Agora aims to reignite a passion for vermouth

A vermouth lover aims to bring finesse and balance to the category with the launch of his small-batch Agora Vermouth.

Arthur Voulgaris has produced a rosso vermouth from Merlot and Cabernet grapes in rural Suffolk, close to the banks of the River Deben. He is also working on a white vermouth, and he hopes to breathe new life into the category.

“I really wanted to create something beautiful, balanced, perfumed, with finesse,” said Voulgaris. “These are words that most people do not associate vermouth with. I didn’t want anything synthetic. I didn’t want anything that was too confected, cloying, bitter or simply sweet.

“Some are so full of flavour and sweetness that I find they can be more like cough medicine than a vermouth or an aperitif. Wormwood is insanely bitter, and it’s been a learning curve for me to be careful with it.

“Sometimes if a product is too bitter, a producer will add sugar just to balance it out. My theory is if we balance it out and go a little softer on the wormwood, we don’t have to use as much sugar, therefore we’ve got a more balanced drink with a little more finesse.”

Voulgaris’s love affair with vermouth began when he was working as a bartender in Melbourne, Australia, in the late 1990s.

“This Italian American bartender came in and said, could you make me a Negroni? I had never made a Negroni before, so I asked how to make it. He said it’s easy – one part Campari, one part gin and sweet vermouth. I went rustling around the back to try to find a dusty bottle of Dubonnet, blew the dust off and made a Negroni. I thought, this is fabulous. Little did I know that the word spread in the hospitality industry in Melbourne and it became the industry tipple for the next 20 years.”

Voulgaris spent two decades working in the wine trade. He moved to London 12 years ago and worked for Gonzalez Byass. He then packed his bags for a sabbatical in New York, where he served as a brand ambassador for English wine producer Digby.

“Our apartment was in Soho, downtown Manhattan. I thought, the first thing I’m going to do is have a Manhattan, in a bar, with my suitcase, and that’s exactly what I did. I drank Manhattans like it was going out of fashion. I started to love vermouth again. I was buying up any bottles I could find. I almost turned my apartment into a small vermuteria.

“I thought, could this category be a bit better? Could there be more finesse and balance within vermouth? I find that some of them can be incredibly bitter, and to counteract that and balance it out, a lot of sugar is added. Caramel is added. Some use food colouring.

“A rosso is made from white wine by adding caramel to make it a brown colour, when traditionally it was always made with red wine. I thought this experience could be made better, and that really inspired me to continue my journey with vermouth.”

His partner is from Suffolk, and he now produces Agora – named after the Greek word for marketplace, and a nod to his family’s roots on the island of Kos – 10 miles from his house there.

“Originally my plan was to create something wonderful for the vermouth category and to champion the on-trade,” said Voulgaris. “Then the pandemic happened, so I am changing my plans slightly and going more for online retailers.”

Agora will remain a small-batch vermouth, and he hopes to achieve a retail price of around £20. Voulgaris will initially target the UK trade, before ramping up his focus on export markets.

“I would love to go to the States with it,” he said. “I spent a year there and I saw how the vermouth category was really starting to boom. I was selling English sparkling, and I noticed that anything British had an element of quality about it. The Americans like anything British. The US would be the number one export market I would like to tap into. I find Asia exciting. Anywhere there is a really good cocktail market.”

When asked if the vermouth category is poised to enjoy a resurgence, he added: “It’s a bit like the sherry story. The industry loves talking about it and drinking it, but the general public has no idea. A lot of people have drunk it in a cocktail without knowing it. It’s not really the celebrated part of the cocktail. People talk about the gin and the Campari, but not the vermouth. It adds a lot of flavour.

“It’s going to be slow. It will build. Cocktail enthusiasts are starting to buy more vermouth, and online retailers are starting to stock more vermouth now. We are starting to see people experiment with different types.  It’s great on its own, great in a cocktail, low alcohol spritz – they are the key messages.”