One night while at a friend’s house, I glanced over at a glass bottle filled with a pale, translucent liquid. At the bottom was a clump of green. My interest piqued, I asked what it was.
“Oh, that?” he said, pointing to the bottle. “It’s weed vermouth. You want to try?”
Though I hadn’t thought about it before, the concept of cannabis-infused vermouth made perfect sense. Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized white wine, which means that after fermentation, another alcohol—usually brandy—is added, and the resulting elixir is infused with various aromatic herbs, spices, barks, roots, seeds and flowers. Knowing that roster, it’s easy to see how cannabis fits in as a possible aromatizing option when making vermouth.
My search for more information led me to Mike Roth, one of the owners and winemakers for Lo-Fi Wines, a brand that produces lower alcohol wines from vineyards in Santa Barbara County with native yeasts, little sulfur and no pH adjustments.
“So, I like cocktails and amaro and such, and I also like edibles and cannabis. I thought it would be good to combine the two so I could consume both in moderation,” Roth tells me, beginning to detail how he makes and infuses the vermouth not in his winemaking facility, but at home.
Roth explains that he had already been making vermouth with a friend. Another friend of his had been growing some high CBD hybrids he created himself, so Roth decarboxylated the bud and made an alcohol infusion using a recipe from an old book he found about desserts and fortified wine.
“I worked it backwards, knowing the strength of the plant, and figured out how much THC was there and how much CBD was available. I fortified the wine to about 20 percent with neutral grape spirits so that it would end up being about 3 ½ milligrams of THC per ounce of liquid. This way, you can imbibe at a reasonable pace and not be high,” Roth details.
He further explains that he specifically sought out high CBD strains so he could have the benefits, “without the paranoia,” he laughs. “That’s the thing about cocktails—you want more than one! If you put too much of everything in, it really loses its luster.”
Warren Bobrow, mixologist and author of Cannabis, Cocktails, Mocktails and Tonics, is going for the same kind of buzz in his own weed vermouth. For a drink he calls “The Mezzrole Cocktail,” Bobrow shoots for using a sativa-indica hybrid strain called Cherry Pie to infuse vermouth at home. “It’s redolent of sweet and sour cherries,” he says of Cherry Pie, “and it complements the toasty, oaky flavors inherent in the liquors.”
The Mezzrole Cocktail is named after Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, a jazz musician who lived in Harlem during the 1920s and is made with Cherry Pie-infused sweet vermouth, handmade cocktail cherries and quality Bourbon. For the vermouth, Bobrow suggests using Uncouth Vermouth’s Seasonal Wild Flower.
“THC is what I work with,” Bobrow tells me. “It gets you stoned—and that’s not a bad thing! Back in the day before refrigeration, delicate herbs and spices were preserved using methods that are basic tinctures. Cannabis could be extracted using these same methods and dispensed into craft cocktails—those drinks are already brimming with natural flavors. The addition of cannabis brings new dimension and balance into the depth of flavor in a well-mixed drink. When you think bitters, the cannabis was originally in there!”
Of the vermouth he made himself, Roth says it tastes great—herbal, not unlike Bobrow’s concoction. Aside from the hybrid CBD strain, it has orange peel, chamomile and other botanicals local to San Luis Obispo. He likes it mixed in a Manhattan, poured straight over ice, in a spritzer with lemon zest and mixed with Benedictine, lemon juice and gin. Due to the natural sugar in it, the spirit only has about 124 grams per liter of residual sugar, which is relatively low for a sweet vermouth, so it has nearly endless mixing potential.
He thinks vermouth, being naturally herbal, is the ideal vessel for cannabis infusions also like Bobrow. Because of that, Roth is critical of a concurrent emerging trend: weed wine. “It ruins the wine and it ruins the weed,” he explains. “The whole point of becoming a winemaker is to make things that taste good. Marijuana, as a flavor, isn’t necessarily ‘good.’ It’s leafy and green. But it works with cocktails, because the herbaceousness can work with other flavors. Weed wine, apart from vermouth, is horrible, though.”
For now, and likely for awhile longer, Roth strictly makes the product at home, taking care to ensure there’s no overlap with his winery. “It would be nice if I could somehow make this to sell one day,” he laments. “I can make it for private consumption, but as soon as alcohol is involved at the federal level, I’m not interested in dealing with that.”
I wondered who else in the wine world might be making cannabis-infused vermouth. Of course, Bobrow is, but he doesn’t make his own vermouth from scratch. Roth doesn’t know of anyone else who is making cannabis-infused vermouth from grape to bottle, besides himself. He knows a lot of people who have made it into wine, and, separately, a lot more people who are making regular vermouth now more than ever, but nobody combining the two just yet.
“It’s a good way to consume a wine that, frankly, isn’t all that good on its own,” he says of regular vermouth. “I wish we had the culture that could accept the marriage of the two, but I guess I’ll just have to settle for making it at home."
From his lips to God’s ears.