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Finding the Verve in Vermouth
By Jessica Dupuy
Jan 19, 2016
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When I lived in France many years ago, meals often began with a small glass of Dolin over ice.  Smooth and refreshing, it was the perfect way to whet the appetite.  But here in the States, vermouth is rarely peddled as anything other than an afterthought intended to splash as a mixer in the occasional cocktail. 

While I’ve held fast to the long-established European tradition of savoring a little pre-dinner vermouth--particularly with Lillet and lemon in the summertime--it seems Americans have never really taken to the time to appreciate the humble appertivo. 

“I love the idea of a little vermouth to start out a meal.  It just gets things off on the right foot,” says restaurateur Morgan Weber whose latest Houston whiskey-inspired locale, Eight Row Flint includes an entire section of the menu devoted to low alcohol, “sessionable” cocktails made with vermouths and amaros.  “These are drinks that are low octane and won’t get you lit, but they set a perfect tone to an evening.”

Having recently sampled a selection of vermouths with friends, I was struck by just how misunderstood this diverse category of fortified wine is.  And while it may not be a wildly popular category in the States, the growing number of vermouths on the market--both sweet and dry--prove Winston Churchill’s notorious hostility for the stuff certainly hasn’t killed everybody’s taste for it. 

What It Is

Vermouth is an aromatized fortified wine made by steeping botanicals in a base wine, then mixing in a higher proof spirit to produce a unique beverage.  It’s primary difference from fortified wines such as port or sherry--aside from its overall production process--is the addition of botanicals and spices.  Although historic documentation suggests that vermouth predates the 5th Century as a type of medical elixir, a more modern history of vermouth originates in northwest Italy in the late 1700s when Antonio Benedetto Carpano developed a special recipe for sweet red vermouth, which he named for the German word, wermut, or wormwood. 

“At the time, it was regularly used for medicinal purposes, but also had bitter properties that piqued the appetite,” says Steve Alley, a French Wine Scholar and Whole Sale Consultant for Fine Wine and Spirits at Spec’s, a retailer with eight stores in Texas.  “It wasn’t until years later that wormwood started to be demonized--and eventually outlawed--in places like America.”

Commercial production of vermouths followed in the 1830s throughout the areas around Turin and soon after, France began releasing lighter, drier styles of the aromatized wines from Chambery and Marseilles.  In the 1880s, vermouths made their way to America and quickly found a foothold as cocktail mixers, particularly for the Manhattan cocktail with rye. 

“For the Manhattan, vermouth added the necessary sweet and bitter components to offset the boozy aspects of the whiskey,” says Alley.  “And it later cut the intensity of gin for the classic martini.”

The Different Styles

Most vermouths--with the exception of a handful--are made with white wine, typically from grapes like ugni blanc (trebbiano), French Colombard, and Macabeo in Spain.  The red vermouths acquire their color from the various botanicals as well as caramel coloring. 

Most commercial producers today make both red and white vermouths in a range from dry to sweet.  French producers including Dolin and Bonal are known more for their dry white vermouths, while Italy has a reputation for sweet red vermouths from producers like Carpano, Cinzano, Cocchi, and Martini & Rossi. 

But it wasn’t long ago that American producers got into the game with their own style of vermouths.  Much of the artisan exploration Stateside is due to Andrew Quady whose sweeter style, Vya, arrived on the market in the late 1990s.  Other large and small producers have jumped in the game including Imbue, Atsby, and Ransom.  Newcomer Tempus Fugit has scoured The Alps of Italy, Switzerland and France in search of unique vermouths and special recipes that have all been brought to the U.S. for resurrection. 

“I love that we have domestic producers that are taking the botanicals native to their region of the country and using those to reflect a certain flavor of terroir in their vermouths,” says Steve Alley.  “That’s how the whole category originated centuries ago and it’s what makes vermouth such an interesting beverage to enjoy on its own.”

Latest Trend

While the standard French and Italian producers are ubiquitous at most wine and spirits retailers in the U.S., there’s been a recent breakthrough in the market for Spanish producers as well.  Vermouths made primarily from the Macabeo (a.k.a. Viura) grape have always been a welcomed part of Spanish life.  Especially in the gastronomically rich region of Catalonia.  In Barcelona and beyond, there are bars dedicated solely to vermouth where Spaniards spend their post-siesta hours sipping away before moving into the evening. 

“Barcelona is the epicurean capital of Catalonia and the spiritual home of Vermouth in Spain,” says Alley, who praises the region for being able to find vermouth on tap at certain bars. 

Before, Alley (whose primary job is to seek out quality wine and spirits for the Spec’s retail chain) was really only able to find Spanish vermouths in Spain.  Today, he’s seeing a growing number of producers make their way across his desk.  He’s looking to producers like Yzagguire to make a major Spanish splash in the U.S.  and at one of the best values on the market. 

“These are really great vermouths that have a long-established history in Spain.  For those bartenders looking to up their game with dry vermouths, these are the ones they’re going to start seeking out,” says Alley. 

How It Should be Enjoyed

If you’re curious about vermouth but you’re not sure you where to begin, mixing up a couple of class cocktails like the Manhattan or original Martini could be a good way to go.  But if you ask me, the easiest way to discover vermouth is simply to pour yourself a glass.  Sip it neat, or with a cube or two of ice.  A twist of citrus or a splash of soda doesn’t hurt either.  But by and large, developing a taste for this time-honored apertif may be one of the best decisions you’ve made in this new year. 

“We need to start a tradition of enjoying vermouths in America,” says Weber.  “It would definitely put us more in line with what civilized society has been doing for centuries.  They’re a great value drink and more interesting than a glass of wine.  Plus, there’s so much more available now, it’s almost impossible to keep up with.  There’s a lot to discover, and there’s no time like the present.”