Sweet, dry, bitter: how vermouth has endured, both as cocktail essential and drink in its own right

From its origins in the 17th century to its current status as an artisanal confection, vermouth has shown true resilience and longevity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 5:00pm

The word aperitif comes from the Latin word “aperire”, meaning “to open”. In culinary terms, it refers to a dry, bittersweet drink taken before a meal to whet the appetite, as opposed to a digestif, drunk after the meal to aid digestion.

Vermouth’s new golden age, in Hong Kong at least

One popular aperitif is vermouth, an aromatised, fortified drink that starts out using a white or red wine base that is then flavoured with botanicals before a neutral spirit is added, increasing the alcohol content to not more than 20 per cent by volume. Some are made using the mistelle method, for which alcohol is added to freshly crushed grapes, instead of relying on the alcohol that occurs naturally when the grapes are fermented. This technique is often used to make a sweeter vermouth.

The origins of vermouth are found in the wormwood-infused wines of 17th century Hungary and Germany. Today’s vermouth still uses wormwood as a significant flavouring component. Vermouth’s modern era began in the 18th century in Piemonte, in Italy, and the Savoy region in France, when these two areas were part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The local wines and abundance of botanicals that grew on the Alpine foothills were combined, creating a drink that was commercially valuable because it had better flavour and kept longer. It was also held in high esteem because the botanicals were considered to have a medicinal effect.

Hong Kong’s love affair with the martini, now with added vermouth

In the 1800s, Venice, Genoa and Marseilles also had a hand in the development of vermouth, as these port cities were the places where the spice trade was based. Large-scale producers – some of whom are famous to this day – emerged around these areas as they had easy access (and at better prices, too) to spices thatwere used. From France, the producers include St Raphael, Dubonnet, Dolin, Noilly Prat and Lillet; and from Italy, Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, Carpano and Cocchi Americano. Italy has two distinct styles which some producers in other countries also make: Amaro, which is extra bitter, and Chinato, a slightly lighter red vermouth made from the nebbiolo grape in Barolo.

In Europe, vermouth is sipped neat or over a little ice as a pre-dinner drink. In the United States, sweet vermouth is used in the classic cocktail called the Manhattan, which, according to legend, was created in 1874 to honour Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, at (where else?) the Manhattan Club. It is made with two parts rye or bourbon, one part red & white vermouth, three dashes of Angostura bitters, shaken over ice, strained into a martini glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry.

Vermouth born again as a connoisseur’s tipple of choice

White vermouths, which are drier, are well-known as an essential part of the martini, and the best ones are from France. Vermouth is also used in many French kitchens as it offers a more savoury alternative to cooking with white wine when making pan sauces.

Bar review: LGB La Mer – vermouth visionaries in Hong Kong

Americans also have made their own version of a vermouth, and one of them is my favourite. It is made by Andrew Quady at Quady Winery, based on his orange muscat grapes (one of my favourite dessert wines). It’s called Vya. I really didn’t think too much about the name until a dear friend, who is a well-known bartender, told me the story behind it. It seems that Quady, who loved to tinker in his winery and had a deep interest in aromatherapy, thought he’d have a go at making a vermouth. It started out as an experiment, but it turned out to be so delicious that all of his friends were asking him what it was and if they could have more of it. After repeating the answer one time too many times, he said, “It’s vermouth, you a******”!”