A Short History Of Vermouth
Vermouth is myth-making, the bottling of Italian drinking history. A symbol of the Belle Époque, when it was exported and imitated all over the world, it is going through a similar renaissance today. However, this is not the Vermouth of any place, but of Turin, the city where it all began.
2017 will be remembered as an important year for Piedmontese vermouth. In April, production protection for Vermouth di Torino was granted, which has strict quality criteria and provides a platform to create a lot of value for a liquor that has come to define this region. Created in the capital of the 18th-century Savoy rule, it showcased the nobility and elegance of the area, and quickly became popular all over the world.
The Vermouth di Torino is the starting (and restarting) place of some of the most celebrated fortified wines in the world, used as the base for countless cocktails, highly appreciated on the rocks, a symbol of Italian drinks and a throwback to the carefree and trendy spirit of the Belle Époque.
THE “VERMOUTH DI TORINO”
Vermouth di Torino must be produced in Piedmont with at least 75% of the ingredients coming from Italy. There is no preference in vines, and so can be made from either white or red grape must. If a specific vine will exceed 20% of the total vines used, it can be indicated on the label. Many producers will finally be able to indicate Moscato or Cortese on their labels, which until 2017 was illegal. The Artemisia absinthium (wormwood), must be sourced in Piedmont must be present in 0.5g/l, making Vermouth di Torino more bitter than international styles. The protection stipulates that the minimum alcohol content is 16 %, and 17% for the Superiore version if the vines all come from Piedmont.
A “DROP” OF HISTORY
In ancient times, in some areas of Piedmont, vermouth was produced in the winter, in medium-sized barrels that were exposed to the cold, so that the infusion between wine and herbs was slow. They mixed wine, alcohol and various herbs following a secret recipe handed down in the family. The fortification by alcohol was necessary because the white wine they used did not have high alcohol levels, though it became a less frequent practice when wines from Southern Italy were used more often as the base. In Piedmont, wine from Muscat and Cortese grapes was mainly used, to which local herbs such as artemisia, yarrow, chamomile, hyssop, savory, marjoram, sage, sclarea, elderberry, thyme and exotic spices, such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, vanilla, saffron were added.
THE PHARMACISTS’ WINE
The fame of Vermouth is inextricably linked to Piedmont and to Turin in particular, where, at the end of the 1700s, the preparation of this flavored wine was an art. It was made especially by pharmacists, who used their pharmacological knowledge for create aromatized extracts and elixirs, sold as panaceas of all evils. In the mid-1800s, the first wave of industrialization also included Vermouth, which began to be produced in large quantities. The ancient recipes of the “pharmacists” became the basis for producing the aperitif on a large-scale. At the turn of the new century, Vermouth became the fashionable thing to drink in Turin and then all of Ital. It was thanks to the Savoy family that the Vermouth was exported over the border to France, arousing immediate success and infinite imitations. In France it was turned from Vermut to Vermouth and, with this name, acquired renown almost everywhere. In the United States, where blending drinks was becoming increasingly more popular, Vermouth became one of the main ingredients of many cocktails. The success led to an uncontrolled birth of bitter wines with infusion of herbs and spices.
THE (ALMOST) DISAPPEARED
After the boom in Vermouth at the beginning of the 20th century, production slowed down in the post-war period. In recent years, a few big producers have closed their doors, and others have decided to renounce the name Vermouth in favor of more sugary and “easy” products. Market research was about a gradual decline in high-level alcohol consumption and consumer preference for lighter and softer drinking. Vermouth became (almost) a memory, but has been making a comeback in vintage bars, Vermouth passionates and cocktail lovers around the world.
THE VINTAGE REVIVAL
Vermouth came back to its former glory in the early 2000s, when vintage looks were trending and people were on the search for the rare and authentic. It was no longer a mass-market product, but rather a handful of artisan producers making flavoured wines from ancient recipes and techniques that showcase the flavours of the original vines. Vermouth was once again the symbol of Italian cocktails, reclaiming its throne at bars as it once did in the 20th– century. It was this return to the basics that caught the attention of many American mixologists, leading them to the origins of many cocktails and reclaiming the greatness of Vermouth. It is of no coincidence that a dozen or so new brands have bubbled up in the last five years, and that many historical wineries are reclaiming old family recipes. Vermouth was born as a homemade wine to be drunk on special occasions with family and friends. Today, it is more refined and elegant, showcasing Italian style: a synthesis of tradition and innovation.
Vermouth or vermut derives from the German term “wermut” which is used to define its main flavoring the Arthemisia Absinthum, commonly called wormwood. Americans, on the other hand, seems to go back to the Italianization of the Piedmontese term vin amaricà which means “wine made bitter”.