As Vermouth comes back into favour, we talk to Mark Ward, from Australian Vermouth brand Regal Rogue, about their Bold Red expression.
As a ‘dry’ red vermouth, Bold Red often has people a little confused, so we ask Ward to explain why it was created, what flavours dominate it and in what cocktails it can be used.
Additionally, we discuss the future of Aperitifs, new world Vermouth and the brands’ soon-to-be-released organic wine based Vermouth.
[00:00:50] – What makes Vermouth unique?
[00:02:04] – What makes Regal Rogue different?
[00:03:23] – Why did you start Regal Rogue?
[00:05:37] – How important are native ingredients?
[00:06:53] – What flavour do they impart to the Bold Red?
[00:08:44] – How important was it to push beyond the standard sweet & dry?
[00:10:16] – Are people confused by the Bold Red being a dry vermouth?
[00:11:46] – How should people use the Bold Red at home?
[00:13:07] – In cocktails, should the Bold Red be used as you would a Sweet Vermouth?
[00:14:12] – Lower sugar than other Vermouths
[00:15:23] – Involvement with companies that are doing things differently
[00:17:58] – How is the reduction of alcohol consumption going to affect traditional cocktails?
[00:19:49] – What other cocktails does the Bold Red work well in?
[00:20:48] – Will Vermouth continue to expand its flavour palette?
[00:21:55] – Drinkers are discovering the charms of the Aperitif
[00:23:23] – Your key messages were ahead of their time
[00:24:31] – A level of risk
[00:27:08] – It must be difficult having an unseasonal product that relies on a seasonal base
[00:29:06] – Releasing new organic wine base
Today we are talking to Mark Ward, the founder of Australian vermouth range Regal Rogue, who is presently in LA, about their Bold Red Expression. Thank you for joining us Mark.
It’s a fortified wine but often we treat it like liquor, can you explain what makes vermouth unique.
There are a couple of elements really. Vermouth is a marriage of wine, herbs and spices, as we call them aromatics, and the fundamental elements that make it unique between each brand is the base wine, the aromatic makeup so the blend of aromatics that have been put together and then the treatment of either the wine, so you might age the wine in wood on the way in, or you might rest the vermouth in wood on the way out. And then any added flavours or sweeteners which traditionally European styles are quite renowned for adding caramel, whereas for us as Regal Rogue is a new world style, we are 100% Australian wine with native Australian herbs and spices and then we have no wood aging or artificial colours or sweeteners or flavours. So all those components do contribute to very unique recipes and styles across each brand.
What makes Regal Rogue different from the French or Italian vermouths that we are so used to.
Fundamentally we have on average 40% less sugar than traditional European styles, we move wines from celebrated regions of Australia so with the white we have the Hunter Valley Semillon, with the Daring Dry we have an Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, with the Bold Red as you described at the beginning we have a Barossa Valley Shiraz so we are taking celebrated wine varietals from celebrated regions and we have built the aromatic blend around the wine. So in the instance of the Bold Red it was all about this natural spice of Shiraz and peppery notes and then married through with native Australian wattle seed, pepper berry native thyme into cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, dried fig, dried cherry and bitter orange. But we don’t have a caramel. So with the red as a comparison to a martini or a Cinzano or a European style, we have 50% less sugar so you actually really taste the wine notes and those complementary aromatics rather than sort of a complexity of sweetness.
Now South Australia has a strong wine tradition but for a while, vermouth went out of favour, what made you think to start Regal Rogue in 2011?
Well the idea started in 2008. I had launched Hendricks Gin into the market in 2005 and I have been involved in the spirits industry and the bar industry for a number of years and just kind of thought after doing gin for 3 years you know that gin was busy. Little did I know that that was just the beginning of the gin category and me being me I just wanted to do something that was really different. Vermouth was in decline, we have this abundance of wine in Australia and I had come across the native aromatics previously from a guy called Vic Cherikoff when I was working with Luke Mangan and I just started blending these aromatics with vodka to make a really bad homemade gin and then I started doing it with wine and I traditionally drink probably lower alcohol products so more of a wine person over spirits traditionally and just thought it would be really interesting to put an Australian vermouth on the market again. Angoves was the last brand that we knew of who discontinued in the 90’s. So it has been nearly 20 years since a brand had been in the market as an Australian style. It went from there and it was a passion project really that I threw out the door in 2011 and then it gained traction with Selfridges in the UK when I went round the world in 2013 to show a few people and its grown from there and I think there are now something like 12 Australian brands in the market. There are some New Zealand brands coming through and so we have kind of seen this whole category erupt and pretty much where you see wine now around the world you will find there is probably a local or craft vermouth brand being made.
