Have you ever had a Manhattan being made and your bartender asks you, “How much vermouth in this? Sweet or dry?”
Well, it has happened to me. And I had no idea what to reply. I was also the server serving the martini, so it was even more embarrassing. I replied “erm” and quickly took out my secret weapon, the iPhone, googled ‘vermouth’ and quickly cloaked my ignorance with Wikipedia phrases.
Vermouth. It is an aperitif, or an aromatized, fortified wine infused with botanical herbs. It has been known in the United States for over a hundred years, but few Americans really understand what it is. Here in the United States, it is now often used in mixed martini drinks. While researching vermouth, I asked a lot of servers and bartenders at the restaurant I work at in Sarasota, Florida: “What do you think it is? What drinks does it go with? Do you like our vermouth here?”
I received some interesting responses. Some were not familiar with any vermouth uses besides the Manhattan. One server listed to me the amount of vermouth contained in the very first martini ever made, during the Prohibition Years. (In case you do wonder, he said it was 60%). Many of them responded with one thing: “I don’t really know. Our vermouth is pretty crappy.” They would not name me the brand, and I’m not sure they actually really knew off the top of their heads.
So where does vermouth come from?
Vermouth, as I said, is an aperitif, and has been popular in Europe since about the 17th century. Aperitif derives from the Latin aperire, “to open”, as far as opening up your taste buds. All real aperitifs possess a bittersweet flavor which can promote gastric juices, promoting appetite. Aperitif wines have a lower alcohol content than most spirits, but a little more than straight wine.
The word vermouth is the French pronunciation of the German Wermut, which translates into “wormwood”. The wormwood plant, or Artemisia absinthium, is used as an ingredient for spirits; and yes, absinthe is made from wormwood, too.
Wormwood is up to this day an important element in the making of vermouth, but actually has its roots in medicinal uses. In medieval Europe, wormwood was actually a popular remedy for stomach pains and sicknesses. Even the Egyptians used the plant as an antiseptic, for fevers, and for menstrual pains.
In Ancient Greece, wormwood was used to treat rheumatism, anemia, and menstrual pains, and sometimes even in helping with childbirth. It was also used to revitalize skin. Modern uses claim it could help beat cancer. This is not to say that drinking vermouth will cure your ailments – maybe…
Fortified wines containing wormwood had been used in Germany since around the 16th century, while at the same time Italian merchant D’Alessio began producing a similar product called “a wormwood wine”. The English made this “wormwood wine” popular by the 17th century.
Vermouth became popular briefly during what is dubbed the Golden Age of Cocktails (yes, this has been dubbed by historians) between the 1860s and Prohibition in the 1920s. Here we see the daiquiri, mojito, sangria, and the martini first appear.
The very first martini ever made in the United States contained gin, orange bitters, and a large amount of vermouth. The vermouth was Italian.
So, since vermouth originated in Europe, I emailed my aunt in Germany asking what kinds of vermouth she likes.
Just to throw in this interesting tidbit, in Germany we still call vermouth Wermut, or “wormwood”.
My aunt is not a big drinker, but she wrote that her mother, my grandmother, drank a lot of vermouth, and my grandfather used to drink a lot of sweet Amer Picon, a French vermouth. Interestingly enough, my European research sample say they drink vermouth neat or on the rocks. Americans prefer to mix it. Whenever I have been faced with vermouth, I would drink it neat as well, even though I grew up in the United States (but born in Europe).
So, let us take a look at how to drink vermouth. I sampled a few European brands that I think would be cool to look at.
For my experiment, I am using the Vermouth Bianco, the Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso, and the Alessio Vermouth Chinato. Note, they are all Italian spirits. This is because through my vague personal experience I believe the Italian vermouth is the best so far.
The Alessio Vermouth Bianco is a clear, sweet Italian variation of the Italian Sweet Vermouth, named as a “fashion wine” (vino di moda). Interestingly enough, the first Bianco was manufactured in France as a Vermouth Blanc in the early 1880s, and used to appear only in the Chambéry region. In the early 20th century the Bianco was designed to appeal to sophisticated women. Its taste is warm and aromatic, a mix between honey and chocolate almost, with a slightly bitter orange aftertaste. The texture is pretty mild, though. It is great on the rocks, but for those who prefer mixed drinks, I suggest mixing it with sparkling water or anything with citrus, like a lemon twist.
The other two Alessio vermouths were designed using the classic di Torino recipes of 16th century Italian physician, alchemist, humorist, and author Alessio Piemontese. These vermouths were then commonly named “luxury wines” (vino di lusso), and are perhaps some of the most original recipes alive today.
Both are decidedly more bitter than the Bianco and other sweet tastes on the market. They both have wormwood added to them, and the Chinato also contains cinchona bark.
The Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso contains over 25 pharmaceutical-grade herbs, roots, and spices, such as licorice root, stewed prunes, and cloves, along with Grande and Petite Wormwood. The di Torino Rosso is very dense, rich, and dark. It is very bitter with a dash of a dark chocolate underlying its taste, but there is a cleansing aftertaste to it as well. You can drink it on its own – just put it on the rocks – and it drinks very much like an amaro.
The Alessio Vermouth Chinato is also based off of the di Torino recipe, and reflects a type of vermouth how it was made back in the day. Like the di Torino Rosso, there is a decided bitter taste to it; however, as you drink it, the taste is both bitter with a sweet undertone, like a very sour grape that has become overly ripe. The finish is slightly mouth-coating and lasts very long on the tongue. I would say you can drink this on the rocks as well, but if you are not a big fan of the taste lingering on your tongue, I would suggest you mix it.
After my sampling and subsequent tipsiness, I concluded vermouth has a very unique taste and is even cooler because of its interesting medicinal history. Perhaps one day, like for red wine, it will be commonplace to say, “Hey, drink some vermouth! It’s good for you.”
Many thanks to these web sites for their wealth of information: