Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Vermouth: What's It All About?

By Amanda Schuster

Vermouth - we've all tasted it, we've all consumed it in cocktails. But few people truly know or understand what it is. Is it a wine, is it a spirit, is it an aperitif? The answer, not to confuse you is, yes.

Vintage ad for Carpano Vermouth
In the simplest of terms, it's fortified wine (that is, wine that has added alcohol, up to 22%) with an infusion of herbs and botanicals. Therefore, it's pretty much all of the above. The word stems from the German vermut - wormwood, because it was at one time one of the main components found in Vermouth, or "wormwood wein". Though of course the "puritans" some time in the 19th century or early 20th eventually got squirmy about the thujone (thought to be a blood thinner, and wildly rumored as an effective hallucinogen) levels found in wormwood, and the ingredient is rarely used anymore in its own namesake.

People have been infusing herbs in wine dating back to ancient times of Greeks and Romans, often as a cure for various ailments from aches and pains to digestion issues to sleep disorders and love potions. As empires grew, so did the availability of the ingredients and spices, and flavors became more sophisticated. These "aromatized" wines were considered an elegant accompaniment to feasts and celebrations.

Wormwood wine was especially prevalent in Northern Italy's Piedmont region in the Middle Ages when (hard to believe now in the land of Barolo and Barbaresco) the local wine needed some sprucing up to be drinkable. Several accounts credit Antonio Benedeto Carpano of Turin, Italy for coming up with what became the first official sweet (a.k.a. "red") recipe of Vermouth in 1786. Joseph Noilly of France is credited for the dry (a.k.a. "white") version in 1800.

The botanicals in Vya Vermouth
The rise of cocktail culture in the 20th century is what made its production and exportation essential. The very thought of a world without a Manhattan or Negroni... well, that should be reason to summon the "thought police".

More brands and recipes, most of them marketed as well-guarded secrets, emerged from various parts of Europe, especially Spain, Italy and France. But just as Vermouth no longer contains wormwood (or very much of it), it doesn't have to be European to be what it is. One of the great advantages of post modern cocktail making in the United States is that craft distillers and vintners realize they can make American versions of classic ingredients using local products. Vermouth is one of those exciting categories - with examples from Oregon, California and New York, to name a few. The cocktail culture is also seeing a renaissance of once classic brands that had fallen to near extinction during the Prohibition, but are now being imported again.

Making Atsby Vermouth
Yes, there is a difference, and it's not just red or white. There are subtleties and nuances to every producer's recipe, even within those of a certain country or region. Luckily, Vermouth is rarely expensive, so it's a good category to experiment with and run taste tests. In some cases one might find the right multi-tasking "tool" to do the job in several cocktails, while other bartenders and aficionados swear by different styles for different layers of flavor. And of course, there is no crime with drinking a good Vermouth chilled neat, on ice or a splash of soda water on a warm day.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

Amanda Schuster is a native New Yorker, but without much of the accent. The mobile landscape of the city has taken her on a whirlwind journey from Medieval historian, photo archivist, jewelry designer and invitation specialist to earning her sommelier certification in late 2005. After working as a retail wine and spirits buyer and freelance brand promoter, she turned to the one thing that has stayed a constant all these years – her love of writing. She has published dozens of articles on cocktails, spirits, wine and other culinary interests, and is currently working on her first novel. Her favorite cocktail is a Manhattan.


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