by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller
Vermouth. For decades it has been the least respected and most under-valued wine on store, bar and restaurant shelves. Variously known as vermouth, vermut wein or wormwood wine, it has been around for far longer than people realise. There is a plaque in Piazza di Castello in Torino, Italy, commemorating the spot where shop keeper Antonio Benedetto Carpano supposedly invented vermouth in 1786. This marble sign has given rise to the myth vermouth did not exist until 1786. While he did not invent it (the Cinzano family nearby had been in business since 1757) he did create a new and much better formula, so good it convinced the Savoy royal court to switch from rosolio to vermouth as their afternoon libation. However, its history traces back much further.
There is some evidence the Chinese were using bitter herbs in wine thousands of years ago. Hypocrates made bitter wine-based medicines. There was no evidence of vermouth or wermut consumption in England until much later, not because they didn't drink it but because they called it by an English name: wormwood wine. This aromatised beverage was a daily drink for England’s Queen Elizabeth I. The Duke of Savoy cherished vermouth di Torino such much he issued a proclamation that only vermouth producers situated in this Piedmonte region of northern Italy were allowed to manufacture the product.
Albrecht von Wallenstein—Duke of Friedland and supreme commander of the armies of the Holy Roman Empire—instructed his estate manager Captain-General Gerhard von Taxis to order 83 barrels of wormwood wine in 1632 as it was deemed an especially good vintage.
Yet, in the past century, vermouth has been the butt of jokes the likes of which have never been inflicted on other beverages. Martini mixing instructions historically included waving the vermouth over the shaker, bowing toward France or Italy, using an eye dropper to add it to a drink, or spritzing it from an atomiser into the bowl of the glass.
The only reason vermouth has held its shelf presence in some parts of the globe is because it is an essential ingredient in two of the world's most popular cocktails: the Martini and Manhattan. Yet even here it was abused. We knew a man in Sweden who would call a friend in Australia and ask him to tap a vermouth bottle against the phone while he mixed martinis as that was as close as he allowed it to get to his drinks.
How could such a reviled wine hold a pivotal place in such vaunted drinks?
Vermouth has only recently been misunderstood. Most importantly, in the last century, people have forgotten that vermouth is not a shelf-stable spirit. Vermouth is a wine, an aromatised wine. It breathes. It rots, It dies just like wine.
Yet when you walk into a bar, you are likely to see the vermouth standing on the back bar with the liquor bottles, a pour spout stuck in the top allowing it to breathe freely while the white and often the red wines to be sold by the glass are in a refrigerator under that very same back bar.
The misunderstandings about vermouth aren't from ignorance alone. For a while those misconceptions were bantered around by the producers themselves. We tracked down one who claimed his major brand product would last for up to five years unrefrigerated after opening. After a few rounds of drinks with him, we pulled out a half empty five-year-old bottle and offered to drink it with him. He recoiled, "It's not really drinkable. But you could still cook with it!" He no longer tells people it is good for five years.
We met two newly-hired marketing representatives of another major brand a few years ago. They took us to three or four bars that served Manhattans and Martinis with just a few drops of vermouth in them and they raved about the drinks. In the next bar I waited until they were distracted and asked the bartender for a glass of their product on ice. I sipped it and loudly complimented the bartender on this great drink. They turned and asked what I had. I offered them a taste. Both loved it and asked again what it was. "It's your vermouth, straight." One of them replied, "I've never tried it this way! It is good." At that moment, the lesson began in earnest.
Straight vermouth is delicious. It was about this same time a young bartender in one of the world's best bars looked me in the eye when I ordered a vermouth on the rocks and said, "I could never respect anyone who drinks straight vermouth." I will never name him or the bar, but by the same token I will never forget that moment.
A recent study has shown that the shelf life of any wine can be extended by 10 to 15 times if the bottle is refrigerated after opening. This also applies to vermouth. Once opened, if a bottle is refrigerated it will keep for a few months.
By now you might consider pouring your old vermouth down the drain. Do not do it. Those bottles still have one purpose. Open a fresh bottle of the same vermouth. Pour some of the old vermouth into a white wine glass. Pour an equal taste of fresh vermouth into an identical glass. Nose and taste them side-by-side. The difference will be readily apparent. The old vermouth is weak and flabby and a touch soured. The new vermouth has a remarkable botanical balance and a beautiful flavour. Now, pour the old vermouth down the drain, and put the new bottle into the fridge. Or better yet, drink it.
One trick to ensuring you always drink fresh vermouth is to buy smaller bottles. Many vermouths come in half bottles. Some are even fortunate enough to be produced in 5cl miniatures. Ask your retailer or distributor for them.
For artisan bartenders, vermouth is not difficult to make. At its essential foundation, it is simply an acidic white wine that is infused with artemisia absinthium—the species of wormwood plant which also gives its name to the drink. (The term ‘vermouth’ is derived from the German word ‘wermut'). There are vintage distillation guides from the 1800s and early 1900s that have recipes, including botanical blends as well as infusion and fortification instructions for the classic Italian, German, and French styles.
For less ambitious mixologists, there are many new vermouths available and more arriving soon. These generally follow a distinct style. They are brash, heavily bittered, sharp and are a challenge to use. If you use one of these in a Manhattan, there is no need to add dashes of bitters. If a drink does not normally call for bitters, you may find a classic vermouth profile is a better fit.
It is also very easy to modify a vermouth's flavour. Don't hesitate to combine two vermouths in a drink. Carpano Antica vermouth is rich and balsamic. But if you are going to have three Manhattans you may want to add a portion of Martini Rosso to soften it. One bartender we know in Tokyo offers a touch of sweetness by rinse his ice with a splash of bianco vermouth. After all, the best drink is not the one that bowls you over on the first sip. It is the one that leaves you wanting another on the last sip.
According to our research, the Martini cocktail takes its name from Martini vermouth. The earliest appearances of the drink in print feature a capitalised M in Martini indicating it was a proper name. not long after the drink was born, Martini vermouth launched an ad campaign in The New York Times reminding drinkers that a real Martini can only be made with original and genuine Martini vermouth.
The original measures for the Martini, Manhattan and other vermouth-driven drinks was equal parts spirit and vermouth. The first Martini recipe called for one part gin to one part sweet vermouth. This recipe appeared in the 1888 edition of Harry Johnson's New Improved, Illustrated Bartenders Manual. (The Dry Martini was first mentioned in print in 1895 in a joke printed in New York newspapers).
When vermouth is fresh, drinks balance with considerably more, just as a drink will taste good with a freshly cut slice of orange, but will taste like rot if the slice was cut days before and is starting to decompose. At that point it doesn't matter how little you use. The same applies to vermouth. If you have no fresh vermouth, do not make drinks with vermouth.
This wonderful wine is finally being returned to its rightful position on shelves and in the minds of drinkers. It deserves love and respect for the complex beauty it brings to drinks, and for the part it has played throughout history. Pour some on ice and raise a glass of straight vermouth.