Most of us recognise vermouth as that stuff they put in our whiskey so we get a Manhattan. Most of us really don’t know what it is and why it’s important to the overall flavour of our drinks. It’s common to find that people think vermouth is a spirit, but it is actually a fortified wine. Vermouths are aromatised, fortified wines flavoured with botanicals such as roots, seeds barks, flowers, herbs and spices.
Red (sweet) vermouth, which originally hails from Italy, and white (dry) vermouth, which first appeared in France are the two main varieties of vermouth. However, manufacturers have provided other styles like extra-dry white, sweet white, red, amber and rosé. The interest in aromatised wine and aperitifs continues to grow and so do the number of styles in vermouth. Some manufacturers are even charging into somewhat unexpected territory with heady, all-new vermouths like mint-apple.
To appreciate vermouth, you need sip it solo but very few bars go down this rabbit hole. You can educate yourself here though. Vermouth is much more than a snazzy cocktail ingredient. It’s a cocktail unto itself. A glass of the legendary Punt e Mes over ice with an orange peel is a great start. This sweet vermouth has more bitterness than others and that’s what helps it stand alone.
History of Vermouth
Like amaro, vermouth was first marketed for medical purposes but went on to be a popular aperitif, served solo or with a twist of citrus. Infusing wine with a variety of herbs has been standard practice for centuries spanning continents as it is believed to have begun in China as early as the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (1250-1000BC). The modern iteration we know today was born around 1786 in Italy and rose to popularity soon after in England and France. Vermouth’s own lineage began in the mid-1600s, when a subset of Germans began spiking their wine with wormwood because it was apparently effective at treating stomach disorders and intestinal parasites, creating “wermwut”.
A later version of the libation contained other botanical ingredients combined with wormwood and competing brands developed soon after in eastern and south-eastern France contained their own, proprietary mix of ingredients, including herbs, roots, and spices. The name “vermouth” stuck despite the fact that the wine doesn’t contain wormwood anymore.
Prior to Prohibition in the United States, vermouth was so popular that its sales outnumbered table wine. Today, vermouth has found home at bars all over the world now that it’s associated with some of history’s most iconic cocktails.
How to store Vermouth
We bet you have an old-as-the-hills bottle of vermouth in the house somewhere. Our advice? Throw it out. Vermouth keeps considerably longer than table wine, but you don’t want to keep one that’s been open around for more than a couple of months. Plus it’s highly recommend you keep your bottle refrigerated for as long as it’s available.