Everything You Need To Know About The History Of Vermouth, Your Martini Staple
When you order a very dry, dirty martini, it is served in a conical stemmed glass as a mix of gin, olive brine and of course, dry vermouth. Through time, the sweet vermouth in a traditional martini recipe was swapped with the dry version of the fortified wine to introduce a more salty and tangy texture to the cocktail.
Vermouth is a cocktail staple, used to make varied mixes like the negroni, manhattan and the americano among others. The fortified wine, essentially a distilled spirit, is infused with additional alcohol, herbs and spices but contrary to other similar concoctions like the sherry or madeira, the inclusion of wormwood is what makes a vermouth stand out.
Wormwood is a bitter plant which has been in use since ancient times for varied purposes from acting as an insect repellent to a digestive. No matter the vermouth variation, this botanical is an essential ingredient in the making of a widely consumed fortified wine.
Since wormwood has been in use as a curative through centuries, its incorporation into wine was a formula adopted by physicians for the longest. The earliest traces would lead us to 500 BC, when Hippocrates macerated wormwood and dittany flowers in sweet Greek wine as a digestive as well as a cure for rheumatism and anaemia.
During the Roman ages, aromatic wines infused with wormwood and other botanicals were widely circulated by herbalists for good health. According to an explainer on Difford’s Guide, Romans used wormwood wines widely during large public feasts to aid digestion too.
So, in the middle ages, vermouth was produced primarily in two regions, near the alpine hills in Piedmont and in the regions along France’s southeastern border. The explainer also mentions that the proximity of these regions to well-populated trade routes meant the influx of spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, rhubarb and many others brought in by Venetian traders from east Africa, India and Indonesia that were widely used to produce newer variations of the fortified spirit.
However, despite its long history, it was centuries later, in 1786 that the first commercial brand of vermouth was established by the apothecarist Antonio Benetto Carpano in Turin. His formulation used excellent quality grapes, neutral alcohol and wormwood to produce a very delectable vermouth variant that was quickly popularised among the French and Italian aristocracy. As the years went by, its medicinal properties were largely forgotten and vermouth was adopted by cocktail enthusiasts instead to design some thoroughly enduring mixes.
For a connoisseur, there is more to vermouth than the dry and sweet distinction. There exists a fruity concoction paired with oranges, strawberries and lemon as well as a semi sweet version which contains a lesser amount of sugar than a traditional sweet vermouth. The dry vermouth used to make a martini is a transparent liquid and can be served chilled, by itself as an excellent aperitif.
Vermouth styles also depend on the region in which it is produced. Historically, it was the sweet version made in Italy from red wine that became popular before the dry variety—greater in alcohol content and reduced sugar—came to be widely produced using dry white wine in France. The ageing process also involves subtle differences. The French variety is often aged in oak barrels and left exposed to weather to accelerate the atmospheric effect on the aperitif. Along with that, the kinds of botanical combinations used to make the vermouth also give each style its distinct flavour, complemented by the quality of wine used in its making.
Today, vermouth is made using tinctures of different herbs, barks and roots macerated in alcohol and distilled with wine until it is aged and ready to be bottled. For a martini enthusiast, a good dry vermouth is just as integral to the recipe as a premium bottle of gin because it is the key ingredient for infusing a drier texture so essential to a martini recipe.