Across the globe there has been a revival of vermouth and its ritual. But what is this drink that, despite being everywhere, seemed to have disappeared altogether?
It is usually said that there are two drinks that saved mankind. One is wine, the other is tea. And it’s easy to see why: water is mortal, for many and various reasons. The boiling process that helps water become tea purifies it from fatal micro-organisms. In wine, the chemical process of fermentation also has a disinfectant effect, and the alcohol content of the end result is often enough to ensure the drink is salubrious. For the purpose of an example, the same doesn’t necessarily happen with beer, seeing as its relatively low alcohol content doesn’t ensure the same level of health.
But what does all this have to do with vermouth? It is because vermouth emerges as the historical synthesis of the same processes at the base of these two aforementioned drinks. Firstly, it’s important to remember that the definition of vermouth can be as simple as “aromatised wine”. Vermouth is a wine-based drink, and depending on the country, it must have a certain amount of wine in its preparation. The word itself comes from the German wermut, the herb from which absinthe is extracted.
Wermut, the common term for Lineu artemisia absinthium, is wormwood in English, which describes its disinfectant qualities. These were the qualities that, since the beginning of time, brought together the world of tea and the world of wine. Wine deteriorated easily, developing bad flavours, and various kinds of plants were used to delay or avoid that deterioration. At the same time, wine (often sweetened) was used to help the intake of good herbs for health reasons.
Smelling and tasting vermouth and pondering over its nuances, this historical explanation, which dates back thousands of years, gains a new semblance. The history of vermouth and its successive geographical evolutions crosses over with the history of wine as we know it today. There are many ancient accounts of “absinthe wine”, located in Georgia (the country that is allegedly the birthplace of wine, circa the year 6,000 BC), but also in Egypt, India and China, where residues of wine and herbs were found in archaeological relics.
But wine, like most foods, went hand in hand with health, and often in ancient times, the roles of doctor and cook were one of the same. Wine as a medicine was incredibly important (in regards to the disinfectant properties of alcohol) and tonic wines were essential for treating various conditions, but also to stimulate the appetite.
It’s interesting to follow the story of vermouth as written by one of the biggest authorities on the subject, François Monti. He explains that there has always been a fine line between foods (including wine) that are fundamental for health and those that are consumed for pleasure; just as there was a difference between additives to preserve and improve wine, and those that were added for pleasure and displays of luxury. In the case of the latter two, spices (including sugar, with its own definition) were always a sign of distinction and nobility.
Originally reserved for kings, little by little they were disseminated down to the nobility and then to a wealthy bourgeoisie. These aromas from faraway lands (some texts mention Paradise as their origin) had a strong aspirational power, which ignited the desire among the lower classes. Later, with the globalisation that arose from newly discovered territories, access to these products was popularised and vermouth itself as well. Successive periods of stability and crisis led to waves of expansion and contraction of vermouth consumption.
The story of modern vermouth often begins at the Carpano house in 1786. The story is a bit foggy, mostly because Antonio Benedetto Carpano worked for the liqueurist Luigi Marendazzo in Turin, and references to its foundation only appear several decades later. Also, other mentions of aromatised wines and of the word vermouth itself appeared elsewhere at around the same time.
Other technological developments also contributed towards the definition of the concept of vermouth, such as distillation and the ability to produce extracts, ways of concentrating aromas and flavours into mostly alcohol-based liquids, which later allowed wines to be aromatised consistently, strengthening the construction of a common flavour that would win over a loyal clientele. The Turin vermouths weren’t even the only ones, but the biggest companies are still based there today.
On the other side of the Alps and with access to the same herbs, Noilly-Prat was founded in Lyon, producing vermouth since 1813. Turin vermouth has around 150g of sugar per litre, while Lyon vermouth is fortified with muted grape must, is fermented in barrels and has a less sweet style (45g of sugar per litre) than the Turin version and so seems more bitter.
Halfway between Turin and Lyon lies Chambéry, which became very influential thanks to its small production. The Chambéry style is semi-sweet (80g/l), has less spices and a more floral and citrusy profile. White vermouth was created in Chambéry and became a global success. It wasn’t long before the Turin houses followed the trend: Martini launched its Bianco in 1910. It was also Chambéry that achieved the first denomination of origin for vermouth, in 1930.