How important are native ingredients?
Oh god so important. They are probably up there with the wine. I have been approached a few times because we are in 7 markets around the world now and at times people have said why don’t you just make it with English wine and what is this lemon myrtle. And I say no, you can’t really do that, it’s an Australian vermouth so the idea is Australian wine with Australian herbs. In each varietal, and just going back to the Bold Red because you picked up on it, the lead aromatics in that varietal are native pepper berry, native wattle seed, native thyme. So they are the most important herbs in that varietal. And in July this year we moved to 100% organic wine as a base so with our lack of sugar, organic wine, the native aromatics and no wood aging will be at the highest place we can be with our liquid as an everyday drinking vermouth.
Now you were talking about the herbs and fruits that were in the Bold Red, what sort of flavour does that give the vermouth?
Each varietal in the Regal Rogue portfolio or family were built off of very simple flavour descriptors so in the Bold Red it’s all about aromatic spice and dried fruit and the reason for that was so people could really connect with something that they already understand and the reason that was so important because vermouth was so misunderstood. And you touched on this at the beginning, no matter what distributor we work with around the world or who we talk to in retail people still think that vermouth is a spirit. I mean it is 75% wine, it’s fortified with a grape or neutral spirit by about let’s say for argument sake 5%. So you might end up with 80% of the bottle being fortified wine but 75% of that is the wine so it’s a wine product and all vermouth will turn, it will oxidise. Once you open it and you expect the liquid to the air it will oxidise at some point. Most brands, the old traditional brands, we call them the heritage brands, if you go into dusty pubs say in the UK or even Europe and maybe Australia they are on the back bar and they are looking a little bit orange because they have essentially oxidised. So there is another education piece about storing vermouth in the fridge and as an example we have a date square on the back of our bottle where you can write when you opened the product so it reminds you you have got about two months before it will start to turn. We have come together with various brands around the world to just align on that message that when you open vermouth you have got about two months before it will start to evolve.
Most people understand the 3 main vermouth styles; the Rosso, the Dry and the Blanc but with Regal Rogue, you almost expanded those categories. How important was it to push beyond the standard sweet and dry?
Very important to me and I always say this to everybody when I am doing a talk or talking to groups of people, whenever you look at a brand whether it’s even a car but fundamentally so we say, if it doesn’t connect with you it doesn’t matter but everything is put in place based on the pallet or taste or positioning an idea that that person had at that time. So for me the reasoning behind doing four styles was to represent four key wine styles and show an example of a dry white, a full bodied white, a red and then the rosé. We will have plans to do an orange vermouth or some unique wines that aren’t widely available but we will just do them as limited editions to keep pushing the boundary on what wines are available in the market because vermouth is a wine based product so it should represent wine and those styles I believe and that is really why we came into the market with four different styles.
Looking at the Bold Red specifically, most people would assume that it is a sweet but it is actually a dry vermouth, do you find people find that a little bit confusing?
100%. So we just had to say this has got 50% less sugar, there is no caramel and there is no wood aging so a point of difference against sweet red vermouth that you might this of this is all about a shiraz based wine with these herbs and spices giving you an aromatic spice and dried fruit makeup but you can go heavy on the bold red in a cocktail rather than say like you are using something like Punt e Mes or Antiqua formula and the way that I always describe it, like I had one very educated guy in the industry in the UK say I am not really into your Bold Red because it doesn’t compare with Punt e Mes or Antiqua formula and I said that is basically like comparing lager to Guinness and if you understand there is a point of difference then you can use them in very different ways. In the same way that you might use Tanqueray 10 against Bombay Sapphire or Hendricks in very different ways, they are still all gin but they have got very unique styles and that’s really whatr we are trying to bring to the market. We are a red vermouth but we are a dry red and that’s what is unique to us as an Australian product.
