What is Vermouth?

A classic Martini is two ingredient – gin and vermouth.  Gin I’ve talked about for quite a bit (and still have quite a ways to go), but I have yet to bring up just what in the hell is vermouth?

The short answer is that it is a wine. A slightly longer answer is that it’s a fortified wine, flavored with anything from wormwood to sugar, and nearly any herb and/or spice you may think of.  In fact, the name “vermouth” is an anglicized derivation of the German word “wermut”, which translates into wormwood. From this, we can hypothesize that wormwood had at least a small chapter in vermouth’s history.

Way back in 2005, I wrote up a brief history of Vermouth, and I proclaimed:

 Vermouth is an aromatized wine, created at some point in the 1700′s. “Aromatised” means that various additives, such as herbs, flowers and other botanicals, are macerated into the wine to add to the flavor.

I was wrong. Oh was I wrong.  Or, more to the point,  the history of Vermouth is not the same as the history of aromatised wine.  People have been putting various additives into wine since probably the beginning of wine’s history, and the idea of adding wormwood would not have been that novel of an idea in the 1700′s.

As with the history of anything alcohol-related, the first place one should look as to why something came into being is its perceived physical benefits.  Vermouth is no different, and the addition of items such as wormwood would have been seen as a quick and easy way to get some medicinal benefit out of the fortified wine.  We see this across the entire history of bitters, cordials, apertifs, and liqueurs, so much so, that a fair number of the older liqueurs out there can trace their heritage to apothecaries rather than distillers.  Vermouth is no different.

So how was Vermouth made? Interestingly enough, one can get some insight into the process in the Congressional Record of 1889-1890 of all places. In there,  where they report on the Universal Exposition of 1889 held in Paris, they document:

Various quantities of absinthe, germander, hyssop, sage, centaury, saffron, enule, galauguen, aromatic cane, gentian, benzoin, calisaya, quassia, cinnamon, zedorcia, cloves, coriander, aniseed, mushroom, and orange peel are put into a linen bag and hung in a white wine which is kept at a temperature of about 150 F. for four or five days; The bag is then squeezed into the wine and replaced, and the steeping continued for a month, the bag being squeezed at intervals of five or six days. The vermouth is then filtered and put into casks or bottles for shipment. The various bitters of trade are made much in the same way.

So, to put it bluntly, Vermouth is flavored wine.

Today, it has changed a bit from how it was created and sold in the late 1800′s. There are, generally speaking, two types of vermouth recognized: White and dry, or Red and Sweet, with different herbs and spices meant to support whatever outlook one has for their vermouth.  Each producer of vermouth will have a different recipe for their product, and no two vermouths should be considered to have the same flavor profile (and neither should good gins, I’m finding out, but that’s a different post).

Over the next few months, I’m going to revisit various types of vermouth. I had done a bit of this in 2005, but this taste testing eventually faded away into the background. With my goal of finding the best Martini, my hope is that I will be more driven to complete this task.



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