Sacred Spirits Vermouth
Sacred Spirits Vermouth is produced in London by Ian Hart and his wife, Hilary Whitney. This family-run distillery, based in Highgate, makes a selection of vermouths as well as gin, vodka and whisky. Moreover, the company’s products can be purchased online, a welcome benefit during the present pandemic. Philip Day provides an insight into this fascinating brand.
During the recent Covid-19 nationwide lock-down, according to data from the research company Kantar, many households have been stocking up on alcohol to keep them going, with sales more than 22 per cent higher in March compared to the same time last year.
The Grocer trade journal also found that an additional £199million was spent on alcohol in the first month of lock-down. Kantar further stated it had also seen a shift in what people were purchasing: beer volumes rocketed and there was a dramatic increase in sales for pre-bottled cocktails, vermouth and wine.
It put these increases down to people stocking up to recreate trips to cocktail bars and pubs with friends over apps including Houseparty, Zoom and Facetime.
According to similar recent research carried out by Master of Malt website, ‘Vermouth has been a top growth category during the recent coronavirus lock-down.’
Indeed prior to the advent of the coronavirus crisis, renewed interest in all types of vermouth had led to a marked mini boom in its popularity thanks to the fortified wines’ versatility. Newer varieties of vermouths are also being championed by bartenders around the world as key cocktail ingredients, so perhaps it isn’t exactly surprising to see the increasing popularity this staple of the many cocktails fashionable drinkers enjoy.
Following on from the trend for new varieties of gin and vodka and the recent boom in popularity in the UK for revisiting classic cocktails, a number of British vermouths have begun entering the drinks market, taking on the traditional Italian and French competition, including the multi award winning Sacred Spirits Company in North London.
A brief overview of vermouth.
Vermouth takes its name from the French pronunciation of ‘Wermut’, the German word for ‘wormwood’ -the bitter herb used as an ingredient in the fortified wine drink over its history. (It is also an important constituent of absinthe.) Legally it is described as a wine that has been fortified with a spirit and aromatised with herbs, botanicals and spices. Vermouth must also be flavoured with at least one herb from the Artemisia absinthium (absinthe wormwood) family. Generally, its alcoholic content ranges from a minimum of 14.5% ABV to a maximum of 22 % ABV. However, vermouth’s alcohol content may sometimes be strengthened with neutral alcohol. Since the base of the drink is wine, it’s best stored in the fridge and consumed within six weeks of opening.
Fortified wines and liqueurs containing wormwood as a principal ingredient existed in Germany around the 16th century. However, around the same time, an Italian merchant named D’Alessio began producing a ‘wormwood wine’ containing other botanical ingredients in addition to wormwood as a medicinal libation.
Modern commercial versions of vermouth are said to have been first produced in Italy, specifically Turin, during the late 18th century, when a red sweet vermouth was created. (For this reason, red sweet vermouth is often referred to as ‘Italian vermouth’) Not long afterwards vermouth production crossed the Alps and the French began producing their own white dry version, including other herbs and spices. (For this reason, dry vermouth is often referred to as ‘French vermouth’.)
While Italy remains one of the most prolific producers of vermouths alongside France and Spain, The United Kingdom and the United States have also become recognised as noteworthy producers.
Historically, the category of vermouth has become populated by a variety of individual products and styles. Sweet and dry vermouths are the most common, though additional styles such as extra-dry white, half dry white, sweet white, amber, and rosé vermouths have been created in response to both demand and competition.
Many believe that white wine is used for white and dry vermouth and red wine for red vermouth, but in reality, the wine base is white for all types.
Sacred Spirits: a brief history
The story of Sacred Spirits is really one of ingenuity, know-how and true British creativity.
Prior to starting a distillery, Ian Hart was a financial headhunter. In a recent interview he stated the following: ‘From the end of 2006 onward, the global banking system steadily became a vast train wreck. No one was hiring in the financial sector, and I quickly had to find another way to make a living.’
Post Credit Crunch though, business was slow, leaving Ian with a lot of spare time in which he started researching and experimenting with the modern techniques of distillation. Having studied natural sciences at Cambridge and being interested in distillation from his childhood, this seemed like the most natural fit. After experimenting with using vacuum-distillation equipment to remove water from some of the less successful vintages from his large collection of Bordeaux wine in order to create a richer wine Whilst the Bordeaux experiment worked, it was also very time-consuming and he realised that it would never be commercially viable. So, he turned to creating a contemporary gin using the same techniques.
‘I started experimenting with various gin recipes and every Sunday night, for several months, my wife, Hilary, and I would take them to my local pub, the Wrestlers, for the locals to try. Eventually, one night there was one recipe (it was the 23rd!) that everyone unanimously declared to be “the one” and the landlord, Martin Harley, said that if I bottled it, he would have it behind his bar. That was the start of Sacred Gin.’
Hilary was a successful freelance journalist and writer, but the rise of Sacred Spirits soon took over her life too: managing most other aspects of the business aside from the distilling – from bottling by hand, selling Sacred to establishments across London (and beyond!) and much, much more.
