The name began a decade ago as an inside joke — Dumpster Juice — a cheeky nod to the idea that almost anything, from bitter herbs to citrus peels, thistles and branches, can be steeped in fortified wine and transformed into the magic of vermouth.
“I thought it was funny,” said Bloomsday Cafe co-owner Zach Morris, recalling his wisecrack over a long-ago spritzer project at the Philadelphia Wine School, where he used to teach. “Wherever you have a wine industry, you have vermouth, because it is a way of preserving waste products.”
But the idea stuck. So this spring, when Morris put his own first batch of vermouth to steep at Bloomsday with local ingredients, “I wrote ‘Dumpster Juice’ on a piece of tape on a glass carboy of nasty, macerating liquid and thought: Philly would accept this more than most places with the pride of a parent’s love.”
The finished products of Bloomsday’s bimonthly vermouth series since have been anything but trash. In fact, they have been as elegant as they’ve been diverse in personality. Made with a base of local riesling and vodka, plus an evolving bouquet of botanicals that reflect the changing seasons, from jasmine and citrus in spring to rhubarb, elderflower, and mugwort in early summer, to sassafras, Appalachian allspice and fig leaves in fall, each of the four limited-edition batches released to date have been snapped up swiftly through Instagram by the city’s quiet legion of vermouth fans.
“I drank it neat with an ice cube and I thought it was glorious! Glorious!” said Kate Thomas, a British professor of 19th-century literature at Bryn Mawr College who’s dabbled in making her own vermouth for martinis. “It wasn’t syrupy at all. And it was so nice to have while standing and cooking, sipping this very layered, but not grab-you-around-the-throat medicinal thing. It was so delicate and rosy and sunny, you’d think you were in a summer meadow. Plus, I love the name: Dumpster Juice! It’s very Philly.”
The edition Thomas drank in early September, the third batch, was a rose-colored beauty tinted with hibiscus and rhubarb enriched with artichokes, fig leaves, and hops that tasted something like a strawberry lozenge with a wonderful licorice finish.
Bloomsday’s fifth batch of vermouth, to be released on Friday, could not be a better homage to 2020. This “Glad That’s Over Edition” has been dubbed Dumpster Fire and, as the can reads: ”Here’s to the end of a pretty garbage year!”
But if there’s proof of beauty emerging from the steady misery of the year that ended, this newest batch is it — cola dark and more brooding than its predecessors, with a more intense contrast of bitterness and sweetness. There’s also herbal wormwood, gentian root, citrus, and hickory bark wrapped around a juicy core of Concord grape skins and vegetal cardoons from Green Meadow Farm, a giant thistle that Morris describes tasting like “buttered artichokes.”
In many ways, this entire project would not have happened had it not been for the pandemic, which prompted new laws to allow for cocktails to go. The extra-dry first batch, packaged inside a plastic pouch with a colorful label from artist Gregory W. Dyson depicting a farmer beside a dumpster diver’s arm rising triumphantly from the overflowing mess with a bottle of liquid gold, was Bloomsday’s spring reopening gift to the city of Gritty.
“It’s got that sort of lighthearted fun and experimental vibe,” said Dumpster Juice fan and avid vermouth lover, digital designer Will Hare. “You never know what’s going to come out of the bottle.”
Morris and his collaborator, Bloomsday general manager Tim Kweeder, have long bonded over their love of vermouth — or “vermut,” as it’s spelled in Barcelona, a city where Morris once lived and explored its vibrant vermouth bar scene. The beverage’s history (dating to 16th century Germany and Italy), myriad styles (from red to white, and dark to sweet), and its ability to convey complex flavors at relatively low alcohol levels (ranging from 15%-19%) have captured their imaginations. A national trend toward lower-alcohol beverages have also helped boost the drink’s notoriety as a fantail of the craft cocktail boom.
That’s one reason Bloomsday’s bottle shop, which also has one of the best selections of natural wine and craft beer in town, carries as many as 18 brands of vermouth from around the world. They encourage drinking it neat with an ice cube and garnish, rather than just as a component in cocktails. But the opportunity to make their own using a palette of local ingredients was irresistible.
“We’re aroma freaks,” says Morris, “so it’s been fun to find interesting botanicals, make tinctures, and steep them into vermouth. It’s like making a sauce. If you start with the raw ingredients and stand over the pot and taste it along the way, there’s something primal and enjoyable about that.”
Kweeder and Morris share sophisticated enough palates that their debut collaborations show a clear vision and sense of craft, with an elegant, well-integrated balance of layers and a logical seasonal progression through batches from drier, more quenching vermouths in summer to weightier, spice-forward brews for cold-weather sipping.
“These are some of the more unique flavors we’ve had,” said Hare, who along with wife Faith Hare, a research analyst, has sampled over 50 vermouths in travels to Spain. “These lean a little toward the amaro range in their intensity of bitterness, but they’re really interesting.” .
They are each made from local ingredients. Aside from key sources like the tart riesling from Wayvine Vineyard in Nottingham and vodka from Faber that act as the vermouth’s neutral base, Morris and Kweeder have plugged into the agricultural riches of Green Meadow Farm for botanicals ranging from wormwood (the herb from which vermouth’s name descends) to minty nepetella and tiny trifoliate oranges. The two have found a treasure trove of ingredients at Penn Herb Co. in Northern Liberties. “It’s a fascinating wormhole,” says Morris, for ingredients like cinchona bark, mentholy buchu, and incense-like Balm of Gilead, which has been noted for its medicinal, stomach-soothing qualities.
To date, they’ve created relatively small batches, with the most recent release amounting to only six gallons, enough to make 24 half-liter bottles ($28) and three cases of cans ($18 each). But ultimately, they hope there will be enough interest to create a full-production vermoutherie and a proper vermouth bar in the near future.
“The first exercise is to find a garage somewhere in a lower rent area,” says Morris, who’s aiming for a limited winery license and a space large enough to produce vermouth to sell wholesale.
As for the name?
“I do get a kick out of telling people what the guts are made out of because the reality is that vermouth is a waste product, and a good way for farmers to recoup their losses,” he says. “But we may need to come up with a new brand name. I’m enterprising enough to know that not everybody is going to get the joke.”