What is Vermouth?
Vermouth is a fortified wine that has been flavoured with a variety of herbs, botanicals, and spices, often including wormwood. The wine spiked with distilled alcohol to boost the ABV. The name Vermouth comes from the German word ‘Wermut’ meaning wormwood.
For decades, Wormwood has been used as a medicinal herb. It was believed that an imbalance of the body’s four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm could be balanced with medicine. Wormwood was taken to refill the ‘yellow bile’ or ‘choleric’ humor that regulates traits such as ambition, leadership, restlessness, and irritability.
The core of the manufacturing of wormwood in the 1500s was Turin (Torino) and wines were frequently flavoured, not only with wormwood (which has a different herbal/flowering flavour) but with other forged herbs. At this stage, however, Vermouth was an unusual name for a drink, and there were no significant brands.
The creator of Vermouth – Carpano
In the late 1700s, a gentleman by the name of Luigi Marendazzo started a distillery and bar offering aromatized wines. His assistant who eventual became his successor – Antonio Benedetto Carpano concocted a new blend in 1786, which he called vermouth.
Made with white wine (with Moscato grapes) and a blend of 30 or more botanicals, the bar, and the Vermouth was extremely popular with women.
Giuseppe Bernardino Carpano, Carpano’s nephew when inherited the bar, he officially branded the beverage and the bar, which was located in the Piazza Castello. Soon it became a famous meeting point for both artists and politicians but sadly, the Piazza Castello was destroyed during World War II in 1943. However, even today the brand, Carpano still exists.
How is Vermouth Made?
Essentially, the vermouth must be 75% wine usually made from white grapes and the remaining part is a blend of sugar (or mistelle: grape juice plus alcohol), botanicals and alcohol. The blending of botanicals and the choice of wines varies according to the precise (and carefully protected) recipe of the producer.
Today’s top brands of Vermouth, such as Martini and Rossi or Dolin, were originally developed in the 1800s and their recipes are protected much like the recipe for Coca-Cola (which, by the way, is essentially a non-alcoholic derivative of Vermouth).
Basically, you take the wine, add the sugar or the mistelle (which is created by adding alcohol to the fresh grape juice), add the botanical distillate mixture, and then add the alcohol to bring the concoction to the accurate ABV. Vermouth varies from about 16–22 percent of ABV, with the majority between 18–20 percent of ABV.
Botanicals in Vermouth
The defining mechanism of vermouth is a botanical mix. All vermouths comprise of artemisia (bitter plant or root) which gives vermouth its intrinsic bitter taste. Botanicals are obtained either by maceration (by placing them in alcohol and water) or by distillation (distilling alcohol through a basket of herbs). Producers often use tons of components to make vermouth, and often quote it on labels such as: ‘a mixture of 30 botanicals.’