What is Vermouth?

Learning the fundamentals of aromatic Italian vermouth. A speciality Italian liquor explained - now you can understand the Italian passion for Vermouth.

By Lele Gobbi
Jun 02, 2021
tagAlt.Enjoying Vermouth cocktails Cover

THE MUST-HAVE CONDITIONS IN MAKING GREAT VERMOUTH
 

Absinthe, known as the “green Muse,” was the undisputed alcoholic drink of choice for countless artists and intellectuals during the 19th century.  In its plant form, also known as the Artemisia or Absinthe du Désert, Absinthe provides the conditio sine qua non, or the essential building block ingredient for the production of Vermouth, following the French style.

This specialty wine, perhaps one of Italy’s most distinct wines, was originally created in 1786, in complete secrecy, by liquor artisan Giuseppe Antonio Benedetto Carpano, in Turin.
 

 

THE STRUCTURE OF VERMOUTH

Vermouth is made with approximately 75% base wine accounting for its complete volume.  The base wine is fortified and subsequently flavored with an infusion of alcoholic herbs and aromatics.  Amongst these secretive blends, the Artemisia species must be present.  While the leaves are richer in bitter substances and thujone (the ketone found in wormwood that is reputed to have hallucinogenic or psychotropic properties), the flowering tips of the wormwood plant are those used.  Once dried, the flowering tips are fundamental to the creation of Italian vermouth.

Regulations allow for different substances to be implemented in the sweetening process of the wine.  Permitted ingredients include saccharose, grape must and concentrated grape must, and  burnt sugar.  This last item is not considered a colorant even though it certainly does have a darker hue; rather, it’s used as a natural caramel even though it does tend to impart an intensely deep color to the bases where its added.   


Now you know the basics of Vermouth production.  Do you know all the steps in making a great bottle of Italian wine?  Take a refresher course in just 3 minutes on how wines are made, and ace all the trivia questions at your next wine party!


Vermouth’s alcoholic percentages and the quantity of sugars added will vary relative to the type of Vermouth being produced.  Contemporary Vermouth types include White, Red, Rosé, Dry, and Extra-Dry.

Base wines are almost exclusively white wines, but in reality, there are no restrictions insisting on this white color choice.  The use of Red wines actually livens the resulting Vermouth up both in terms of appearance and also aromas.  Thanks to the red wines’ natural acidic content coming in from the red grapes, a red-based Vermouth generally features a fresh, invigorating flavor.


Speaking of red Vermouth, you won’t want to miss reading about one of Italy’s most niche Vermouth producers.  Read all about the Liquorificio Baldini for a true-blue Italian Vermouth producer gaining his stride after decades of Vermouth production.


All Vermouth ingredients are mixed in large, closed vats or barrels, where they’ll continue their resting period of 4-6 months.  Following the initial rest, the barrel or vat contents are pasteurized, filtered, and bottled.

The production process of creating Vermouth, on paper, is pretty straightforward.  However, the reality is that Vermouth production is quite delicate and complex.  The factors that determine the Vermouth’s resulting quality and value are volatile situations:  spice and aromatic blends that can be too weak or too strong, the extraction time that must be followed rigidly, and the wines used to blend the mixture - any of these precarious elements can either go smoothly or can encounter obstacles en route.

This results in an overall difficulty of maintaining high-quality standards, yet as we see, the majority of producers are victorious, and have mastered their production processes.
 

 

VERMOUTH’S PLENTIFUL HERBS AND SPICES

While much of the production process and ingredients in Vermouth are known, there are still some special features of crafting Vermouth that only the local producers know.  Believe it or not, over 30 individual natural ingredients have their role in creating Vermouth.

In addition to Artemisia, we can find Yarrow, Rhubarb, Angelica, Cinchona, Gentian, Kola Nut, Cinnamon, Coriander, Cardamom, Melissa, Clove, Fennel, Pomegranate, Elder, Chamomile, Marjoram, Nutmeg, Thyme, Ginger, Vanilla, Hops, Saffron, Juniper, and Star Anise.

The spice notes we can taste in our favorite Vermouth wines are typically obtained during the production process either resulting from cold infusions, also called macerations.  Hot infusions also exist, when direct contact is made with wines, alcohol, or water.

Knowing all about your spices and their different flavor profiles is a fundamental part of creating an excellent Vermouth.  Thanks to their unique flavors, and to the intensity of their aromas, the spices are the boss of the ingredient lists.  Spices will determine the Vermouth’s fragrance, and its intensity.


Knowing what to be on the lookout for when you enjoy Vermouth is key, but so is knowing how to taste your wines using some fundamental techniques.  What are the three major elements?  Watch the How to Taste Wine video and you’ll learn just what you need.   


Amazingly enough, spices will also in turn absorb flavor structures due to the growing and ripening seasons, and you’ll be able to taste these flavor fluctuations when tasting Vermouth.
 

 

HOW TO MIX WITH VERMOUTH

Vermouth is often enjoyed on its own, served as a aperitivo, or a drink mixed with soda.  Vermouth is also at the very heart of a bevvy of different cocktails, thanks to its aromatic complexity.

If you like, straight Vermouth with a splash of soda is a terrific cocktail on its own.

One classic cocktail served throughout Italy, with Vermouth in its veins is the Negroni.  Here, due deference is paid to His Majesty, Vermouth.  Even though literal rivers of ink have already been written about the Negroni cocktail, it becomes virtually impossible to not name-drop Negroni when discussing classic Italian cocktail selections.

Negroni cocktails are deceptively simple in their composition - 3 cl Vermouth Rosso, 3 cl Bitter Campari, 3 cl Gin.  It becomes immediately recognizable however if you have an old hand behind the bar or a green novice making your drink.  Mixing Negronis are best left to the masters, but give it a try for yourself.

Another classic version of the Negroni comes to us by way of Florence, and the Count Camillo Negroni.  Created originally for the Caffè Giacosa clientele in Florence, the drink quickly caught on in popularity amongst the cocktail-drinking crowd.  This timeless concoction works off a base of Vermouth, and finds its inspiration in the Americano cocktail (3 cl Vermouth Rosso, 3 cl Bitter Campari, 3 cl soda or sparkling water), the reference point cocktail of its day.   

Piedmont, home to the original Vermouth creation, has another host of local cocktails that play deference to Vermouth.  The Torino Cocktail, the Vermuttino, the Zuavo Cocktail, and the Figliol Prodigo Cocktail.

What about international versions?  Vermouth has made a name for itself across the world, and features in cocktail selections like the Pére Noël, the Tuxedo and the timeless Martini Dry Cocktail.


Want some ideas for creating wonderful dishes to pair with Vermouth?  The Recipe Index will help you come up with some whimsical new dishes - or an old classic.  The choice is yours!

 

 

GREAT VERMOUTHS AVAILABLE TODAY

Antica Torino, Anselmo 1857, Berto, Bordiga, Carpano, Contratto, Cocchi, La Canellese, Martini, Mulassano, Oscar 697, Riserva Carlo Alberto, Scarpa, Spertino, Gran Bassano di Poli 1898, Gamondi, Vermouth Bianco di Prato, Vermouth del Professore, Vermouth Rosso Ricetta Belle Epoque, VERO Vermouth di Sardegna are just a few of the names on today’s Vermouth market.   

All of these selections share the same characteristic.  Its building block herbs are successfullysnatching” this drink out of its nefarious shadowy, sinister fame surrounding Absinthe in the 1800s.  No longer is Absinthe just a part of the sinister fame of the European cursed poets.



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