You may have heard of it, but never tasted it: vermouth is a spirit perhaps most famous for not being drunk. In Kingsman, the main character orders a Churchill Martini:
“Gin, not vodka, obviously, stirred for ten seconds while glancing at an unopened bottle of vermouth.”
But vermouth is used in a plethora of cocktails — the Manhattan, Negroni, Gibson, Boulevardier, Americano. It adds dimension, accentuates the flavors of the base liquor, and lowers alcohol content for stronger-spirit-spirit drinks. In Italy, they drink it over ice with a lemon twist.
What is Vermouth?
First, vermouth is aromatized, fortified wine.
In the US, it falls under “aperitif wine,” which must be
- Not less than 15% alcohol by volume
- Compounded from grape wine containing added brandy or alcohol
- Flavored with herbs and other natural aromatic flavoring materials
- With or without the addition of caramel for coloring purposes
The European definition includes the stipulation that the wine used in the preparation of vermouth must be present in the finished product in a proportion not less than 75%. (See the EU regulations here.)
History & Origin of Vermouth
The name vermouth comes from the Old German word for wormwood, wermut. Wormwood can be toxic in large amounts, but in small doses has traditionally been used to treat parasites — and, famously, flavor absinthe. In addition to healing the gut, it is also used to stimulate the stomach in aperitifs like vermouth.
The invention of vermouth is attributed to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, an herbalist from Turin, Italy. In 1786 he combined herbs with muscatel and sent a crate to King Vittorio Amedeo III, who made it the drink of the royal household. In 1820, Giuseppe Bernardino Carpano, Antonio’s nephew, made the business official and grew it until brothers Luigi and Ottavio, third generation Carpanos, set up a factory in 1898 to handle increased demand for the product.
The rest, as they say, is history!
How Vermouth is Made:
Both sweet (red) vermouth and dry (white) vermouth start with the same white grapes. Brandy or alcohol is added to fortify the wine, and botanicals are added to aromatize it.
- Sweet vermouth, associated with Italy, gets its reddish tint from the addition of caramelized sugar, not from barrel aging, and is generally infused with warm spices.
- Dry vermouth, associated with France, is flavored with bright and bitter botanicals.
The specific botanicals are proprietary blends. Martini & Rossi, one of the largest vermouth manufacturers, “purchases as many as 50 herbs, spices, barks, and peels from around the world: vanilla from South America, oregano from Crete, cinnamon from the Caribbean, and the essential wormwood flower from the Central Alps.”
Noilly Prat uses between 20 and 30 botanicals, “including chamomile, iris root, orange peel, coriander, marjoram, wormwood, holly thistle, quinine, cloves, gentian, and black elder.” (Source)
Martini & Rossi ages their vermouth in stainless steel tanks for six to eight months, then bottles it. Noilly Prat in France rests their vermouth in oak casks for six months — to give it “texture through oak maturation but not the oak seasoning” — then transfers it to oak barrels, where it sits in the open for a year before being bottled. (Source)
Keeping it Fresh:
Vermouth, like wine, will oxidize once opened and its flavors will change over time. It’s recommended to keep your vermouth in the refrigerator to slow the process and finishing the bottle within a month. If you can’t finish a full 750ml within that time, many brands sell half-bottles which are a bit more reasonably sized for the home bar.
Vermouth and Martinis: Bonus Facts
Some posit that the martini originated with the Martinez (gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, bitters, lemon peel), changing the sweet vermouth to dry. Therefore a “dry” martini does not actually refer to the amount of vermouth used, but to the type of vermouth. If you are looking for even less dry vermouth in your martini, order it “extra dry”
And, like Churchill, James Bond’s martini does not actually include vermouth at all. It’s “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.” (Casino Royale)