Mmmm Vermouth!

There may be no other alcoholic beverage in modern history more widely misunderstood as vermouth. Left to linger and gather dust in wells and on back bars all over the country, many people’s only association with vermouth is that the bottle should be “waved over” a martini and promptly replaced on the shelf. And, in some respects, considering the quality of vermouth that has been allowed to languish in these places since God knows when, that may very well be its best use. Over the last decade, however, better minds than mine have proven that a vermouth treated properly will treat a proper cocktail perfectly, and most are even delicious sans mixer.

As early as 400BC, the Greek physician Hippocrates was making a version of vermouth. Hippocrates macerated wormwood and dittany flowers in strong, sweet Greek wine, creating a digestive which became known as ‘Hippocratic wine’ or vinum absinthianum which he prescribed for arthritis and various bodily pains. Scientifically called artemisia absinthium, true wormwood is also used to make true absinthe, but long before that discovery and even earlier than Hippocrites, physicians in China’s Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (1000BC – 1250BC), as well as those in India (1500BC) prescribed wormwood macerated in wine as an antibacterial. Ancient healers like Dioscordes were known to use variants of the species like artemisia pontica (Roman Wormwood), Mugwort, artemisia maritima, and artemisia annua (Sweet Wormwood) for the same purposes, and even went so far as to quantify recipes. For example, Pliny the Elder, in Naturalis Historia (77AD), called for:

1 pound of pontica and 40 sextarii of grape must reduced to 1/3

The Romans held aromatic wine in high regard. Recipes became crazy and elaborate as newly conquered lands led way to new herbs and spices. These wines were prized for their healthy properties  and were crucial to Roman feasts. By the 1600’s, brewers in Great Britain were adding botanicals to malted ales to preserve freshness, and wormwood-based drinks were becoming trendy. Roman wormwood, native to southern Europe, was an excellent tonic and not as bitter and more delicate than true wormwood. Macerated in Rhenish wine, the drink became popular with Londoners. By the 1700’s, however, as is with most popular things, wormwood wine had run its course in England, and had become passe.

So what is Vermouth? A link to the EU regulations regarding what is legal definable as a vermouth can be found here. For the rest of us, a vermouth is an aperitif wine (carrying a bitter-sweet characteristic that is designed to stimulate gastric juices), that is fortified with the addition of alcohol, and aromatized by being infused with botanicals that add color and flavor. Almost all have a white wine or mistelle base. Examples of fortified wines that are not aromatized are sherry and port. An example of  an aromatic wine that is not fortified is the utterly delicious Barolo Chinato.

Vermouth as we know it orginated in Italy in the late 1700’s. Girolamo Ruscelli had published a work that contained multiple recipes for Hippocrites’ wormwood wines. By the 1790’s, over 100 editions had been reprinted. Ruscelli started selling his own versions in Venice, a major spice hub, and soon rivals began making wormwood wine in Genoa. In Torino, the enjoyment of such beverages led to Apertivo hour and Cafe life. People of wealth and stature, those of high society, would gather in the piazza to enjoy amaro, liqueur, and aromatized wines, as well as lush plates of fine foods. Signor Luis Marendazzo owned a small shop in the heart of Torino, one of many owned by many wine makers, and the demand for his product was so high that he was forced to hire on an apprentice to help with production. That hire would change vermouth from a regional drink into a global phenominon.

Antonio Benedetto Carpano, hired in 1786 by Luis Marendazzo,  had discovered a recipe for an aromatized wine that included thirty botanicals macerated into floral, sweet moscato. He called the drink vermouth, a word taken from the German wermut meaning wormwood. One theory on the name is that Carpano intended to appeal to Duke Vittorio Amedeo III, and the Duchal household’s close connection to the Holy Roman Empire. In either case, it worked, as the Duke would eventually suspend the annual order for rosolio (an Italian liqueur derived from rose petals) in favor of the new beverage. The wine shop was eventually converted into a 24/7 wine cafe to meet demand, and Carpano would eventually buy it and run it.

The Carpano company currently produces the Antica Formula, a rich, full-bodied, sweet vermouth, flavored with vanilla (Vermouth alla vaniglia), considered by many bartenders to be the best Italian-style vermouth to use for mixing with the flavors of bourbon and rye whiskey. They also make Punt e Mes (Point and a half), a bitter flavored vermouth that is simultaneously one of the sweetest and also one of the most bitter vermouths. It is essentially a Vermouth di Torino with bitters added, and has been in existance since around 1867. Carpano also produces a red vermouth called Carpano Classico, and a white bianco, as well. Neither product is available in the US. Carpano is owned by the Milanese firm Branca (famous for Fernet Branca). (photo courtesy of

Close-by, in the foothills near Torino, the Cinzano family had been been making liquor for the duchal houses of Torino and Pecetto since 1707. They began formulating vermouth around 1757, and in 1816, Francisco Cinzano would move his family’s fruit and eaux-de-vie business to Torino. After Antonio Carpano’s death, Francisco seized the opportunity to sell the favorite aperitivo of the city – vermouth, and you can still buy Cinzano vermouth to this day.

They currently produce a Rosso, Bianco, Extra Dry, and a Rose version that is currently unavailable in the US market. The Cinzano brand is currently owned by Campari-Milano.

