Dave Verheul is a chef, and a celebrated one at that, but he’s also one of the leading lights in Australia’s burgeoning vermouth movement, producing micro-batches of his Saison vermouth that are based on pure, singular flavours and built with organically farmed local produce. Starting as an inhouse offering for his Melbourne restaurants – Embla and Lesa – the steel clamp of 2020’s lockdowns gave him enough breathing space to properly launch his range, with a second pair of vermouths – ‘Blackcurrant Leaf’ and the second edition of ‘Summer Flowers’ – following in 2021.
Saison – as the name suggests – is built around the seasons, with Verheul using the tools in his chef’s arsenal, including Embla’s wood-burning stove, to build complexity into his vermouth blends, which focus on a central theme, with bell-clear fresh flavours that distinguish them from the classic European styles.
Dave Verheul has had – and continues to have – a highly acclaimed career as a chef, in his native New Zealand, London, Sydney and now Melbourne, where he co-owns Embla and Lesa with Christian McCabe. It was with McCabe that he also launched Carlton’s The Town Mouse, having prior worked with him at McCabe’s celebrated Matterhorn restaurant in Wellington.
“We make new Australian vermouth. We focus on flavours of fruit and uncommon herbs. They move with the seasons, and no two vintages will be exactly the same. Saison was conceived from the idea that vermouth could be focused on fresher, seasonal, singular ingredient-led flavour profiles, rather than the traditional heavily spice and caramel-driven palette of many European producers.”
Verheul has also worked in London, under gruelling conditions for two and a half years at The Savoy Grill when Marcus Wareing was running the Gordon Ramsey fine diner. A stint with Brent Savage followed, before his collaborations with McCabe began. All this was somewhat of a redirect, though, with a brutal accident diverting Verheul from a professional snowboarding and skateboarding career that had occupied him between the ages of 14 and 22.
With a long-standing fascination for bitter drinks, Verheul decided to try his hand at making vermouth a few years back, with the first commercial release coming in 2020. “I began making vermouth in the restaurant three years ago, with the intent of serving it alongside the food we serve at Embla. Surprisingly, our diners didn’t hate it, and what was once a daydream evolved into selling it commercially. Spending seven months in lockdown last year really gave me the motivation and, probably more importantly, the time to work on this and get it off the ground.”
And while Verheul has conducted rigorous benchmarking, tasting vermouths from all around the world, his approach is individual rather than imitative. “We make new Australian vermouth,” he emphasises. “We focus on flavours of fruit and uncommon herbs. They move with the seasons, and no two vintages will be exactly the same. Saison was conceived from the idea that vermouth could be focused on fresher, seasonal, singular ingredient-led flavour profiles, rather than the traditional heavily spice and caramel-driven palette of many European producers.”
This direction was very much informed by Veheul’s style of cooking “I like clear, vibrant flavours derived from produce that has been grown in the most natural way and by the best people. So, the vermouth very quickly aligned with the way I approach food.”
Mirroring the sourcing of produce for the restaurants, the ingredients for the Saison vermouths are grown within striking distance. “We’re based in Melbourne as it’s a great central point between my restaurants, the farms that we use and the wine regions of Victoria,” says Verheul.
“For me, it is one of the most incredible food and drink cities in the world, and we are blessed with such amazing diversity. All our botanicals are either grown for us on a biodynamic farm or sourced from local organic producers. While our wine is not certified organic, it is grown within organic principles. Our glass and labels are made from recycled materials as well.”
The first release of Saison Vermouth, with 2020 base wine, was comprised of two bottlings. ‘Fallen Quinces’ contained rhubarb root, dried jasmine, smoked blood orange zest and lots of saffron, which Verheul then aged on a batch of quinces that he had burnt in the kiln-hot wood oven at Embla, imparting another layer of bitterness on top of two types of wormwood. The other vermouth was called ‘Summer Flowers’.
In 2021, ‘Summer Flowers’ has returned, featuring elderflower, osmanthus flower, rhubarb root, dried jasmine, peaches and apricots, and it is joined by a vermouth based on blackcurrant leaf as the key flavour, with unripe fig, ginger and dried white grapefruit supporting. That one’s based on a lucid food memory from Verheul’s childhood of picking berries and breathing in the fragrance of the leaves on a warm summer’s day. It’s a pair of evocative styles launched – and quickly sold out – in the season they celebrated.
“The idea of seasonality in vermouth really strikes a chord with me, to be able to drink something bright and juicy in the summertime, then something darker and deeper in the cold months makes complete sense in my mind. I believe my many years of working with food gives me an intimate knowledge of building complex layers of flavour and I am thoroughly loving the learning curve! I’m still very new to this and each and every batch I learn so much from. I think the main things I’ve learnt is patience, and to go with what your intuition tells you is right.”
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