Viva Vermouth – the History on Vermouth
More than just a mixer, vermouth is back as the perfect summer aperitif or spritz.
As we learned to mix our own Negronis during lockdown, we rediscovered vermouth. Perhaps as a result, the spicy liquor is having a moment, not just in our favourite cocktail but as a refreshing drink in its own right. In places like Spain and France, it has never gone away and now Aussies are getting in on the act.
What is vermouth?
It’s not a spirit like gin or vodka. Vermouth is a fortified wine, with a relatively low alcoholic content of around 15%. Always made from white wine, it is fortified with neutral grape alcohol and flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices. The name comes from the German wermut, meaning wormwood – better known as an ingredient in absinthe.
The custom of mixing herbs with alcoholic beverages goes back to ancient times, but modern vermouth was invented in Turin, Italy. In 1757, herbalist brothers Giovanni and Carlo Cinzano created a new herbal remedy which soon became a favourite local aperitivo. Other Italian firms soon copied the style. Then, in 1813, Joseph Noilly of Lyon (and later Marseille) developed a dry version.
A continental classic
In Italy, France or Spain, vermouth remains a favourite aperitif. Served chilled, on ice or with a splash of soda, its bitter herbs are thought to prepare the stomach for a meal. In Spain, bars dedicated to vermouth, known as vermuterías, are especially busy on Sundays. It seems a quick vermouth after Sunday mass was a tradition that has persisted, even for those who don’t go to church.
Sweet, dry or bianco
Although there are many variations, vermouth can usually be categorised as rosso (sweet and red), blanc or bianco (sweet and white) or dry. Rosso is the one that goes into the Negroni, the Manhattan or the Americano (although there’s also a Negroni bianco with…you guessed it). Dry vermouth pairs with gin in the classic Martini.
How much is too much?
Around 1910, a Martini was 50:50 gin and dry vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters. Tastes changed and the amount of vermouth shrank. Today, the usual proportion is a four-to-one ration of gin to vermouth. Of course, some prefer even less. There’s a legend about a man who instructed the barman to make his Martini from gin, then just whisper the word “vermouth” over the top. When he did as requested, the customer screamed “Not so loud”. Winston Churchill is reputed to have preferred his Martini made with gin and “a bow in the direction of France”.
Off the shelf
What you need to do now is get that bottle of vermouth you’ve had sitting on the shelf for months – and tip it down the sink. Vermouth doesn’t keep. It’s essentially a wine, and low in alcohol compared to other fortifieds, so it needs to live in the fridge once it’s opened. Even then, it’s best used up within a month or six weeks. Buy a new one and experiment. Vermouth on the rocks, vermouth and soda, a vermouth spritz with prosecco – it’s a whole new taste of summer. Here’s cheers.
The Negroni is named after a real person, Count Camillo Negroni. He walked into a Florence bar in 1919 and demanded a stronger drink than an Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth and soda). The barman replaced the soda with gin and the Negroni was born. According to The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita, by Gary Regan, Negroni got his taste for strong liquor while working as a rodeo clown in the American wild west. As you would.