Watch Your Vermouth

Over the years, vermouth has gotten pretty good at modestly hiding in plain sight. It quietly increases the complexity and well-rounded flavor of many enduringly popular cocktails (such as the martini, Manhattan, Bamboo, and Negroni) by adding that certain something, but rarely gets any of the credit. And there are far too many bottles collecting dust in far too many households’ liquor cabinets! Luckily, on the coattails of the ongoing, in-vogue spritz and low-ABV phenomenons, the drinking world is now looping back around to rediscover that, not only is it a make-or-break part of many a composed classic, but vermouth can also do just as well in a more central role (Exhibit A: our Vermouth: Never Uncouth Box!).

Vermouth is a wine that’s been fortified with alcohol (increasing its ABV) and aromatised with dozens of natural flavoring agents. Each brand is very protective in guarding its process and proprietary blend of roots, barks, herbs, and spices—a level of secrecy that can make Colonel Sanders look like Lena Dunham. To pull back the curtain just a little bit, though: traditional ingredients include gentian, wormwood, and quinine, as well as the more familiar cinnamon, clove, ginger, and citrus peel. And while we can’t ever know the precise composition of a chosen bottle of vermouth, its flavor profile and contribution to a cocktail tends to be subtle but pleasantly recognizable—think bitter, acidic, with faint spice and botanical and floral qualities.

Sophisticated sips such as those are, of course, a far cry from the version of vermouth that was used originally for its purported healing qualities in ancient China. Likewise, over in Greece, Hippocrates would serve his patients herb- and wormwood-infused wine to treat anything from jaundice and anemia to poison ingestion.

A few millennia later, in 1786—inspired by the ongoing infusing and distilling experiments of the Cinzano brothers, as well as by the “wormwood wine” of Germany (itself based on those ancient medicinal elixirs)—Italian distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano had a batch of white wine to which he added aromatics, a sweetener, alcohol, and a coloring agent. Twenty years after that came the wine-soaked adventures of Joseph Noilly in France: with an equally long list of ingredients but separate manufacturing process, Noilly’s product was dry, uncolored, and lent itself to different uses entirely. Another category-leading French brand of dry vermouth, Dolin, also had its beginnings around this time. And all three of these pioneering vermouths are names that remain familiar to regular shoppers today!

This sequence of events contributed to the shorthand that red meant sweet and Italian, and white meant French and dry. But the category’s profile has expanded over time to include sweet white (bianco), rosé, and amber varieties. You can now find Italian-style sweet varieties made in France, and French-style dry ones made in Italy. Essentially, where there’s a thriving agriculture and industry for wine, someone’s nearby fortifying and aromatizing the stuff, which is why vermouth-making has spread as far as Australia and the Western US.

Over the course of its history, vermouth was at first solely sipped alone as an apertif before finding its way onto the pages of the first bartenders’ manuals of the late 1800s. The decades that followed saw the growth of a mighty respect for vermouth as a pivotal cocktail ingredient—that is, until a few influential voices in the 1950s began touting their preference for a martini made as dry as possible. Alfred Hitchcock once said that the closest he wanted to get to vermouth when making the drink was to look at it from across the room; Ernest Hemingway’s martini was a whopping 15-to-1 ratio of spirit to vermouth; and in the 1958 film Teacher’s Pet, Clark Gable upends his vermouth bottle to wet the cork and just runs that along the lip of the glass. It took the absolute legend Julia Child to battle against this group of grape grouches by introducing one of her favorite cocktails, the upside-down martini, which boldly features a 2-to-1 ratio of vermouth to spirit!

Today we’re taking our cues from Child with regard to vermouth. It currently remains a force (and key ingredient) in the public’s never-ending love affair with several perennial cocktail favorites, as well as a more recent star player in the aperitivo style of drinking—that early evening hour of socializing, light snacking, and sparkling, low-ABV sipping popularized in Europe.

Pointing out some of the de rigeur vehicles for vermouth these days, Stacey Swenson of Dante—an NYC Italian restaurant and cocktail bar (#9 on the World’s 50 Best Bars list)—references the rising popularity of mixing up the 50/50 martini, using vermouth as a base for spritzes, or even drinking it straight up. “I used to look at vermouth as just a modifier, but now I often drink it on its own, on ice, or with soda or as the base spirit,” she adds. And she has plenty of ideas on how to complement and amplify its delicate flavors. “Botanical-driven spirits are lovely with dry vermouth—the most obvious being gin—but I love to pair aperitif-style liqueurs with dry vermouth, like gentian-driven Suze or Salers or spiced liqueurs such as Becherovka or Benedictine,” she says. “When pairing dry vermouth with nonalcoholic modifiers, I usually think of more delicate flavors like chamomile or fresh apricot rather than hard citrus and bold flavors.”

From this creative modern consumption back to its earliest medicinal applications, vermouth’s status may have changed along the way but the formula has not; it’s always been a wine that gets strengthened and flavored. But there has been an ebb and flow to its popularity, owed to the turn of new generations and ever-shifting tastes. In 2019, perhaps for the first time in its history, people are giving vermouth a chance in every way at once (except to treat illness!): as an ingredient, neat, on the rocks with a twist, or set aflight with bubbles. We say, may this trend continue and vermouth remain at the peak of its powers (as long as opened bottles are stored in the refrigerator!).

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