Lyonnase absinthe and liqueur-maker Joseph Noilly had an affinity for Clairette de Languedoc for the affect that the sun and sea salt had on wines shipped down the Canal du Midi. He knew the popularity of vermouths from Torino as well as his local wine. He managed to perfect, in 1813, a dry style of vermouth, based on these principles. Noilly’s son Louis took over in 1829 and his brother-in-law Claudius Prat joined in 1843. By 1844, Noilly-Prat was shipping vermouth to New Orleans and New York City. It moved its vermouth/absinthe operations to Marseilles, while its liqueur business relocated to Lyon.

According to their website, Noilly-Prat Original Dry uses French wine, some of which are selectively aged outdoors in oak casks exposed to the natural elements; as well as an aromatic blend of herbs and spices (including Roman Chamomile and Gentian from France, Nutmeg from Indonesia and Bitter Orange from Tunisia.) Their Rouge, developed in the 1960’s, uses the finest wines and botanicals, including saffron, cloves and cocoa beans. There is also an Ambre that is not sold in the US, and a lighter style of dry white that was sold to the American market until it was discontinued in 2008 in favor of the more flavorful European version we currently see. Noilly-Prat is privately owned. (photo courtesy of

The only vermouth granted AOC status (Appellation d’Origine Controllee) was developed by Joseph Chavasse in Provence, using alpine botanicals found in the Rhone-Alpes region of Southeastern France. Chavasse produced both a sweet and a dry variety, as well as a blanc (totally clear, flavored with a frais de bois.) At this time, Chambéry, where Chavasse produced his vermouth, was in fact part of Sardinia, not France and ruled from Torino. He called his vermouth Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry.

Today Dolin sells a Dry, a Blanc, and a Rouge. According to importer Haus Alpenz, Dolin Vermouths are notably lighter, drier and less pungent than their larger commercial counterparts. The particular mixture of plants found near Chambéry give a fresh, restrained and elegant nose, with a subtle, complex bittersweet palate. Even the Blanc and Rouge retain great balance, with the sugar never cloying, and just enough bitterness to whet the appetite. Each can be enjoyed as aperitif on ice, with a twist of citrus, or in a broad array of traditional cocktails. Dolin is among the few remaining independent producers of Vermouth and the last producing Vermouth de Chambéry.

In 1835, Guiseppe & Luigi Cora bought a small production company, and by 1838 began to supply homesick expats in the States and South America with their Vermouth di Torino. Though King Carlo Alberto, the King of Piedmont-Sardinia from 1831 to 1849, did not allow Torino vermouth to be sold outside of the city, he realized that he needed to compete with Dolin and Noilly. In 1840, Alberto issued licenses to protect trade to Carpano, G & L Cora, and the Dettone Brothers to sell their products outside of the realm.

The Martini & Rossi Company started out as the Distilleria Nazionale de Spirito de Vino, and in 1849, thanks to the new ability to sell overseas, they also began shipping their product to North America. In 1863, company director Allessandro Martini, vintner Luigi Rossi, and accountant Teofilo Sola take over and become the principle heads of the company. Martini, Sola, & Co, would become Cora’s direct US competitor, and would eventually become the company we all know today. The Martini & Rossi company was agile and adept at export and distribution and would soon become the largest vermouth company in the US. They still stand as the market leader, producing a Rosso, Bianco, Extra Dry, Rosato, and d’Oro (which is not imported to the US.) Martini & Rossi is currently owned by Bacardi Limited.

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With a renewed interest in craft cocktail and pre-prohibition drinking taking the bar world by storm, there are other vermouths now available from the US as well as the rest of the world. There are Italian producers Riccadonna, Boissiere, and Gancia; Atsby from New York; Imbue from Portland, Oregon; and Vya from California. A recent entry is from the house of Cocchi, a Torino winery. In 2011, Cocchi released their Vermouth di Torino, and it is a delicious product indeed, and a nice compliment to their Cocchi Americano, another type of aromatized, fortified wine, that we will go into in a future post.

Finally, there are several budget producers of vermouths, including Tribuno, Stock, and Sutton Cellars. While I can only express my opinion, and yours may differ from mine, I really don’t see the point to these products other than to fill a slot in the inventory worksheet at the bar. At home, they’re a waste of space and money as the flavor they add to a drink is minimal, and they really can’t be drank straight. If stocking a bar from scratch, I would carry both red and white versions of Noilly-Prat and Dolin, as well as Punt e Mes, and Carpano Antica. These six products are probably all you need for a quality cocktail bar, however should space provide, load up on others!

When it comes to buying vermouth, my suggestion is to buy the smallest version of each bottle that you can. Vermouth may be fortified wine, but it’s not as fortified as port or sherry, and it will begin to oxidize and go bad the longer it remains open. All vermouth should be refrigerated after opening, and if you absolutely must leave the bottle out (for example at a high-volume bar that lacks refrigeration capacity) attempt to use it up within a few days. There’s no reason to buy a high-quality vermouth and then allow it to degrade before using it in a cocktail. This line of thinking will only cause pain to your cocktail program and will cause otherwise open-minded customers to turn off to a product they would have otherwise enjoyed. In closing, a well-sealed, refrigerated bottle should last for a couple of weeks.

Use your new vermouth to make a Master Manhattan:

2oz Rittenhouse 100 Bonded Rye

1oz Carpano Antica Vermouth

3 healthy dashes of Angostura Bitters

Stir with ice and pour into a chilled cocktail glass. Drop a brandied Maraschino cherry in the bottom and twist a big orange peel over the top. Yum.

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