vision quest with him. I also left without eating, which is somewhat of a sin considering Amar’s menu insanity. I suppose the best thing about Vaca is there is so much left to be discovered.
Conclusion? I think vermouth on the rocks would make a perfect pre-meal aperitif and can add a lot of complexity to any cocktail.
Vaca: 695 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa // vacarestaurant.com