Situated in Highgate, London, Sacred Distillery has often been described as the ‘Breaking Bad’ of gin. The original distillery was based in the house in which Ian lived on and off since 1973 and where he continued to distil Sacred until October 2019. The Sacred distillery is now based at 50 Highgate High Street – there is also a beautiful bottle shop where customers can taste through all Sacred’s products.
Unlike a traditional distillery, however, that uses copper pot stills, Sacred Gin is vacuum distilled in glassware that resembles a chemistry lab gone crazy. Vacuum distillation under glass means that the air is sucked out of the glassware with a vacuum pump, thereby reducing the pressure so that distillation occurs at a much lower temperature (35–45°C) than pot distillation (typically 85–95°C), creating distillates that are lusher and fresher. Ian uses a number of bespoke stills, a series of glass chambers connected by glass and silicone piping. These unique vessels are designed to Ian’s own specifications and manufactured especially for him by a glassware maker.
From the start the decision was taken by Ian and Hilary to separately distil each of the twelve botanicals, which are then blended to make the final spirit and then bottled at 40% ABV.
‘We macerate and distil all our botanicals—most of which are organic—separately for 4–6 weeks minimum with no air contact in the finest quality English wheat spirit. This is a seriously long time. Most distilleries macerate overnight. But we do this make sure we extract the maximum flavour from our botanicals.’
The name of the gin (and the company) is derived from one of the main botanicals used to create it: Boswellia sacra (Hojari frankincense harvested in the Al Hajar Mountains of the Dhofar Desert of Oman.)
Sacred’s first commercial bottling in 2009 was Sacred Gin, a classic London Dry Gin which soon became a cult favourite. Almost from the beginning, the couple were very lucky to count Dukes Hotel bar (London), Fortnum and Mason and Gerry’s Wines and Spirits among their customers, which gave them valuable credibility. Indeed their collaborations with head bartender Alessandro Palazzi and his team at Dukes have been incredibly fruitful.
Distilling botanicals separately has meant that Ian and Hilary have huge freedom to develop a range of award-winning new products, which include: eleven gins, two vodkas, three vermouths made with English wine, a bitter aperitif (Rosehip Cup), a bottle-aged Negroni, a peated English whisky and an English whisky liqueur.
Let us have a closer look at the Sacred vermouths.
SACRED ENGLISH DRY VERMOUTH
- 75cl 21.8% ABV
- Made in collaboration with Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Bar, SW1, this bone dry vermouth is used in every Dry Martini served at this world-famous martini bar. Spicy, herbaceous and gentle wormwood bitterness gives a full five minute length on the palate, built on a backbone of English wine from Three Choirs, Gloucestershire, together with a mix of some 16 botanicals.
- At the World Drinks Awards 2019, Sacred English Dry Vermouth was awarded ‘World’s Best Extra-Dry Vermouth’
- The judges of the World Drinks Awards commented: “Beautiful nose, rich, dry wormwood, slightly peppery. Slight sweetness underneath, palate is crisp.”
- Sacred English Dry Vermouth makes the perfect dry martini. Remember: There is no mystery to the martini, and all you need to make one is your best gin and dry vermouth (Sacred make both!). It’s also very good served in an English Dry Buck.
SACRED ENGLISH AMBER VERMOUTH
- 75cl 21.8% ABV
- Again made in collaboration with Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Bar. It was created using English white wine base (again from Three Choirs in Gloucestershire) with 16 botanicals including orange peel, orris, gentian and wormwood.
- It is described as delicate, floral, with a distinct note of Spanish sweet orange, this vermouth has now been recognised as the closest equivalent to the legendary Kina Lillet (French aromatised wine, discontinued in 1986) in the Vesper Martini (immortalised by Ian Fleming in ‘Casino Royale’, 1953). Consequently, it is served by Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Bar, SW1, in all of their Vespers. It also works well on the rocks with a lemon twist, or in a more sophisticated take on the classic Spritz.
- The English Dry Vermouth was awarded World’s Best Extra Dry Vermouth and the Amber Vermouth was awarded World’s Best Vermouth – ie the best Vermouth in the world – even better than the English Dry Vermouth
SACRED ENGLISH SPICED VERMOUTH
- 75cl 18% ABV
- Described as a rich, deep and gently bitter vermouth, made with English wine (again from Three Choirs in Gloucestershire) mixed with botanicals including organic wormwood and thyme grown in Somerset and Spanish sweet orange studded with cloves from Madagascar. It creates a rich, full-bodied, spicy vermouth with a character evocative of an English herb garden.
- The company suggests mixing two-to-one with your favourite whisky (or Sacred’s own) for a flawless Manhattan, without the necessity for any additional bitters, or combine in equal measure with Sacred Gin and Sacred Rosehip Cup (an all-natural gently bitter aperitif is made with English rosehips and rhubarb, Spanish sweet orange, organic Peruvian ginger and naturally coloured with red grape skins) for the complete English Negroni.
- Sacred Spirits is also running a series of events such as Distillery Visits, Gin Blending sessions and Cocktail Masterclasses from its new site on Highgate High Street – keep an eye out on Instagram or Facebook for more details or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Address: Sacred Spirits, 50 Highgate High Street, London N6 5HX
Telephone: +44 (0)20 8340 2817