Vermouth basics and history
The term comes from the Germanic ‘Wermut‘ or wormwood – a salute to one of the core botanicals found in many Vermouth. Although people started drinking aromatized wines as medicine thousands of years ago, that use waned in the end of the 18th century. Consumption as an apéritif, or cocktail ingredient, exploded in Italy and France there after. Whether wormwood technically needs to be in a modern vermouth is a hotly debated topic, as many North American iterations do not.
Incidentally, this helps to showcase why the stigma surrounding the purported effects of wormwood have always been baseless hysteria. Many believed that wormwood had hallucinogenic properties and made men see the “Green Fairy”.
It was actually crafty propaganda and a period where wine fought to regain market share. The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century nearly destroyed the European wine industry. Because phylloxera originated in North America, the grapes grown there had a natural immunity and American rootstock was used to re-cultivate the decimated vineyards of Europe.
Absinthe (from Latin Artemisia absinthium for “wormwood”) is more likely to give you a quick buzz having a very high alcohol content. Traditionally, 54% to 68% in Switzerland and France respectively.
Vermouth is the most widely known of the botanically aromatized wines. Fortified with brandy to last longer than regular wines – to the tune of about 30 days, if refrigerated.
That dusty bottle on your bar that’s been there longer than anyone can recall, yeah, throw it out and start fresh. Spoiled and oxidized vermouth is the likely reason many people think they don’t like the stuff. Add to that the many bartenders who lack understanding the category and it’s easy to see why Winston Churchill would refuse vermouth when he had a Martini, preferring to nod in the direction of France.
The best vermouth in the world generally comes from the old world wine producers. But the new world is rapidly catching up. If you haven’t tasted Cocchi, Punt E Mes, Dolin or Belsazar then you have some work to do.
The Italian distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano coined the term vermouth in 1786. His Turin based aromatized wine shop was so popular that it stayed open 24 hours a day, finally closing for good when it was destroyed in World War II.
The French recognized Chambéry as a vermouth appellation in 1932. Chambéry is known for the brands Dolin and Routin. Both Turin and Chambéry belonged to the Kingdom of Sardinia in the 1800’s, so this region definitely was the cradle of the category.
As far as Canada goes, there’s only a handful of vermouth in production. We love the Bittersweet Vermouth, by Odd Society Spirits. I’m especially excited to try the new Dillon’s vermouth from Ontario when it lands in British Columbia.
With a beautiful and fresh vermouth, old cocktails take on new charm and give bartenders an exciting way to update old recipes. Here’s a riff on a wet martini that I love.
The Intellectual (AKA The Year of the Rat, Bambudda)
1.5 oz Long Table London Dry Gin
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1 dash Ms Better’s Schizandra Bitters *experimental flavor, not yet commercially available*
Stir and strain into chilled schizandra salt rimmed coupé. Lemon peel expressed for garnish.
Schizandra is considered to be a tonic in Asian culture. This vine shrub is indigenous to China, Korea and parts of Russia. The Chinese believe the berries of the shrub, or wu wei zi, increase the body’s resistance to stress, for liver protection and immune system effects. The Russians believe the umami flavored fruit is good for concentration. Thus the reason why we refer to this martini as The Intellectual.