There is another style of vermouth worth mentioning – the Spanish style, centred in Reus. Italian vermouth had become popular in Catalonia since the late 19th century before making an impact on the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. Local production developed immensely due to an embargo on imports. In the elegant cafés of Barcelona in the early 20th century, a habit emerged among the elite of “vermouth time”, before lunch (12pm) and before dinner (7pm). Gradually, the habit spread and established itself as a national tradition.
The embargo led to the growth of a strong and independent Spanish vermouth industry. Contrary to the Italian vermouths – more bitter, ample and spiced, with a dominance of vanilla –, the Spanish focused more on aromatic herbs and citrus flavours, with less spices and a less persistent bitterness. This makes them seem sweeter than the Italian ones, even though they have less sugar. Spanish vermouth is to be drunk on its own, very cold and with ice. The Italian vermouths cope well with being served at room temperature.
Since the late 19th century, “American drinks”, today called cocktails, were fashionable, and vermouth gradually enforced its presence as a key ingredient. The first reference of a Vermouth Cocktail appeared in 1869; just vermouth with a lemon rind and ice. Several other cocktails with vermouth, including the Martinez (1887) and the Manhattan (1891), eventually led to the Dry Martini, the first recipe of which appeared in 1904, with equal parts of gin and dry vermouth and two dashes of bitter orange or Angostura. The more modern version includes a 2 to 1 ratio of gin, the bitters are optional and the typical decoration is an olive or a twisted lemon rind. Preparation is classically done in a shaker with ice and crushed ice, and then poured and strained into the serving glass.
The “shaken or stirred” discussion brought to the fore by 007 helped make this a hugely glamorous drink, while also making it known to people everywhere. Eventually, the proportion of gin (which as we saw started at 1:1) was progressively increased to 2:1, 3:1 and so on, until converging into another cocktail called Montgomery, whose proportion of 15:1 evokes the favoured odds of British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who supposedly only liked to attack in highly favourable conditions.
Another historical cocktail is the Negroni. During the American dry law, many bartenders moved to Europe and developed the art of cocktail-making. The Campari/vermouth association emerged in a cocktail called Milano-Torino in the late 19th century, and was reinforced with gin for an extra kick in Paris sometime during the ‘50s (despite the legend that mentions a Count Negroni in Florence in 1921). The Negroni, with its equal parts of gin, vermouth and Campari and prepared in the serving glass, is a simple cocktail to prepare without ever losing its complexity and appeal.
Several factors contributed to the decline of vermouth consumption throughout the 20th century, such as a tendency to moderate alcohol consumption, particularly during the Prohibition (1919-1933) in the USA, the World Wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, with the 1929 crisis in the middle, and even just falling out of fashion with the passing of time. From modern drink from the early 1900s, vermouth became a dated drink and was replaced by other beverages, such as beer, for example, which had a huge dissemination in southern countries, accompanying the tourism from northern Europe.
Perhaps paradoxically, the efforts to stay modern from the big hitters such as Martini and Cinzano actually worked against vermouth. The brands were strong; they didn’t need the category of vermouth to sell. Martini promoted itself as Martini, not as vermouth. Possibly, many of the millions of Martini drinkers don’t associate Martini to vermouth, such was the strength of the brand itself. The Martini Man, the young, everyday 007 that sails the waters of glamour and seduction, is a trademark that is confined to the brand.
But maybe today’s youngsters relate less to the Martini Man than Martini itself would like. A focus on local products, on minimal manipulation of ingredients, on environmental concerns and an attachment to locality as an expression of a cosmopolitanism that wishes to be global, together with a strong rekindling of the themes of gastronomy, wine, gin, beer, etc, all that caused a marked revival of an interest in vermouth. In Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, New York and San Francisco, there are vermouth bars – and even bars specialising exclusively in Negroni variations (Perfect Negroni, Negroni Sbagliato, Buñueloni, Monsieur Negroni, Cycaroni) – are popping up in a fast-spreading fever. New brands have appeared, along with new craft producers, and giant brands and other older, more traditional ones have responded with improved versions of their products.
The world of G&T contributed towards a new interest in cocktails, and some of their components improved drastically in quality, responding to the interest of an informed public hungry to learn and experiment. Artisan tonic water made from hand-picked products, homemade bitters, experimental distilled drinks, product fusions, the recovery of traditional brands and forgotten drinks; everything that involves the bar world is currently taking the spotlight. We don’t expect the Martini Man to reappear with dreadlocks and mud-laden boots, but the wave growing around vermouth will certainly remind the big brands of the name of the wonderful product whose lovely tradition is at their core. A 1,000-year-old story can’t be put out with a single puff.