Vermouth has gotten a bad rap, but the days of maligning this fortified wine are coming to an end thanks to the revival of traditional cocktails and a new-found love of artisinal producers.
“But wait- this is a wine column,” you might say, “what are you doing talking about vermouth?”
Yes, I know vermouth is usually categorized with the hard stuff and it languishes in the liquor cabinet with the rest of the big boys, but therein lies part of the problem. Vermouth is wine based and should be kept in the refrigerator. That bottle that’s been collecting dust next to the sloe gin and chambord since 1985 probably tastes terrible. No wonder martini drinkers scoff at it in favor of iced gin or vodka.
Here are a few things to know about wine’s spicy sidekick:
Spiced and fortified wines have been around since the before the Romans. The ancient Greeks were flavoring wine with all manner of spices including wormwood as an aid to digestive ailments.
The presence of wormwood (Wermuth in German) was a key selling point for early vermouth as a medical curative for gastric issues. French royalty loved it, calling it vermutwein, and eventually its name was Anglicised to vermouth.
Many of the botanicals originally prized for vermouth were found in the alps which run along the northern border of Piedmont. These include hysop, quina bark, rose petals, chamomile, elderflower, thyme, and gentain to name a few. This is why the major industrial producers, Cinzano and Martini & Rossi, are based in that area.
The dawn of cocktails boosted vermouth’s popularity worldwide. It went from medicinal elixr to mixer in a New York minute.
It comes in three major types: sweet (which is red), dry (which is clear), and Bianco or Blanc (which is also clear but not as dry or bitter).
While the sweet and dry are staple ingredients in Manhattans and martinis, the bianco/blanc should not be dismissed. When it’s hot outside and I want something with ice, I fill a tumbler with white vermouth add some cubes and top it with a slice of orange or lemon. My favorite brand is Dolin blanc Vermouth de Chambery which is from France’s only AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) for vermouth. It is only slightly bitter, very herbal, and just sweet enough. Dolin has been making vermouth since 1821 and they still use up to 50 botanicals with their local fortified wine, which sets them apart from most major producers who tend to use extracts and pre-made infusions rather than actual plants.
Another newcomer to the Florida market (it arrives sometime this month) is La Quintinye Vermouth Royale. I was able to try it and there is a more pronounced spice and cardamom throughout the line, which is also made using real botanicals.