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.”

The History of Cocktails and the Etiquette of the “Cocktail Hour”

Cocktails

Vermouth, created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin, Italy in 1786, is credited as the first drink formulated specifically for the purpose of igniting the appetite, though the historical record indicates that the ancient Egyptians would oftentimes drink a small amount of alcohol before meals. By the 19th century, various types of apéritifs were known in the major cities of Italy, and their popularity had spread throughout Europe by the late 19th century. By the beginning of the 20th century, they were popular in the United States.

The word “apéritif,” which derives from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open,” is also used to describe pre-meal snacks. Olives, pickled pearl onions, salted nuts, and salted crackers are amongst the most popular.

The typical commencement time for a formal dinner varies from country to country, culture to culture. But regardless, in most cultures where alcohol is consumed, social drinking will usually take place before sitting down to a formal meal. Cocktails, also called apéritifs, not only serve to ignite the appetite, they also tend to enliven conversation; and a gentleman should use this time to acquaint himself with his dinner partner, be introduced to other guests, and, of course, speak with his host and/or hostess, being sure to express his sincere gratitude for the kind invitation.

Whether cocktail orders are being taken by the service staff or are being requested directly from the bartender, a gentleman should see to it that his dinner partner is provided with a drink of choice. Exceptionally sweet or heavy drinks should be avoided during the cocktail hour so as not to compromise one’s appetite. Likewise, exceedingly complicated drinks should be avoided so as not to overburden the bartending staff. A pina colada, for example, would be an inappropriate request during a cocktail hour, for it is both sweet and complicated—in addition to being noisy to make. A gentleman should also bear in mind that combining distilled liquor with wine is oftentimes a recipe for next-day hangovers; consequently, he should limit his cocktail intake so as to be able to fully enjoy the dinner with its carefully selected, complementary wines—and be alive and well the morning after to talk about it. For men with delicate constitutions, sherry serves as an excellent apéritif since as a wine, though a fortified one, it will not be chemically incongruous with the wines which are likely to be served with dinner.