Versatile Vermouth

Fortifying wine with herbs, spices and roots has been popular for thousands of years, although originally the practice had more to do with covering up flaws than anything else.Vermouth - Dolin - Carpano Antica - Dubonnet A key ingredient in early infusions was wormwood, believed to be beneficial in treating stomach disorders. The drink became known by the German word wermut, which eventually morphed into vermouth.
   In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano invented modern sweet vermouth in Turin, Italy, using an infusion of 30 different herbs. It quickly became popular with the ladies, who viewed it as a welcome alternative to the coarse red wine of the period. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Joseph Noilly first concocted dry vermouth. Both versions were widely consumed throughout the century as an aperitif by those who thought the drink had curative powers, and by consumers who figured that a glass or two might be a preemptive strike against disease.
   With the advent of the cocktail toward the end of the nineteenth cenury, bartenders discovered the versatility of vermouth in mixing with spirits of all sorts. It played a much more central role in cocktails than it does today—curiously, vermouth was the foundation of the drink back then, and the spirit was the accent, rather than the other Dry martini is nothing without Vermouthway around. Early martinis were composed primarily of dry vermouth, with a small amount of gin added for structure as well as flavor. Similarly, a Manhattan consisted of some whiskey added to a base of sweet vermouth.
   While technology and mass production have improved the quality of many products, this hasn’t been the case with vermouth. The most popular modern brands are almost caricatures of themselves—reds that are cloyingly sweet and whites that are mouth-puckeringly tart. By contrast, try Noilly Prat, the current version of the wine originally made by Joseph Noilly in 1813 and sometimes referred to as “the Rolls-Royce of vermouth.” The crisp, dry white derives its complexity from extended aging in oak barrels, while the red is augmented with 20 different botanicals.
   Two of the most famous vermouths are technically not vermouths at all. Dubonnet, a sweet aperitif containing quinine, was first made in 1846. It was actually an entry in a contest run by the French government, which was trying to come up with a concoction that would get Foreign Legionnaires in North Africa to consume quinine for combating malaria. It reached its apex of popularity in the 1970s as a result of an ad campaign featuring actress Pia Zadora. Lillet is a blend of Bordeaux grape varieties and macerated fruit peels. It achieved its 15 minutes of fame in the James Bond Lillet Reserve vermouth and the classic cocktail, Vespernovels and films, as it formed part of the classic martini ordered by the secret agent. Whether a legitimate vermouth or not, the white Lillet is probably one of the greatest aperitifs of all time.
   The rise of the cocktail culture has revived two of the world’s great vermouths. Dolin, from Chambéry in the French Alps, is distinctly drier, more delicate and more floral than many of the mass-market brands. The king of all sweet vermouths is Carpano Antica, supposedly made according to Antonio Benedetto Carpano’s original formula. While it’s not cheap—a bottle costs $35, compared to $18 for Dolin and $12 for Martini & Rossi—it has a richness, complexity and nuanced flavor that must be tasted to be believed.

A vermouth classic, the Manhattan

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