Coming from the German word for wormwood, it comes as no surprise that the 15th century Prussian fortified wine once contained a slosh of absinth. “At first, vermouth was sought after for its medicinal properties,” explains Fabien Maillard, bartender at the Lab and vermouth connoisseur. What we drink today was concocted only later by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 18th century Turin. Unlike its predecessors, this iteration was produced using high-quality Muscat. Vermouth’s glory days weren’t until the end of the 19th century, first straight up, then as a cocktail darling. In the middle of the last century, there were over 400 Turinese varieties! The time to imbibe was aperitivo hour, and vermouth’s popularity simply skyrocketed, notably in aristocratic circles.
Wine or spirit?
Contrary to popular belief, vermouth isn’t a spirit—it’s fortified wine, just like Pineau des Charentes. “It’s a wine whose alcohol content has been boosted to the 16 to 18% mark using a neutral eau de vie,” explains Maillard. Most often a white, producers add mistelle to the mix (grape must, which fermentation blockage preserves natural sugars). Absinth is a necessary ingredient to any bottle bearing the vermouth moniker. Each house infuses the drink with its own selection of spices, aromatic herbs, roots, and plants to come up with a product that has distinct colour and flavour. Among the most popular vermouth aromatics: anise, chamomile, vanilla, cinnamon, angelica, cardamom, coriander, quinquina bark, nutmeg, lavender, and citrus peel.
Today’s biggest producers are France, Spain, and Italy, who still take the biggest piece of the proverbial vermouth pie. In the last decade, however, New World vermouths have started popping up in places like Australia and Canada. African vermouth is now a thing as well. Québec craft producers have also gotten in on the game, putting some high-quality specimens on offer themselves. Now you can go to an SAQ store, find local vermouth that uses very local ingredients and see for yourself how our part of the world is no doubt a cradle for fabulous craft products.
Straight up or cocktail-style
From very dry to super sugary, there’s a whole spectrum of vermouths, each expressing distinct character. White or red, sweet, semi-dry, dry, or extra-dry, you can drink it straight up or find its libational soulmate in a succulent cocktail.
Whether you take yours straight up or with a mixer, vermouth is without a doubt a home bar staple. If you choose to sip it solo, serve it quite chilled in an Old Fashioned glass brimming with ice cubes and topped with orange zest or lemon. The ice will lightly lower the sweetness of the beverage while adding to its freshness. Listen up, cocktail lovers: you can use vermouth to make all kinds of classics like Manhattans, Negronis and Martinis.
Cooking with vermouth
Mixologists are smitten with vermouth, but it’s also speaking to the hearts—and bellies—of traditional French chefs. In the kitchen, you can use the stuff not only for meat and game sauce, but also to elevate certain desserts—think sabayon. It’s a natural pairing for shellfish, foie gras, and charcuterie.
Whether you’re barside or ovenside, vermouth is generally meant to be enjoyed immediately. It’s kept at room temperature in the majority of bars and restaurants. “Since it’s a maderized wine, it can evolve over time. But at home, where vermouth tends to get less action, it’s recommended that you leave it in the fridge, shut tight, so you can prolong its shelf life and make serving it easy as pie,” concludes Maillard.