When people are using a dry red at home, would they use it the same way they would typically use a dry vermouth/
Yes, let’s pick on the Negroni because it’s such a popular cocktail but with the Negroni we find you can actually taste more of the components of Campari and the gin by using the Bold Red in a Negroni over something that might have a lot more complexity and depth to it. And you know I am not pointing out that we are better than anyone or any other product is better than us, we are just different and that is really the education piece that we are trying to drive as a brand that this is why it is different and then hopefully people will like it and if they don’t like it that is totally fine because there are so many other products in the market. But it also lends itself to over ice with a piece of fig or a bit of chocolate so more of a sipping style or long with ginger beer to make it more of a low alcohol aperitif. If you put Punt e Mes or Antiqua formula in it with ginger beer, yes I am sure it will be drinkable but it will be a very different flavour profile whereas with us it’s a little bit easier because of the style of vermouth that it is.
Negroni typically uses a sweet vermouth, so would you be using the Bold Red as a sweet vermouth or a dry vermouth, even though it is a dry.
It is a dry, semi dry by sugar level so we would be using it as a dry style but it is just the fact that you are changing out the traditional sweet red and saying well this is just a dry red. But what we also find and this is really interesting is the Bold Red has 80 grams of sugar per litre and most sweet red vermouths have about 160 to 200 grams of sugar per litre. The Wild Rosé has 70 grams of sugar per litre but because we use fruit herbs leading it like strawberry gum, rosella and Illawarra plum it’s actually got a sweeter profile to the Bold Red so actually the rosé stands up against Campari and gin I think in a slightly more interesting way in a Negroni as a Rosé Negroni. All these facts and figures really throw people because it’s all so new. And so now from our messaging when we started being Australian wine, Australian herbs and spices now nearly 90% of the time when we are talking about the brand we always relate to the sugar, because people ask, especially in the US it is a big thing over here, what is the calorie of the drink obviously of which the sugar component contributes to that and then also the alcohol level. So we have just gone live on Virgin Atlantic as the first ever low alcohol drink offering on their menu so that they can have something more mindfulness and wellbeing led but whilst being at 35,000 feet and our alcohol and our sugar is a big component of that and we are finding that on certain menus now it might say Regal Rogue, this sugar on the menu or that served with this level of alcohol as a guide. So going back to your question why vermouth maybe went into decline in the 80’s, probably the same reason that things are changing now and brands like Seedlip that we work with on the Virgin Atlantic deal are so popular because the way people are consuming alcohol is changing quite quickly.
Work with companies like that that are doing things in a different way, are they companies you want to work with more?
100%. I met Ben before Seedlip was developed and thought he had a really interesting idea, he obviously then launched and has been an amazing success but Ben was smart enough to realise that if all he was ever talking about was no alcohol, then you are kind of restricting yourself to only people who didn’t want to drink and so he launched the global initiative called No Lo and we partnered with him with Virgin because we were already doing things with Virgin Atlantic and they for social responsibility for passengers and for the aviation association to sort of say we are working with our passengers so that we can reduce consumption at the airport and on the plane for obvious reasons. We all came together and said let’s do this. It’s the first ever initiative of its kind and it was a huge success when it launched in January but Ben continues to drive now No and Lo as a more global message and we would love to continue working with brands like that because I think it is one of those areas or categories shall be call it that is growing rapidly. And although some people don’t drink so Seedlip and what they do with their drinks gives someone really exciting options. There are people who still want to have a drink but they don’t want to have such strong alcohol. Any partnerships like that are really interesting, especially if you can do it say we partner with a brand like Seedlip and then you have a commercial partner like Virgin who are willing to get behind it, that kind of ticks all the boxes because then you get such great exposure for all the effort that is put in. So yes we are continuing to look at options like that, in the same way we want to work with hotels with sort of pools where you have got daytime drinking and have these low alcohol options as well. Virgin Australia are going to go live with the low alcohol serves that we did with Virgin Atlantic as an extension of what Virgin Atlantic did so hopefully it just keeps growing and expanding and we are defending on the door with SpaceX to see if we can get a serve on there, as gravity reduces maybe the alcohol consumption reduces.
