You wouldn't trust a skinny chef, and I'm drunk as hell

What to drink? Vermouth Pt. 1

All about Vermouth

Vermouth is a strange entity, feared by most, relegated to meager dashes or discarded washes in uber dry cocktails of the martini era. It is only very recently with the renaissance of the well crafted cocktail that we begin to see vermouth being used in large amounts again. But it has been used in other parts of the world for years! But where did it all start, and how can we use it today.

This post focuses primarily on the history, to skip to the 2nd part focusing more on the definition, modern times and modern applications, click the link Here

The name vermouth originates from the german word ‘wermut’ meaning wormwood, and the 1806 Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines vermouth as “White wine flavoured with wormwood or other aromatic herbs and taken to stimulate the appetite”

Wormwood is an intensely bitter herb containing a chemical called thujone, that has become famous for being a component of absinthe, something that shares similar properties with vermouth, that we’ll cover in a future What to drink. A large difference between vermouth and absinthe is that vermouth uses wormwood LEAF (seen below) and absinthe uses wormwood ROOT. Anyway, the origins of vermouth can be traced back many centuries.

The mathematical genius Pythagorus started a school before he died sometime around 500 BC, leaving it with his wife, Theano. She is said to have recommended Wormwood soaked in wine to women in labour.

Hippocrates, arguably the father of all modern medicine, invented a digestif wine to help gastric problems by macerating various ingredients and wormwood in wine which reportedly eased pain and dulled the senses.

The romans then took it under their wing, naming it absintheum (I should explain at this point that the latin for wormwood is artemisia absintheum) which would be given to colliseum victors to remind them that even victory has a bitter side.

Then, there is almost no record of vermouth until the 14th/15th/16th century, where it appears to be a standard wealthy man’s cure for various ailments. It is not until the 17th century that we begin to start seeing recipes for ‘wormwood wine’ emerging that may suggest that it was for drinking for pleasure rather than medicine “being well brewed together will make a wormwood wine exceeding any that you shall meet withal in the Rhenish wine houses” The art of Distillation 1651

It is likely that making wormwood wine was a relatively artisan craft among families in Italy for many years but we don’t get to see the first commercial production until 1786 when Antonio Benedetto Carpano created a drink called “vermuth.” Described as a “luxury wine” his vermuth used local recipes to make an aromatized wine with many other herbs as well as wormwood. This was served at Carpano’s own bar, opened by a man named Marendazzo.

By 1816 a new family established a commercial production from Turin in Italy, the Cinzano family. Just as Cinzano was inspired by Carpano, the movement of vermuth through Europe was to inspire a french man, Joseph Noilly.

Joseph Noilly prefered wine that had been transported on the bridge of a ship where it was exposed to the sea air and the sun, and he set about trying to artificially reproduce this effect, and joined by his son-in-law Claudius Prat, from a complete break from the norm, aged the barrels of vermouth in the outside sea air for a whole year (8 months underground first, most other vermouths were all underground) and thus, Noilly Prat was born.

In 1832, Gasparo Campari started his apprenticeship as a maitre liquoriste (We’ll cover what he went on to do on a future What to drink.) When he completed his apprenticeship, he hired an apprentice, Alessandro Martini. By 1863, Alessandro met Luigi Rossi and started arguably the first major international brand of vermouth, Martini & Rossi which over the next century was to become the behemoth of the vermouth trade.

By 1870, the story goes that a group of stockbrokers and speculators met up in Carpano’s bar, one of which ordered his favourite mixture of vermouth and quinine, which ordered in the pietmontese dialect was “punt e mes” or one and a half. The mixture and its name become so popular that it was eventually produced and bottled by Carpano, as Carpano Punt e Mes.

By the late 1800s, vermouth started to be exported in large amounts to america, and the use of vermouth in cocktails was born! The first instance of vermouth being used in a cocktail was in the 1869 steward and barkeeper manual.

By the end of the war the martini craze had truly taken hold, being consumed by hollywood stars, and every day cocktail parties alike.

This brings us to the end of part 1, in part 2 we will talk more about vermouths part in the cocktail, and some modern uses. See that Here

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