Before World War II, vermouth was an American staple. Whether it was drunk straight or mixed into cocktails, the sweet, yet bitter, aperitif was one of the country’s most desirable imports. Just take the famed Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, which published in 1934—more than half of the cocktails name vermouth as a primary ingredient. So what happened?
“World War II destroyed vermouth for Americans,” says Adam Ford, founder of New York’s Atsby Vermouth. “The war cut off imports from Europe—and specifically Italy—where most vermouth was produced. And no American wanted to buy European brands.”
Any potential for post-war resurgence was quelled by the hippie movement, when young Americans resisted trends from their parents’ generation. (Read: Martinis and Manhattans were totally square.) The kids of the sixties prefered to indulge in acid or weed over cocktails, wiping vermouth—once again—from the map.
Nearly 80 years later, vermouth is having a comeback. An increase in American bottlers— combined with increasing love of craft-cocktails—has made 2015 the Year of Vermouth.To usher you into this delicious renaissance, Maxim caught up with two vermouth experts for a curated guide on the aperitif wine.
What exactly is vermouth?
“Vermouth is wine,” says Bianca Miraglia, founder of Brooklyn’s Uncouth Vermouth. “But it’s an aromatized, fortified wine. Aromatizing wine means you’re mixing in edible, aromatic plants to create a beverage that’s easy on your digestive tract and lower in alcohol than liquor. Fortifying wine means you’re strengthening the alcohol content by adding a spirit, which also acts as a preservative. So vermouth is a slightly higher-alcohol wine that will last much longer.”
But more specifically… what’s in it?
“There are different ways of producing vermouth,” explains Ford. “But to legally call something vermouth in America, you must use brandy as the fortifier—it can’t be vodka or a neutral grain alcohol. When I make vermouth, I take cellar temperature wine and cold steep it with various plant ingredients. Then I simultaneously add the fortifier and sweetener and let everything age for about six months.”
What should a great vermouth taste like?
“First and foremost, a good vermouth is a drink that’s imminently drinkable,” says Ford. “It’s kind of bitter, kind of sweet, but has these fascinating flavors from the wine and the brandy. Vermouth should taste like a good and harmonious cocktail all on its own.”
How should I drink it?
“If you buy a good vermouth,” says Ford. “It should form the base of a cocktail, and you then use the spirit as a modifier. It makes for a much more drinkable drink that isn’t quite as ‘spirited’ or alcoholic. Take a Manhattan, for example—I’ll use two parts vermouth to one part rye for such a nicer drink. I’ve also been known to drink it straight—no ice—from a wine glass.”
How should I store it?
“I think one of the reasons people don’t order straight vermouth in America is that bars store it incorrectly,” says Miraglia. “How many times do you walk into a bar, and it’s sitting—opened—on the shelf? Vermouth is a wine, not a liquor… it needs to be treated as such. Really anything that’s under 25% alcohol should go into the fridge as soon as it’s opened.”
How long can vermouth last?
“It’s surprisingly brand specific,” says Ford. “Some vermouths can turn quickly, while others hold on a bit longer. As a rule of thumb, I would say vermouth can last six weeks to two months in the fridge. If you can suck pump it—or any of those other things you’d do with a wine— that’s even better.”
When was it invented?
“There’s actually evidence that aromatized wines, such as vermouth, were around before wine even existed,” explains Miraglia. “In the Neolithic Era, people would bury whole clusters of grapes in terracotta pots and dig them up a year later, always incorporating edible plants. Aromatized wines were used for medicinal purposes, like aiding digestive tracts or balancing hormones.”
Why is vermouth seeing such a resurgence today?
“The past five years has seen an overall increase in the American palate,” says Ford. “People are becoming more interested in what they put into their body… they want products that are locally-sourced or craft. And I think this trend—combined with a rise in vermouth producers—has allowed for a renaissance. If you stopped someone on the street five years ago and asked, ‘What’s vermouth,’ they probably wouldn’t have been able to answer. But now, things have started to change.”
Photos by Atsby Vermouth