Vermouth. What is it? Most of us know that vermouth is an ingredient used in a number of cocktails, most famously in the Martini and the Manhattan, but apart from that it’s one of those bottles that sits around at the back of our home bar or drinks cupboard because we don’t know what else to do with it, or indeed whether it will last over time or go off once opened.
In stores it is usually kept alongside the gins and vodkas, and for this reason many people don’t even realize that vermouth is a wine. And okay, it may not deserve to lie down next to your first growth Bordeaux or Brunello, but sitting outside and sipping on a glass of dry or sweet vermouth served over ice and with a twist of lemon can be a very soulful experience. Among friends, it’s a perfect, simple, laid back, fun drink.
So what exactly is vermouth? The word itself comes from the German word ‘Wermut’ which translates as ‘wormwood’, an herb which was traditionally mixed with wine and praised for its medicinal properties – especially for stomach disorders and intestinal parasites. Vermouth as we know it today originated in the late 18th century, and to be honest, it was simply a way of using up wine that was going bad. They took the base wine, fortified it with grape spirits, and aromatized it with a mix of dry ingredients consisting of herbs, roots, and bark.
The grapes used to make vermouth can vary according to region. Often in Europe you’ll find grapes like Clairette blanche, Picpoul, Catarratto, and Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano in Italy) used. The dry ingredients may include such things as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, sage, quinine, citrus peel, gentian, marjoram, chamomile, cardamom, coriander, juniper, hyssop, ginger, and wormwood. Wormwood – once a prime ingredient – was used in much less quantity after the banning of absinthe (which contains wormwood) in Europe and America between the early 1900’s and the beginning of the 21st century, but is still used in small quantities. There is no connoisseurship associated with vermouth. Each producer has their own secret recipe of dry ingredients. Their vermouth is consistently the same year after year. The consumer buys according to which producer he or she likes.
The first commercial vermouth seems to have come from Italy and was sweet. The color or sweetness of the grapes, by the way, has nothing to do with vermouth’s sweetness. The sweetness comes from the addition of sugar syrup before fortification. The red color is a result of adding caramel color. A few years later, France began to offer dry vermouth as an alternative. Of course both countries now produce a dry and a sweet version. In Europe you will also occasionally see rosé vermouth.
Dry vermouth can also be used as a substitute for white wine in cooking – it works well in your sauce for fish dishes, or in a marinade for chicken and pork. Sweet vermouth is sometimes used in desserts.
Because it is fortified, vermouth will not go off as quickly as other wines. An opened bottle will last for 1 – 3 months. It should be refrigerated once it has been opened to slow the oxidation.
As for its famed use in a Martini, did you know that the original Martini was made with gin and sweet vermouth? Or that the cocktail originally called for more vermouth than gin? It wasn’t until around 1904 that the dry Martini came into being. The term ‘dry Martini’ was first used to denote a Martini made with dry rather than sweet vermouth. Only later did it come to mean a cocktail made with less and less quantities of vermouth. It’s said that Noel Coward’s recipe for a Martini was to fill a glass with gin, turn toward Italy, and bow. Alfred Hitchcock preferred to wave his shaker of gin over a capped bottle of vermouth. Personally, I like to taste a little vermouth in my Martini. But then, I enjoy it straight….
Bill Stobbs, ABC Wine Supervisor