By John Burecki
Most people (including, until recently, myself) know little about vermouth beyond the fact these amazing fortified wines make a cocktail more interesting. However, they have a full history of their own spanning from Italy to France and to the USA today. And just like whisky and rum, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Lets begin with the aperitifs.
The name aperitif is derived from the Latin aperire, which means "to open" and refers to the stimulation of appetite that occurs after ingestion of the wine. This is caused by the collection of herbs and spices added to the wine. Aperitifs encompass vermouth, quinquina and americanos among others, all being known as aromatized because of the addition of the herbs. These aperitifs were very popular because of two factors: One, they were flavored with intense and delicious herbs and spices and two, they contained a lot of well known herbal tincture components known for their benefits to health.
Vermouths get their name from the German word for wormwood, which was a popular ingredient in the past (some still use Wormwood in recipes today but, in general, its use has declined). Vermouth originated in Italy around the 18th century as a somewhat sweet, infused, red or brown beverage. Eventually it spawned off dryer and semi-sweet versions with white wine as the base. The French created styles that were lighter and based on white wines to offer a choice from Italy's bolder, spicier reds. These two styles eventually became popular in America in the 1880's, being used widely in mixed drinks, most notably the Manhattan and the Martini as well as the Vesper, a drink made famous in Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, in which James Bond orders the drink. The Vesper involves three measures vodka and a half measure of Lillet, a French aperitif. It's shaken with ice and garnished with a thin slice of lemon peal.
Two other styles to point out are Quinquina (kenKEEnah) and Americano styles. Quinquina uses Peruvian cinchona bark known more so for it being the primary source of quinine. This was a very beneficial chemical in the 18th century because it warded off malaria and in turn was put into the beverage made for the French foreign legion specifically to keep them healthier on the battlefield. Over time, people discovered that quinine had a likable flavor and continued to use it. The Americano style refers to the old world meaning of the word amer which translates to "bitter." In this case, bitterness is brought on by the addition of wormwood and gentian.
Vermouth, quinquina and americanos all draw their flavors from the same group of botanicals and get a classification through the intent of the botanical formula—in other words, what the herbs and spices will do for digestion. There are over fifty different herbs and spices used in the creation of all of these wonderful beverages.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vermouth. For now, I will leave you with some words of advice for enjoying the beverage. First, drink them as you see fit, be it in a mixed drink or on the rocks, though I am a firm believer in trying it straight before you mix and always keep open bottles in the fridge—old room temp vermouth is not pleasant. A lot can be said about regional differences as well as wine style variances and the vast array of herbs and spices that are used, but when it comes down to it all you need to do is close you eyes, grab a bottle and experience something exotic and delicious.