VYA looks like the mangled abbreviation of a US state, or maybe the name of a Russian airline, but it is, in fact, the name of a trendy, small-batch vermouth that turns martinis into magical moments. At home, we call VYA "the Stephen Colbert of vermouth" - it has edge and personality and takes over all conversation.
VYA is the brainchild of Andrew Quady, eponymous owner of Quady Winery in Madera, CA, 23 miles north of Fresno, in the state's Central Valley.
Fashionable restaurants in the Bay-area are starting to serve this flavorful vermouth on the rocks by itself. The really smart ones are starting to use it as the flavor-upper for superior tasting vodka, or gin, martinis.
Restaurants in San Francisco using VYA to make heady cocktails include, One Market, the Park Hyatt Hotel,, Clement Street Bar & Grill, according to VYA producer Andrew Quady.
In the Bay-area, Poggio in Sausalito, Piazza's in San Mateo, Cafe Society and Mudds in San Ramon, the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, and JoJo in Oakland also make cocktails with VYA, according to Quady. We personally introduced Press restaurant, in St. Helena, to VYA and they now make one of the best gin martinis in the Bay-area, blessing 209 (gin) with a whisper of VYA.
Vermouth is an old European aperitif, originally enjoyed on its own before meals to stimulate the appetite; over time, the beverage was commercialized, industrialized, trivialized, becoming what it is today - an afterthought, used mostly to flavor vodka or gin martinis. Most of the commercial vermouths found on grocery shelves and in bars today are industrial; if anything, they detract from a martini, don't add to it.
Many nights of testing (tough work - but someone's got to do it) reval that it is the vermouth and not the vodka, or gin, that adds flavor and complexity to a well-shaken martini. And when you use VYA as the vermouth, you really have the tail wagging the dog.
VYA is special for two reasons. Quady winemaker Michael Blaylock makes the beverage with flavorful housemade wines, not industrial swill. Orange Muscat and Colombard grapes are the base for Quadyâ€™s extra-dry vermouth.
The second thing that makes the vermouth unique: Quady and Blaylock climb into the Sierra foothills to grab aromatic botanicals that will be used to flavor the vermouth. The list of botanicals used in VYA is a trade secret, but this much I learned in conversations with Quady: The extra-dry version is flavored mostly with the uppermost parts of aromatic plants, flowers and leaves. The idea is to get flavors that give the drinker the impression of springtime in the mountains.
While Angelica, Orris & Linden sounds like an old-monied San Francisco law firm, these are three of the exotic botanicals that Quady adds to his extra-dry vermouth. As well, he adds a dash of lavender, elecampane and don't forget some galangal.
Over the next few months, Quady hopes to get government approval to add a few other plants to his extra-dry vermouth. Seeds taken from shrubs in the Sierras have been planted at the winery. "We hope to add leaves from an annual shrub in the Goosefoot family (Chenopodium Botris) and some from a plant in the Monardella family, a sort of mint," says Quady.
For his sweet vermouth, Quady collects seeds, bark, roots, and the skins of bitter Seville Orange, as well as nettle and thistle flowers to give the red beverage a warm, tingly feeling in the mouth. The base for the sweet vermouth Quady-made Orange Muscat and Port.
To add depth to his sweet vermouth, Quady hopes to add the flowers of an aromatic called Pearly Everlasting to the mix. He says he found a strain of this plant in the Sierras that would add a hint of curry to the complexity of the finished beverage.
VYA has such rich aromatics that it actually can be enjoyed on its own over rocks. In effect, you can dispense dispensing the vodka! When you do mix it with vodka, stand back - you'll have your best ever, best tasting martini.
I conducted a series of informal taste tests for family and friends in my home, pouring different vermouths with a popular vodka, Grey Goose, that was constant in every cocktail. Only the vermouths kept changing.
The experiment confirmed my spirits hypothesis: as vodka is largely neutral in taste, flavors in the vermouth are hyper-critical to the overall taste and complexity of your martini. When you start out with VYA, you have a huge taste advantage over Martini & Rossi, or Ponti, brand vermouths.
It turns out that the sheerest vapor of vermouth can radically alter the taste of a (mostly) neutral tasting vodka. Contrary to what you've been conditioned to think by vodka producers, it's not the vodka that's critical to the success of your martini, it's actually the vermouth!
With spring starting to sprout in Napa Valley, Quady suggests serving his favorite spring/summer drink, a mixture of his two vermouths. Mix together two-thirds parts VYA extra-dry and one-third part VYA sweet vermouth. "Serve chilled over rocks with a twist of orange peel," says Quady, who affectionately calls the drink "the VYA French Kiss."
Andrew Quady and his bride, Laurel, landed in Amador County in the early 70s, escaping the clutches of southern California where they had pursued pyrotechnic and merchandising careers. Bitten by the wine bug, Andrew enrolled at UC Davis and, upon graduating, at the insistence of friend Darrel Corti, got into the wine-making business. The rest, as they say, is history. And a flavorful one at that, indeed. Quady has been producing some of the state's most flavorful dessert and port wines for 30 years.
It is not easy to find VYA in corner wine stores, possibly because production is so limited (only a few hundred cases of the dry vermouth are produced each year). The best place to get VYA: the winery. Call 800-733-8068 or go to www.quadywinery.com. Get a bottle for yourself and a couple for friends - VYA makes a unique hostess gift.
Andrew and Laurel Quady