How the Italians Pimped Our Vermouth
The Origins of Vermouth
The oldest archeological evidence of winemaking dates back around 9000 years. The evidence for medicinal use of herbs is even much older. While we know that alcohol is a good extractor of medicinal plants’ active ingredients, we don’t know when and where herbs were first infused into wine. The oldest evidence we have, are the Roman recipes of the Apicius dating back to the first century A.D.
The Roman vermouth recipe from the Apicius calls for infusing wine with the following ingredients.
- Wormwood (called “Wermut” in German, which gives the drink its name)
- Mastich — a resin from the mastic tree
- Nard — an essential oil from the plant nardostachys jatamansi
- Costmary — a perennial flowering herb
These ingredients have medicinal properties and would have been available to ancient Rome’s well-off citizens.
Where It All Went Wrong
It is interesting to note that the original recipe doesn’t call for any sweetening. Nor does it call for fortification with spirits. It is just medicinal herbs and spices infused into fresh wine — nothing else.
Antonio Benedetto Carpano, a merchant in the city of Turin in Italy, made the first sweet version of Vermouth in 1786. This drink quickly gained popularity with the royal court of Turin. Shortly after 1800, Joseph Noilly started making a pale dry vermouth in France. The grading for “dry” for a vermouth, however, differs from that of wine, and a dry vermouth can still contain plenty of sugar.
Today, the food and beverage industry uses sugar as a standard trick to make customers crave their products. It is the poison that is contributing to so many of our modern-day diseases. Furthermore, with the added sugar comes the risk of the wine starting to ferment again. The solution for that problem was adding spirits to the concoction to raise the alcohol level to a point where fermenting yeasts are no longer viable.
So basically, the Turinians pimped up this beautiful medicinal drink into a ghastly sugary goo that we ever since have come to know as vermouth.
Vermouth is now consumed the World over mostly as a cocktail ingredient, where it delivers sweetness and bitterness to the mix. Any delicate features it may possess are likely to be masked by the other ingredients. In fact, many of the new vermouths that have been coming onto the market have been made in a bolder style with more intense flavors to stand out when mixed with other ingredients.
The vermouth tradition on the Iberian peninsula has taken a different path. Here, one frequently enjoys the vermouth on its own, where the delicate aromas and the balance of the vermouth itself take center stage. It may be accompanied by an ice cube, a slice of citrus fruit, or an olive to help open it up slightly. The key is that the aromatics of the vermouth are not drowned out by a bourbon or a gin or the like, but get to stand on their own. Apparently, this way of enjoying it was also very popular in Italy until the 1980s, before the cocktail trend hijacked the party.
We are starting to see the Iberian tradition spill over to us in Switzerland with a handful of restaurants celebrating the “Hora del Vermut.” I can only imagine the same is happening across the rest of Europe. The Spanish tradition of enjoying vermouth is very food-friendly, and we are seeing top restaurants integrate it into their food and wine pairing menus.
The time has come to go back to the original for a fresh and balanced aromatized wine.
With consumers increasingly looking for healthier options, a low alcohol vermouth, free from residual sugar, is likely to be warmly received. Using fresh, locally grown herbs for the infusion will preserve all the beautiful aromatics and antioxidants. An added bonus of these antioxidants is that they allow us to reduce or even eliminate sulfites in the final product; for the consumer’s benefit. According to my friend Francois Monti, a Madrid based sommelier specializing in vermouth, there is a growing number of artisanal producers of vermouth in Spain, and this is surely just the beginning. As we chart our own first steps into this space, we are trying to follow their lead for a clean, uncompromised vermouth.