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Guest Post: On Vermouth, by Molly Wellman

If you’ve spent any time around the city, you’ve probably encounted Molly Wellman, or one of her cocktails.  You may have seen her at Chalk or Lavomatic, or at special events at the CAC or Fountain Square.  She’s now doing regular guest stints at bars and events around the city, including regular gigs at Mainstay, Virgil’s and Maribelle’s, and cocktail dinners with Josh Campbell from Mayberry.

Molly and I have spent a LOT of time talking about vermouth, in her (and my) opinion, the most misunderstood bar ingredient in America (and certainly in Cincinnati).  She’s been promising to write for me for a while, and she finally did– so enjoy (and buy a couple of bottles of vermouth, willya?). This originally appeared on Facebook, and she gave me permission to edit it and post it on wine me, dine me.

Cincinnati, meet Vermouth.  Vermouth, meet Cincinnati.

Marie Curie once said, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” The same goes for vermouth.
You’ve all seen vermouth in the speed well of a bar. You might even have a bottle at your home bar. Vermouth is treated like a the unwanted stepdaughter behind the bar . It’s kind of scary to some bartenders: they know that it goes in a Manhattan and some folks will ask for a splash in thier martinis. Well, the mystery is over folks! I’m going to tell you what it is andI want you to go and educate you favorite bartender, have them open a new, fresh bottle of vermouth and make you a Manhattan the way it should be!

What is vermouth?  Vermouth is a wine that is fortfied, usually, with an unaged brandy and flavored with aromatic herbs and spices.  There are several different types, ranging from the dry vermouth used in the martini, to the very sweet vermouth usually enjoyed as an aperitif.  Originally, dry vermouth was referred to as French vermouth, and sweet as Italian vermouth, based on their country of origin.  Sweet red vermouth is drunk as an apéritif, often straight up, as well as in mixed drinks like the Manhattan. Dry white vermouth, along with gin, is a key ingredient in the mixing of martinis. Modern, commercially produced vermouths are typically made with a neutral white wine base.  Sweet vermouth takes its darker color from caramelized sugar, whereas Dry vermouth has a different botanical make-up and lower sugar content. Vermouth– or something very much like it– dates back nearly to the threshold of history itself.  Early Mediterranean cultures are known to have improved the flavor of their date and grape wines with honey, resins, and a host of herbs and spices included pepper, cinnamon and ginger. One of the most popular classic botanical additives was wormwood , a herb related to tarragon and sagebrush and prized in many cultures for its curative powers as well as its ability to stimulate appetite and aid digestion.  Because wormwood was an important ingredient, the beverage became known as wermut- from the German word for the herb. Soon it was called vermout; and eventually, somewhere along the line, the h was tacked on to the end.Vermouth’s commercial origins date to 1786, when Antonio Benedetto Carpano began marketing the aromatized wine he produced in Turin.By the late 17th century, homemade vermouths were commonly made in the Piedmont region of Italy. In the decades following Carpano’s commercial debut, other vermouth makers began production in Turin: The Cinzano family opened their facility in 1816. Martini & Rossi, now the largest manufacturer of vermouth, started production in 1863. The earliest vermouths were all sweet and it was not until French herbalist Joseph Noilly in 1813 based on the delicate, dry white wines and local plants native to his home in Southern France. In 1855, his son Louis partnered with brother-in-law Claudius Prat to form Noilly Prat, which remains an industry-leading brand of dry vermouth today.

Vermouth will go bad. It will start to get musty smelling. This is most likly why it has fallen out of favor. Vermouth should be used within 6-8 months of bottling or it begins to go off. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and away from light. Even when stored properly, it oxidizes like any other wine, so it is advisable to finish the bottle within a month or two after opening.

Some tips:

  • Buy smaller, 375ml bottles of vermouth.
  • Keep it in the fridge after opening. Estimates vary, but an open bottle of vermouth should stay fresh for at least two months refrigerated.
  • Try vermouth. There’s a reason a martini has lasted a century or so. It makes a difference.

Vermouth Cocktail
Makes 1 cocktail
1½ ounces dry vermouth

½ ounce maraschino liqueur

½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

a dash orange bitters

1 twist of lemon for garnish

Add all ingredients except the twist of lemon to a cocktail shaker, shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the twist of lemon.