Combing through history, you will see one fact common to most liquors: they started off as medicine. Beer and wine had other uses. They were easier to make and used for everything from paying workers to surviving fasts to having something to drink that would not kill you. Before we started to dig into the science of diseases, doctors would prescribe methods that we would now call alternative medicine. Anything from draining humours through leeches to mixing a variety of herbs into a liquid and drinking it. One of the earliest herbs used was wormwood, based on the belief that it was effective in fighting stomach ailments.
The wormwood-infused wine would be consumed after a meal to calm the stomach and aid in digestion. This technique was used in Europe as early as 400 BC and in some cultures earlier than that. As the wine became popular in the 16th century, those creating it added other herbs and spices to take the horribly bitter edge off the wormwood. In Germany, this bitter root was called Wermut. When the French and Italians took hold of it, they just Romanticized the word, calling the new batch of fortified and aromatized wines “vermouth.”
Modern vermouth became popular around the end of the 18th century when Antonio Benedetto Carpano introduced it to the market. It quickly became a darling with the courts in the area and started to spread to the rest of the country. Not too far away, in southern France, dry vermouth was gaining steam. The French kept the botanical punch that the Italians had built into the wine, but dialed the sugar content back considerably. This is what gives dry vermouth its herbal punch. The Italians also have a version of a white, or blanco, vermouth that is a sweeter version of the French dry. It does not have less of an herbal kick; it has more sugar to hide it. Traditionally, these were the three styles of vermouth found in any liquor store. With the boom we see in craft cocktails, manufacturers are experimenting with other wines and herbs to offer new flavor profiles. There are rosé and orange wine-based vermouths now that utilize other botanicals.
For over 100 years, vermouth had a starring role in the cocktails the world enjoyed. Two of the classics, the Manhattan and the Martini, were based on the herbal flavors they brought to rye whiskey and gin, respectively. Flipping through classic recipe books, you can see that after the tremendous impact vermouth had when it arrived in the United States in the mid-19th century, it started to wane. The amount of vermouth became smaller and smaller until we settled on the 3:1 or 5:1 proportions you may see in bars. Venues that focus more on the classics will put the ratio closer to 2:1 spirit to vermouth, and may even offer the Martinez. The Martinez is one of the few vintage cocktails you will find where the vermouth, not the spirit, is the star in the glass. Two parts vermouth to one part gin (or 1:1, or 1.5:1, whichever proportion the bartender assures you is the original) is what you will find, with some maraschino liqueur to balance out the herbal quality.
2 oz. sweet vermouth
1 oz. Old Tom gin (Ransom is an excellent choice)
1 tsp. maraschino liqueur
2 ds. Bitters (Boker’s is in the original, but Angostura works well)
Garnish: Lemon zest
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass over ice. Stir until the cocktail is well chilled, then strain into the glass. Twist the zest over the cocktail then add it to the glass.
Any trace amounts of vermouth you were going to find in cocktails were wiped clean when Prohibition covered the land. Liquors that could not be faked were purged, lost in America for decades. When we finally returned to the business of drinking, vodka was becoming the spirit of choice. Vermouth has a strong flavor, and vodka has little. Vodka martinis, now sporting olives, forcefully pushed dry vermouth to the back of the bar shelf. And while some of the war vets were still big on the Manhattan, no one wanted to drink what their parents drank. Sweet vermouth soon found itself collecting dust as well, watching rum take over the brown liquor spot as vodka took over for clear liquor. The 1970’s and 80’s were dominated by sweet cocktails, balanced slightly by citrus juices. Unless grandpa was bellying up to the bar, vermouth was on the sidelines with the bitters.
The craft cocktail boom has invigorated the industry. From just a few bottles of Martini and Rossi on the shelf to an ever-widening array of flavors, vermouth is back. Before you run out and add that amazing collection to your liquor shelf, keep in mind that vermouth has to be at least 75% wine. That means an open bottle is only going to be good for up to four weeks on your liquor shelf. You can extend that through refrigeration, but not by much. Many brands offer smaller bottles to purchase. Grab one of those if it is just for you around the house. Or considering adding vermouth as part of your dinner plans to either get the stomach ready or calm it down after the meal. If the bottle lasts long enough to go a little south, you can add it to recipes that call for wine. Another requirement of vermouth is that it has wormwood as part of the recipe, best known as a dominant flavor in absinthe. That flavor heightens when you cook with it. You can put it in some cocktails to enjoy with your meal as well. Beyond the traditional Manhattan (sweet vermouth) and Gin Martini (dry vermouth), there is a wide array of cocktails that call for this fortified, aromatized wine.
1 oz. gin
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. sweet Vermouth
Glass: Cocktail or Coupe
Garnish: Orange Zest
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass. Stir, then strain into the cocktail glass. Twist the orange zest over the cocktail, then add to the glass. Alternatively, you can pour all of the ingredients over cubed ice (larger cubes work best), stir, then serve.
The Negroni is a vintage cocktail from Italy. The rumor is that Count Negroni, after an extended stay in America, was traveling the Italian countryside. When he came to his usual bar for his usual drink, an Americano, he asked to replace the soda water with gin. The concoction worked and had been the springboard for countless variations. Substitute the gin with rye whiskey, and you have a Boulevardier. Exchange the gin with champagne for a Negroni Sbagliato. The possibilities are endless.
.75 oz Rye Whiskey
.75 oz Cognac
.75 oz sweet Vermouth
1 tsp Bénédictine
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Cherry OR Lemon Zest
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass over ice. Stir, then strain into the Old Fashioned glass over fresh ice. Garnish with either the cherry or the lemon zest. Both, if you want to.
Built in New Orleans in the post-Prohibition era, it is a celebration of the vibrant cocktail culture that developed there. It is well balanced and a delight to drink. A bottle of Bénédictine herbal liqueur is a versatile addition to any home bar.
2 oz. Bourbon or rye whiskey
1 oz. Dry vermouth
.25 oz. Fresh lemon juice
.5 oz. Grenadine
2 dashes Orange bitters
Garnish: Orange Zest
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing tin over ice. Shake well for 20 – 30 seconds, then strain into the cocktail glass. Twist the orange twist over the cocktail and add to the glass.
This Prohibition cocktail is appropriately named. Developed at Harry’s Bar in Paris in the 1920’s, it reaches for the traditional French dry vermouth instead of the sweet usually found in whiskey cocktails. There is also some debate as to the use of lemon or lime juice. The original recipe calls for lemon juice, and I will back that one. But experiment as you like.
With the resurgence of vermouth over the last few years, the options for bartenders have expanded. From Dolin to Noilly Pratt to Carpano, we have come a long way from just the bottles of Martini and Rossi on the shelf. Grab a bottle and take a sip before you start adding it to a cocktail. You may like what you taste!