Vermouth basics and history

The term comes from the Germanic ‘Wermut‘ or wormwood – a salute to one of the core botanicals found in many vermouth. Although people started drinking aromatized wines as medicine thousands of years ago, that use waned in the end of the 18th century. Consumption as an apéritif, or cocktail ingredient, exploded in Italy and France there after. Whether wormwood technically needs to be in a modern vermouth is a hotly debated topic, as many North American iterations do not.

Wormwood Vermouth pieceWormwood plant.

Incidentally, this helps to showcase why the stigma surrounding the purported effects of wormwood have always been baseless hysteria. Many believed that wormwood had hallucinogenic properties and made men see the “Green Fairy”.

It was actually crafty propaganda and a period where wine fought to regain market share. The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century nearly destroyed the European wine industry. Because phylloxera originated in North America, the grapes grown there had a natural immunity and American rootstock was used to re-cultivate the decimated vineyards of Europe.

Absinthe (from Latin Artemisia absinthium for “wormwood”) is more likely to give you a quick buzz having a very high alcohol content. Traditionally, 54% to 68% in Switzerland and France respectively.

Vermouth is the most widely known of the botanically aromatized wines. Fortified with brandy to last longer than regular wines – to the tune of about 30 days, if refrigerated.

That dusty bottle on your bar that’s been there longer than anyone can recall, yeah, throw it out and start fresh. Spoiled and oxidized vermouth is the likely reason many people think they don’t like the stuff. Add to that the many bartenders who lack understanding the category and it’s easy to see why Winston Churchill would refuse vermouth when he had a Martini, preferring to nod in the direction of France.
The best vermouth in the world generally comes from the old world wine producers. But the new world is rapidly catching up. If you haven’t tasted Cocchi, Punt E Mes, Dolin or Belsazar then you have some work to do.

The Italian distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano coined the term vermouth in 1786. His Turin based aromatized wine shop was so popular that it stayed open 24 hours a day, finally closing for good when it was destroyed in World War II.