The story of vermouth and its US renascence
Craftsmanship magazine has a whole new collection of really interesting and excellent articles. I’m not going to blog them all, but do take a look.
Laura Fraser, for example, has a new article on the excellence of good vermouth (and why once you’ve opened the bottle you should refrigerate it). Her article begins:
It all started when I was in the mood for a Negroni—a classic Italian cocktail that is herbaceous, bitter but balanced, and made from a combination of equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, with a twist of orange. But I was out of Campari, and wanted something less lethal than a martini, which left only the vermouth.
But who drinks vermouth by itself? It’s the dusty bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet, brought out only for the occasional Manhattan or martini–and viewed, in the latter case, with a good deal of suspicion. Winston Churchill’s instruction for a martini was, allegedly, to “drink a tumbler of gin and bow in the direction of France.” Alfred Hitchcock’s martini recipe called for “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth.” The mania for the dry martini, beginning in the 1950s, made vermouth unfashionable. Only Julia Child championed the much-maligned, herb-infused wine, inventing the “reverse martini,” where the vermouth took center stage, with only a splash of gin.
Well. In matters of taste—and with nothing else open in the liquor cabinet–are you going to listen to gin-guzzling gourmands or a French-inspired gourmet? I poured some vermouth on the rocks, added a twist, and drank it more or less straight—the way, it turns out, Europeans have been drinking it for centuries. It was surprising: light and refreshing, while satisfying that Negroni-like urge for something complex with a bitterness that bites back. I did glance at the bottle, as Hitchcock suggested, and considered that if I’d opened a fresh one sometime within the past seven years, it might have tasted even better. Vermouth is mainly wine—and wine, once opened, even if infused with herbs and fortified with brandy—doesn’t keep forever.
Intrigued, I began tasting other vermouths, starting in Italy, and spreading out to new artisanal varieties being made in the United States. It turns out that while I was rediscovering vermouth, so were the craft cocktail crowd and small-batch vintners, who have made this old-fashioned drink hip again. “Fifteen years ago, no one in the U.S. knew what a Negroni was, and even in Italy, vermouth was out of fashion,” says wine expert Claudio Villani of InoVino in San Francisco, who is from Florence. “Then the bar became central in restaurants, and you needed a mixologist, seasonal ingredients, and hand-crafted cocktail mixers, including vermouth.” In Barcelona, people have been going mad for vermouth bars, drinking the aperitif during “La hora de vermut,” which usually lasts three hours, not one; Spaniards tend to like their vermouth poured from the tap over ice with an olive and an orange twist, accompanied with a selection of anchovies, olives, mussels, and other savory snacks.
These days, if you take a seat at a bar with a serious mixology program in Brooklyn or San Francisco and ask for a vermouth, they don’t look at you like you just asked for a glass of your grandmother’s sweet sherry. They’ll ask which of the many new artisan brands you’d prefer. There’s even a bar in my neighborhood in San Francisco, the Alembic, that serves Brown Label vermouth on tap, made on the other side of town by a man named Carl Sutton. This made me curious to compare his vermouth—and how upstarts like him make it—with the Italian giants who’ve been concocting secret vermouth recipes since the mid-18th century. . .