Often it’s the lesser known ingredients that make the most difference in a cocktail’s quality. Particularly in classic cocktails, it’s these unsung heroes that take a drink from good to great.
Welcome to another multi-part series focusing on some of the culinary world’s more fringe topics. Esoteric? Perhaps. Thoroughly rewarding? Absolutely. The topic? Vermouths: that too-little-known — and often misunderstood — gem of a drink.
This week: vermouth’s background and origination.
Ubiquitous in the cocktail world, vermouths are essential in many of the classics, from the martini to the negroni to the Manhattan. And while potentially apocryphal stories persist, with Winston Churchill famously nodding to the unopened vermouth bottle during his martini preparation, the historic origins of the drink tell a different story.
In 2015 Megy Karydes of Forbes interviewed Adam Ford, founder of Atsby New York Vermouth, regarding his authorship of a work devoted to vermouth. “The original recipe for the martini actually called for two parts (sweet) vermouth, and only one part gin,” explained Ford. “That sort of ratio made sense during the late 1800s because the quality of the vermouths being produced back then were of such high quality.” Italians of the 19th century most commonly enjoyed these fine vermouths chilled, mixed only with a dash or so of bitters. But here we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The year was 1786, and vermouth had just been born. While experts like Ford can tell you that nearly every people group has been infusing wine with aromatics “since at least 6500 B.C.,” vermouth as we today know it is the product of a cultured Pietmontese named Antonio Benedetto Carpano, a wine shop owner in Turin, Italy.
Carpano was a gentleman “well read in the latest French literature, and a keen student of the new natural sciences of his time,” states a 1970s document published by one of the industry’s leading producers of vermouth, appropriately named after its forefather, Carpano himself.
This cultured proprietor undertook a years-long experimentation with untold number of herbs and spices in an effort to create a more “refined drink.” This endeavor is said to have been galvanized by Carpano’s concern for the palates of Italian ladies. Carpano fully appreciated his region’s local wines (Piedmont is home of Barolo and Barbaresco wines), yet “he doubted if the natural product with its overtone of earth and cellar was quite suitable to the delicate palates of the ladies,” continues the company document.
Misogyny aside — and while we must consider the historical cultural realities of 19th century milieu — Signore Carpano single handedly birthed a new “noble wine … with a distinct bouquet and fine palate, discreetly fortified.” It is advertised to have brought “a warm glow and a sense of well-being to those who drank it.” Sounds lovely, no?
Paolo Monelli, the 19th century Italian journalist and author of “Il vero bevitore,” (“The Real Drinker”) wrote of Carpano: “I can visualize the inventor (of vermouth), a man of considerable culture — with just a touch of the pedant about him. A voracious reader … he baptizes the new product with the foreign name of ‘vermouth’ or ‘absinthe’ in German.”
This fortified wine is more specifically classified as aperitif, from the Latin “aperire,” meaning “to open.” Harnessing the medicinal properties of infused aromatics, aperitifs open, or awaken, your appetite. Buon appetito! Vermouths’ bitterness and sweetness tango a perfect balance that either prepares you for the meal, aids in post-meal digestion, or even alone makes a fine drink for both the ladies and the gentlemen.
Check back for the next segment exploring vermouths worth drinking.