Vermouth - a Primer and an Update


I read somewhere recently: "all that is new is old".  Never has that been more true than in our current fascination with imbibing.  With the keeness of anthropologists we mine for the minutiae of our drinks from glassware to ice to the liquid components. 

Vermouth is probably the most well known secondary component of many classic cocktails such as the Negroni, Manhattan and the Martini. Gowing up, perhaps you remember the ever-present bottle of Martini & Rossi or Noilly Pratt on the home bar or in the kitchen.  Their crusty screw caps were occasionally removed for cocktails or cooking and the bottle slowly inched its way down as you grew up.  

By definition, vermouth is an aperitif wine that is fortified and infused with botanicals. In the USA it is most commonly found in both a white/dry and a red/sweet form and is known as either Italian or French in origin.  However, as history documents, the first known examples were mentioned in 16th century Germany and later formalized in 18th century Italy.

Let's explore those basics.  How is Vermouth made and why is it called an aperitif wine?   Whether the dry white, the sweet red or anywhere in between, there are a few techniques that producers (often winemakers) use.  They include starting with a wine base, usually white wine must (pre-wine grape juice) to which is added a spirit to fortify that which has either been infused or re-distilled with various botanicals such as barks, roots and flowers.  The botanicals are added to infuse flavor and prepare the digestive system for eating, i.e., whetting the appetite.  Calling it an aperitif wine not only tells us that it is usually enjoyed before a meal but also, categorically, that it falls somewhere between 15% & 18% ABV, thus, making it a lighter alternative to many cocktails, when enjoyed on its own - as it was first intended.

By virtue of our growing interest in artisanal, alcoholic drinks, vermouths have attracted more of the limelight here in the US.  We are therefore seeing both American craft producers and some smaller, traditional European producers enter the market.  Examples of American artisans include Atsby, Channing Daughters and Uncouth from New York, Imbue from Oregon and Vya from Quady Winery in California.  From Europe, I recently sampled some small production vermouths that are soon to hit the market, called Lacuesta, Lacuesta Reserve and Yzaguirre.  

In our house, growing up, my mother sipped sherry around 5pm most evenings.  My father would usually mix up a great margarita or 'martinus perfectus' as he called it.  So, those crusty, big-brand vermouths were never served alone, as they represented something to only mix or cook with.  Now that our interest levels are growing, we are seeing fantastic vermouths in bars, restaurants and shops.  So, go out and try a vermouth, neat, now and then, either in a bar or buy a couple of bottles you've never tasted before.  I'm sure you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Spirited regards,