How do you think that change is going to affect traditional cocktails?
I think, and this is obviously all my personal view and it is not necessarily me saying this is what is going to happen, I think you will just find that the like of a vermouth in a cocktail will start being more evenly balanced in the drink whereas when I was a bartender from 2002 to 2008-2010 you really only ever put a dash of vermouth or when we were making martinis back then you would stir the vermouth and flick it down the drain whereas one of the popular martinis that we serve globally is the wet martini using one to one with the Daring Dry with vodka or gin so I think you will see that vermouth or modifiers like vermouth that are low alcohol will start becoming more of a balanced ingredient against the spirit and I don’t think that trend is going anywhere. I that that is just going to get more and more popular because we all live a different lifestyle now and the sort of mid-20 year olds that we talk to are telling us it is not cool to be wasted whereas when I grew up it was really cool to be wasted. So I think that trend piece will change and grow a lot more and it’s not very faddy, you know molecular mixology was amazing and it was clever but it was quite faddy and tricky for anyone to replicate whereas the home bartender can make a balanced martini or make a Regal Rogue old red and ginger beer at home quite easy because it is just like a gin and tonic. So I think that will keep growing and evolving and we will see more of that balance on menus and in drinks.
Other than the martini and the Negroni what other cocktails do you believe the Bold Red works really well in.
Cocktail wise in a Boulevardier one to one, in a Martin as one to one, in a Manhattan one to one, so anywhere where you do find red vermouth on a sweet style just as an equal balance just bringing in the Bold Red instead of a sweet style. We see that work everywhere but one of my favourites is just the Bold Red Sour so using the Bold Red, a double measure, with 30 mils of lemon juice, a dash of sugar syrup, a little bit of cherry bitters and going it like that instead of a whiskey and bourbon and that is just a lovely low AVB offering built on the foundation of the Bold that is the base.
So in an interesting way vermouth is doing what gin has already done and expanding its flavour pallets and expanding its nature I suppose.
Yes totally. I think having been in this industry this long, if I thought gin was busy in 2006/7 when we launched Hendricks and look where it went then we still have got a very long way for vermouth to evolve and grow as a category and I think we are only really just on the tip of that growth curve. There are a number of good brands in the category but I think there are a number of more brands coming through that might be more aligned with lack of sugar or no wood ageing so it is just about the wine and the herbs so more in line say with us or there might be other brands that are all about the ageing and age in different styles of wood to have a point of difference against these heritage brands. I would like to think that we are doing the right thing and seeing it evolve and grow and hope that with that comes the growth like gin has seen.
It seems drinkers are suddenly discovering the charms of the aperitif, where do you think it will go?
I will answer this in two ways; I think it will continue to expand and I think aperitif will have as big a presence as classic cocktails on menus moving forward or aperitif style drinks. But all this talk about speeding up the aging of whiskey in the last few weeks where they have got some technology where instead of aging it for 3 years they can achieve that in a couple of months with the technology they have got. I think there will still be a place to walk into a bar and say I would like say Chivas 25 as a properly rested 25 year old whiskey or blends of rather than something that might be sort of a 25 that was aged in 3 months. I think it will just increase the offering and choice for people to have. And some things definitely won’t have a place, they will just sort of fizzle out but I can’t see aperitifs going anywhere. I think it is a lovely offering of pre-dinner or in the garden around the romance of an aperitif and aperitivo but I think aperitifs on menus will be as popular as classic things like the martini and mojitos and daiquiris etc.
It seems that all your key messages are things that didn’t exist back in 2010, the low alcohol, the sugar, none of those things were things that people particularly cared about and yet they were things that you got behind and interestingly enough is it the way it went.
I know, I think that’s what they call luck. I was talking to someone today and he said in this industry it’s so hard to make a brand survive. There is such an incredible amount of luck at times and I think it’s just those messages and that structure is coming into its own because if I wasn’t that we probably would have fizzled out and become a lovely project that just didn’t maybe survive or carry on but we do have that and that’s really what is holding our strength for now and hopefully for the future.
