To most of us, vermouth is the stuff you use to make a Martini cocktail. Or a Manhattan.
But as more Americans are learning, vermouth is among the most versatile of cocktail ingredients. What’s more, it’s great straight. That’s right – as in, to drink all by its lonesome.
Which is why a couple weeks ago I was in Pessione, Italy, hometown of iconic vermouth maker Martini & Rossi. I was criminally lucky to have been invited to come learn about one of the world’s most beloved brands, celebrating its 150th anniversary.
I’d long known vermouth was basically wine aromatized with a bunch of herbs and spices. Basically, booze with bark. But until now I’d never known just how curious its origins were, or how complex the art and science of making the good stuff is.
Vermouth began as medicine. Folks found that herbal medicines, often foul-tasting, could be made more palatable when mixed with wine. By the late 1700s, people were drinking vermouth less as a treatment than for its taste. Vermouth had become fashionable. It soon was being mixed with other hooch. Cocktail culture was born.
The Americano cocktail, first known as the Milano-Torino because its main ingredients – Campari and sweet vermouth – came from those towns, was what “really kicked off [Italian] cocktail culture,” explains Jacob Briars, an affable New Zealander who serves as parent company Bacardi’s global brand advocacy director.
His own favorite vermouth cocktail is the Negroni Sbagliato – which loosely translates as a “mistaken” version of a Negroni cocktail. The Sbagliato was supposedly born from a happy mistake, when in 1968 a bartender at the legendary Bar Basso in Milan accidentally used spumante instead of gin when concocting a Negroni. The result was an instant hit. And it’s easy to see why. It’s a lovely drink.
Italian and French vermouths are most popular. Each maker has its own proprietary recipes and methods, the complexity of which often falls somewhere between science and alchemy. For Martini, even the order in which various botanicals and other ingredients are added can make or break the spell that produces their beloved vermouths.
Most vermouths fall into sweet or dry camps. Reds tend to run sweeter; whites, drier. And while most vermouths have been made the same way for decades, Martini’s mad scientists are experimenting with novel recipes and methods. To celebrate their 150th anniversary, Martini master herbalist Ivano Tonutti and his colleagues cooked up Gran Lusso, limited edition vermouth inspired by a recipe unearthed in the Martini archives. “We wanted to create something completely unique in the vermouth world,” Tonutti explains. The result is richly aromatic vermouth that’s lovely in cocktails or, as I first tried it, plain over ice, with a twist of lemon.
Of course, convincing Americans to enjoy vermouth by itself may be tough. “Will Americans come to drink vermouth on the rocks?” Bacardi’s Briars says with a laugh. “I certainly hope so. In the middle of summer, there’s almost nothing more refreshing. It’s almost like you’ve turned off the heat. Likewise, in the middle of winter, something like [Gran Lusso] over ice, with its spiciness, is great.”
Cheers to that.
Makes one cocktail
Into rocks or wine glass add Campari and vermouth. Top with bubbly and stir once or twice. Garnish with fresh slice of orange.
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