The Portland Phoenix

Vermouth maker explodes (literally) on beverage scene

Doug Watts, left, and Thaddeus St. John at Lincoln & Main in South Portland, where the "Momma Tank" contains the syrup vital to blending Drink ME.

Drink ME is a fortified wine, more like an aperol than a traditional vermouth.

Drink ME

Drink ME has been showing up on cocktail menus throughout Portland.

During its Negroni Week, Central Provisions ran a Rhubarb Negroni with Hardshore Gin, Drink ME, Campari, and Cocchi Vermouth diTorino. Flatbread Company also ran a negroni with Drink ME and Bimini Gin, and Bonobo and Tuscan
Table turned it into a spritz.

Bob Herczeg, bar manager at Sur Lie, developed a cocktail using Drink ME as a special for the month of November.

“I had it on its own at first and thought it was tasty,” Herczeg said. “It’s like an extra bitter vermouth or between an amaro and a vermouth.”

He then tried it as a spritz before he came up with the special cocktail, which is Old Grand Dad 100-proof bonded bourbon with Drink ME, two different gentian liqueurs, and cranberry bitters from Sweetgrass Winery in Union. It’s served in a Nick and Nora glass and topped off with a grapefruit twist.

If you’re no mixologist and you want to use Drink ME at home, Herczeg suggests simply mixing it in equal proportions with your favorite gin. Because it has components of Campari and vermouth, it will drink like a more complex cocktail, he said. If you’re having a dinner party, he suggests mixing it with
some sparkling wine and serving it as a pre-dinner aperitif.

“In the summer, or for the holidays, throw it in a punch bowl with strawberries, cherries, and ice, and it would be super tasty,” Herczeg said.

A couple of years ago, the Mad Scientist eyed his empty production space and decided he should make something. Despite his knowledge from years of bartending and working in the wine business, he struggled.

Then the Whimsically Handsome Sidekick showed up. He had years of experience in breweries and a distillery and needed a job.

The Mad Scientist brought the bitter. The Whimsically Handsome Sidekick brought the sweet. They toiled with recipes in buckets and to understand government regulations. Many trials and errors later, Drink ME vermouth aperitif was born.

“I had this space and I wanted to do something and I like vermouth and I can’t make wine that doesn’t taste like shit,” said Doug Watts, a.k.a. the Mad Scientist, sitting at a poker table “desk” in the production space at Lincoln & Main – also the company’s name – in South Portland.

Watts, 54, was a bartender before going into the wine business. In 2005, he established SoPo Wine Co., a wine and beer distribution company, with his wife, Catherine Oster. His Whimsically Handsome Sidekick, Thaddeus St. John, 27, worked for a distillery and a few Portland-area breweries, including Allagash – a job that took him to Los Angeles to work as a sales rep.

When he returned to Maine, he teamed up with Watts as co-owner.

Drink ME is a nod to the bottle Alice drinks from in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” while also being a nod to the state of Maine and a suggestion to customers.

“The biggest questions we get all the time is ‘what is it?’ or ‘what should I do with it?’” Watts said. “Obvious is what we wanted to be, so we put it in great big letters on the label: Drink ME.”

A fortified wine infused with herbs and spices including orange, star anise, ginger, and gentian, Drink ME is more like an aperol than a traditional vermouth, but also a drink all its own.

The base is red grape and Maine rhubarb wine. Watts will tell you he hates rhubarb, calling it flamboyant celery, while acknowledging that it is the base of most vermouths and what makes his own work. The base is steeped with the herbs, fruits, and spices, then fortified with brandy. Watts and St. John are also
working on a white vermouth, which may be flavored with ginger, quince, and apple.

“We wanted it to have that Maine thing. We’re not in Italy,” Watts said. “I was looking for the bitter and the sweet.”

The proportions of bitter and sweet were the hardest part of developing a recipe. Watts said he spent almost a year boiling ingredients down to get a concentrate that had the flavor he wanted, but still kept the right alcohol level. They also wanted the vermouth to be as natural as possible and to use as few artificial stabilizing agents as possible.

“We like to drink and drink a lot,” Watts said.

“Without feeling like shit,” St. John added.

Everything changed when they discovered the magic ingredient: syrup. With syrup, the botanicals, and wines “harmonized” together. They were able to have more consistency with the flavor, while also keeping alcohol levels where they wanted them. The syrup is a byproduct of the finished product. It can’t be made without the finished product and the finished product can’t be made without it. Which one came first, no one seems to know.

Watts and St. John speak with reverence about the syrup and Momma Tank, the tank that houses the syrup. It must never run empty.

“When we learned we couldn’t make syrup without mom and mom without syrup – those were tough times,” Watts said.

There were other tough times too, mostly navigating government regulations, but also with their second product, Refreshing Adult Beverage. The sparkling canned drink was originally named Drink ME, with “refreshing adult beverage” as a tagline, but had to be renamed when the federal government considered the use of the word “refreshing” in the tagline to be a health claim. It approved its use as the product’s name.

Unfortunately, initial batches released to retailers were exploding on shelves and had to be recalled.

Watts said the explosions were the result of secondary fermentation in the cans, something they fixed by being more careful to shut off their facility from yeast traveling on the air from nearby Bread and Butter Catering Co. and by also increasing amounts of sulfur dioxide.

Drink ME’s first batch was released to on-premise accounts in March and was less than 10 cases. It and Refreshing Adult Beverage, which was released in September, can now be found in retail shops and on cocktail menus as far north as Bar Harbor, west to Farmington, and in York County.

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