What Every Gentleman Should Know About Vermouth–The Common Denominator of Many of the World’s Classic Cocktails

Vermouth is a type of fortified, aromatic wine flavored with various botanicals—roots, herbs, spices, flowers, seeds, bark.  The base of vermouth is either a neutral grape wine or an unfermented grape must to which alcohol and a proprietary blend of dry botanicals is added. The alcohol-botanical blend may be redistilled before being added to the base wine or must. After the wine is flavored and fortified, it is sweetened with either cane sugar or caramelized sugar, depending on the style of vermouth.

Vermouth as it is known today was first produced in Turin, Italy during the mid to late 18th century. Originally used for medicinal purposes, vermouth’s popularity rose when it came to be regarded as an apéritif in the fashionable cafes of Turin, where it was served to guests around the clock. In the late 1800s, with the advent of the cocktail, vermouth became a popular ingredient in mixed drinks. And it remains a key ingredient in what are today regarded as classic cocktails:  the Martini (1860s), the Manhattan (1874), and the Negroni (1919). The Vermouth cocktail—chilled vermouth and a twist of lemon peel (sometimes with bitters and/or maraschino added)—which first appeared in 1869, also helped to establish the liquor. Vermouth is also used as an alternative to white wine in cooking.

Traditionally, two types of vermouth exist:  one pale, dry, and bitter; and the other reddish and sweet. The first sweet vermouth was introduced in Turin, Italy in 1786 by merchant Antonio Benedetto Caprano.  And some time between 1800 and 1813, Joseph Noilly produced the first pale, dry vermouth in France. [ It should be noted, however, that historically, all pale vermouths have not been dry, and all red vermouths have not been sweet ].

The consumption of botanically flavored fortified wines dates back to the Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties (1250 – 1000 B.C.E.) of ancient China. Wormwood was a botanical popularly used to flavor wine in India from around 1500 B.C.E.  And Greek recipes for infusing white wine with botanicals, including wormwood (which was reputed to have medicinal properties), dates back to 400 B.C.E.  The name “vermouth” derives from the French pronunciation of the German “wermut,” which means “wormwood.”

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