I promised this when I wrote about Cinzanos, and I’ve been doing some…ahh…on the job research, as one might say.
The reason I’m even talking about vermouth is that it is said that the Italians invented the drink, although I have to say that I’m a bit suspicious of that claim. Why? Because the word “vermouth” is derivative of the German word “wermut”, their word for “wormwood”. Why Wormwood? Because it was the flavoring ingredient infused into the white wine. Even wikipedia agrees with me, stating that it was named by the French, based off “a German wine fortified with wormwood, a herb most famously used in distilling absinthe.”
It should be noted that the word “wermut” is also the German word for vermouth. So it’s best to say that vermouth is a drink invented by the Germans, named by the French, and made popular by the Italians. Whether it’s true or not is easily disputed with anecdotes, but hard to disprove with evidence.
For those new to the game, Vermouth is an aromatized wine, created at some point in the 1700’s. “Aromatised” means that various additives, such as herbs, flowers and other botanicals, are macerated into the wine to add to the flavor. Theses additives were most likely used to mask the flavors of cheap wine. These additives imparted a slightly medicinal flavor, which helped popularize the drink. It was not only popular as a dessert wine, but also as a medicinal wine, being used in place to dirty water.
There is no one specific recipe for vermouth, so various companies can make different kinds of vermouth. So you’ll have drier vermouths in Italy and sweeter vermouths from France. It should be noted that there are far more varieties of vermouth available in Italy and France than they export to other areas of the world. Much like other agricultural products, they are highly controlled by various boards and such. The brands that are exported are the ones that tend to be highly recognized throughout the world, including the aforementioned Cinzano as well as Martini and Rossi. Both companies have ties to the Piemonte region of Italy, which explains why I’m talking about them here.
The one thing I’ve learned about Vermouth is that it’s not just a mixer, and wasn’t even designed to be a mixer. I highly recommend trying vermouth by itself.