This versatile spirit is making a comeback with its variety of styles and flavours

It’s great to see the returning surge of interest in cocktails on the Calgary scene. As well as the large focus on artisanal beers and the ever-growing wine trend here in YYC, cocktails have become once again the “in” thing to drink. With a growing number of interesting products that are, almost daily, entering our market – one product that is catching eyes again is vermouth in all its forms.

Vermouth’s history can be traced back as far as 400 BC where, in Greece, a liquid concoction was derived from wormwood bark (the word Vermouth comes from the German-Wermut for wormwood). Evidence also exists of similar elixirs being produced in countries such as China (1250-1000 BC under the Shang/Western Zhou dynasties) and in India in 1500 BC.

But the commercial beginnings of what we now know as vermouth began in 16th century Europe, where evidence of production can be found in Germany and in particular, Italy. In Piedmont, a man by the name of D’Alessio was creating medicinal wines known locally as “wormwood wine”. Wormwood was known the world over for treating medical ailments, particularly those of the intestinal tract and stomach disorders. And just like cough medicine, it came in two very distinct flavour profiles: dry and bitter, or red and sweet. Guess which one was more popular…

The first modern version of the product was created in Turin, in 1757. Style-wise it was flavourful with a strong, herbaceous bite and slightly bitter quality, which consumers found pleasing. Soon to follow in 1786, was the successful launch of Antonio Benedetto Carpano’s sweet, luscious version that became uber-popular with the people at that time. Not to be outdone by the Italians, the French followed suit and between 1800-1813 Joseph Noilly perfected his recipe for the first truly successful pale dry vermouth, that is still followed today.

In the 19th century, when the art of the cocktail became all the rage, vermouth became the ideal component to mix other spirits with. In the 1860s, with the creation of the martini, it rose to fame, and perfected the Manhattan recipe in 1874. In 1869 it became world famous with the creation of two very important cocktails: the Negroni and the Vermouth Cocktail (chilled vermouth, twist of lemon and a maraschino cherry). Soon America caught on to the craze and vermouth cocktails were all the rage throughout the 1880s to early 1900s.

Vermouth can be found in a variety of styles: amber, white/bianco, rose and golden.

The base is always made from a neutral wine (from grapes such as trebbiano, clairette blanche, piquepoul, and catarratto) and is fortified with neutral grape spirit. Flavour components are macerated in the concoction and can include flowers, herbs, bark and spices; it depends on the recipe or manufacturer. The usual suspects that can often be found as ingredients in vermouth are clove, cinnamon, quinine, citrus peel, cardamom, marjoram, chamomile, coriander, juniper, hyssop, and ginger. Cane/caramel syrup can be added if sweet vermouth is the desired finished product.

Vermouth can also be coloured, and caramel is commonly used to tint the final product. When it is bottled it will be between 8-18% in alcohol. Lower alcohol vermouths are quite useful in bringing down the overall alcohol content of cocktails when mixed with stronger spirits, and also accenting the spirit’s core aromas and flavours.

Italians and the French make very distinctive styles of vermouth. Italian vermouth tends to red, mildly bitter and slightly sweeter styles. The French prefer vermouths pale, dry and usually more bitter on the palate than the Italian versions. The extra bitterness results from excess nutmeg and bitter orange peel used in the recipe. Classic brands that have domineered the stage are Cinzano (created in 1757), Martini & Rossi (1863) and Noilly Prat (1813).

There are two very recent arrivals on our market that have caught some attention. In 1891 a man by the name of Guilio Cocchi founded a vermouth company by the same name in the town of Asti, near Turin. He created his world famous versions Storico Vermouth and Cocchi Americano, based on the Moscato d’Asti wines. His Americano is regarded as the original. The recipe is still the same as it was in 1891 and features only natural ingredients from a secret recipe of herbs and spices, which we know at least include gentian, cinchona bark and bitter orange peels.

Enjoy both vermouths chilled over the rocks with a zest of lemon peel or with a light press of sparkling mineral water. Do it and enjoy it the way the Italians do, and have it as a classic aperitif at the end of the day.

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