What Is Vermouth? Your Guide to Drinking This Classic Fortified Wine
In this modern age of mixology, botanicals are on every sipper's lips. Their precise alchemy is the touchstone by which any new libation is assessed. Vermouth, a red or white wine fortified with spirits and aromatized with roots, fruits, spices, flowers, and herbs, checks all the 21st century boxes for the art of mixing drinks. And vermouth is back, refreshing and reinvigorating the shaking and making of creative drinks.
A Little History
In its modern form, vermouth evolved in the European Alps, in what was then the Duchy of Savoy. Across fluid mountain borders, local winemaking and folk medicine traditions using Alpine herbs melded with monasteries' floral pharmacopias to produce regional herbal wines featuring the bitter herb wormwood (a catchall for various species of Artemisia), a well-known gastric curative. In the 16th century, a Piedmontese merchant named Alessio began selling a wormwood-infused wine he had encountered in Bavaria. The German word for wormwood is Wermut (transliterated to vermouth in French). Wormwood wine subsequently became a routine tipple even in England, taken for therapeutic reasons. Today, wormwood is both a mandatory and defining ingredient in European vermouths.
Another Piedmontese is credited with the popularization of vermouth as an aperitif: In 1786 a young, savvy mountain-born herbalist and shop helper in Turin, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, began selling his sweetened herbal wine formula, fortified with spirits, at a wine shop opposite the royal palace. As legend has it, he sent a case to the king and experienced instant success. His nephew founded the Carpano company, and its Carpano Antica ($39.99, wine.com) is still considered a superior sweet Italian vermouth. Vermouth production evolved almost contemporaneously in the Alpine town of Chambéry, (where the Dolin brand evolved) producing a herbal, sweet pale blend. The French region is the only one to have received an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) for vermouth. In the south of France, herbalist Joseph Noilly developed his first recipe for dry Noilly Prat in 1813, and by the middle of the century was exporting the aged and deliberately oxidized (in the tradition of Madeira wine) vermouth from the port of Marseille.
Vermouth in Cocktails (The American Way)
While continental Europeans have sat in their enviable piazzas appreciating vermouths as an aperitif—chilled, with a twist of citrus peel—for a couple of centuries, many Americans still know it only as the silent partner in a martini. The vermouth is barely there—a whisper beneath domineering gin or vodka. The martini's origins are hard to define but late 19th century cocktail guides included recipes for a "Martinez," a cocktail blending gin with voluptuously sweet Italian vermouth; only in the early 1900s was an austere version, with dry French vermouth, shaken up (or stirred?) in New York. Regardless, vermouth was a key ingredient and, back then, an equal partner to the gin. The iconic Manhattan, born in the late nineteenth century, blended sweet with dry vermouths in inverse proportions to the current, high-proof iteration. But as the last century grew and then faded again hard liquor edged in and the vermouth bottles were neglected. They also turned bad: Because of its relatively low alcohol content (roughly 15 to 18 percent), vermouth should be kept refrigerated after opening.
A Vermouth Renaissance
The boom in craft brewing and distilling—and the new interest in local produce—are some of the factors that have influenced vermouth's renaissance. Wine makers and small batch alchemists began tinkering with vermouth recipes, unfettered by European laws and formulae. The blending possibilities for contemporary vermouths are endless. Wormwood is not required and producers are limited only by their palates. It is also easy, and fun, to make vermouth at home, using a neutral spirit like vodka for fortifying and mason jars for macerations.
How to Drink Vermouth?
It's best enjoyed chilled or on the rocks. Next, add a twist of citrus zest. Once you are acquainted with the character of the vermouth, a world of creative cocktails and liquor pairings awaits. Or you may discover in yourself a newly-awakened purist, and start your own collection. These budget-friendly aperitifs are well within reach. Just remember to keep them cold!