That must have been an amazing risk?
It was and I think my ambition was very naïve. I think I had got to a point in my career where I have had so many beautiful moments launching Hendricks Gin and all the other brands that I was involved in launching and working and managing Sydney Opera House for New Year’s Eve on a number of years and working with celebrated chefs like Luke Mangan and Pete Evans and I thought you know what I am going to do my own brand and turn it all upside down but I never ever thought it would be that long a journey and that much of a personal sacrifice to keep it going. And also vermouth, you know if I had done gin I would probably be somewhere else right now but it’s something I have stood by and as I said we were the first in the market but we were joined very quickly by Maiden Eye and Innocent Bystander with courses and cures and there are other brands coming through so we all started propping up and developing the category quite quickly but you could have no understanding or appreciation for how hard it is to get a person in a town to buy that bottle repeatedly every month or get a bar to say OK we will swap it out for this product which is half the price of yours that we have a long standing agreement with because we want to try something different. But you just have to do it, one person at a time and one bar at a time and one retailer at a time and eventually it grows and we are at such a point now globally where even your work, this pod cast, you can put it on line and reach thousands of people whereas in the past people would be listening to probably things like this on the radio but local radio. So it’s easier to reach people with an idea but even to this day we had a huge spike in sales in Australia last week and we are like oh my god we might run out of stock before we actually bottle our next bottling if we are not careful. So you kind of constantly juggle as a small craft brand that is growing and in multiple markets you constantly juggle managing having supply around when the wine harvest comes back around and on top of that making sure that the right terms are in place to grow as a brand. Yes it’s been a horrendously amazing journey.
I imagine as a non-seasonal product relying on a base that is seasonal must be problematic at times.
Yes, it unpredictable, you just never know. The Wild Rosé has been our number one product in the portfolio at 38% of our sales for 2 years and now the Bold Red is leading and the rosé is equal with the Lively White but the Daring Dry is more popular in Australia than it is in the UK and you just, it changes year on year so you just have to have an abundance of stock on hand. I was talking to Jamie Duff who started Stolen Rum the other week on Linked In because I have a group of there called Rogue Business Models and it just shares all the insights to help actually get the business moving like this and he said oh you should really produce your product based on maybe 3 months of supply. I said it only really works in spirits because if you are waiting for wine on a harvest you have to commit that wine 6 months out and then you have got the wine in the month of that harvest so you kind of have to blend and bottle at that time. So there are so many things to juggle. And I think as a business and as a person I have only just got to the other side, the right side of all those learnings to be able to look back at it. Definitely some very hot moments, challenging days where you just look at it and say why am I doing this. But we are doing it, we are in some beautiful markets now and people are recognising that vermouth is changing and vermouth has had a huge resurgence and low alcohol is changing and I think the organic move will be the next piece that lifts the brand in another way. July we will be launching into Australia as our first market with our organic wine base in the new bespoke bottle so stay tuned.
Do you want to tell us a little bit more about that?
Yes, I do. It is the first time I have talked about it. I started seeing this trend of the low alcohol aperitifs and vermouth being more of a balance in cocktails and brands evolve. We were coming up to, I started looking at it about 2 years ago, say 2016/127 so we were about 5 years old and I just thought what about taking the wine base to organic wine because there is an abundance of organic wine now available. We found a couple of amazing partners which we will reveal later on who have been looking after their land and growing organic grapes the last 40 years on both vineyards so we are going to hang our hat on a specific vineyard moving forward or two specific vineyards. That means we will be able to get our liquid to the highest level we can whilst maintaining exactly the same recipes and sugar levels and everything else and we also wanted to come up with our own bottle and so I took inspiration from vintage carafes for Armagnac, Cognac and wines so playing on this whole great spirit or great vessel that you might have at a dinner party or at home or on your cocktail trolley an so we have got this beautiful bottle that we have designed with a couple of embosses with brand pieces on there. It is still in the 500 mls and they are 6 packs and the whole range will come out in that packaging and with that wine base at the end of July in Australia.
Thank you for speaking with us today