Reclaiming Vermouth’s Place on our Palate
My first nip of vermouth came out of a dusty green bottle as sort of a dare. It stung my palate like sour vinegar, and I swore someone had fooled me with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and gasoline. They hadn’t. Of course, I’d find myself a decade later again with a nose full of vermouth—this time at a respectable tasting—except now there were flowers and berries dancing in my nostrils. There was the brightness of a crisp rosé on my tongue. “I could sip this all day!” I declared. It was vermouth. And, to my surprise, it was delightful.
Largely misunderstood, vermouth is actually wine traditionally infused with wormwood, the bitter plant known for its medicinal properties. Ayurvedic texts from 1500 BC refer to wormwood-infused wine, and Hippocrates prescribed the maceration to cure all kinds of gastric ailments. Revered for centuries throughout most of Europe as a favorite aperitif, many Americans still have an aversion to it.
“When I do tastings, people ask, ‘why would I drink that on its own?,’” says Chiyo Takemoto, CEO/founder of Coquetel Spirits Co. “Vermouth was created to be enjoyed on its own; historically it wasn’t really mixed.”
That is, until vermouth (especially the sweet, red variety) was embraced by Americans via the Italian immigrant population in the 19th century. Ever the innovators, we created the Manhattan because, let’s face it, no one really wanted to drink that terrible Prohibition-era whiskey on its own.
Stored and refrigerated properly, there are some fabulous European vermouths, but we won’t even mix them into our martinis anymore because the bar’s vermouth is almost always terrible. Would you open a bottle of Chardonnay and then sip on it after its been sitting on your back shelf for two years?
Fortunately, several American distillers have created vermouths that exceed anything we ever thought vermouth could be. BroVo Spirits, for example, makes each of its vermouth varieties from a base of single varietal wines. It’s then fortified with a little high-proof spirit and aromatized in the tradition done for centuries, with different herbs, roots and botanicals.
“What Mhairi [Voelsgen, CEO of BroVo Spirits] does is really celebrate the wine base,” explains Takemoto. “Since they are using high-quality wines, they really want to be thoughtful about what they’re aromatizing it with, so they’re choosing things that would pair nicely with the actual wine.” BroVo collaborates with bartenders to create their vermouths, which means they also ensure that their creation has enough depth of flavor to be versatile in countless applications.
One of Takemoto’s favorite ways to introduce newcomers to vermouth is by offering flights to highlight its variance based on regionality and terroir. “Most consumers only know sweet or dry,” she says, “so they’re like, ‘wow!’ It gives people a chance to think about vermouth in a way they think of wine.”