By North American standards, vermouth was once a stale, stinky wine collecting dust on the backbar waiting for some weirdo (probably European) to order a wet Martini. This wasn't actually that long ago. Many drinkers (myself included) claimed they hated vermouth without realizing they were most likely ruining drinks with oxidized bottles. Once the interest in classic drinks returned and brought with it the knowledge of product care and desire for those of higher quality, vermouth's reputation began to change. New vermouths were hitting the market and old ones became more available. Furthermore, similar products came into common use, such as Cocchi Americano, Lillet, and Byrrh, to name a few. Despite their much stronger presence today, they still seem to be enigmatic to some. Most drinkers can classify whiskeys, but can they classify vermouth, americano, and quinquina? Even experienced bartenders aren't making the distinction between different types of aromatized wines, so perhaps it's as good a time as any for a little history and classification.
Where did they come from?
The practice of aromatizing wine dates back to at least 400 BC in Greece, the purpose of which was both to mask poor-quality or spoiled wine and to create medicinal tonics, just as most spirits and liqueurs originate. Once distillation became commonplace after the 12th century, wines began to be fortified as well as aromatized - most notably in 16th century Germany, with usually a brandy being used to fortify and wormwood for aromatizing. This herb was believed to cure stomach and intestinal disorders and parasites, and the drink began to include many other herbs and spices and became a cure-all, much like bitters. These "wormwood wines," or "wermut" in German, became popular in England over the next hundred years, and the name became Anglicized to "vermouth." Italy and later France took the reins on vermouth production, but by the late 1800's it was not the popular drink it once was - particularly in a medicinal sense thanks to the popularity of bitters. It was around this time that vermouth found its way into early cocktails via two of the most famous mixed drinks known to man: the Manhattan and the Martini.
What about these other kinds of aromatized wines? Wormwood was not the only medicinal herb being infused into wine. Quinine (via South American cinchona bark) and gentian root were also common, along with different combinations of popular ingredients, like cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, coriander, chamomile, and vanilla. So is a vermouth, or "wormwood wine," still a vermouth if it doesn't contain wormwood? Technically, no. Here's where it gets tricky: when absinthe was banned in the early 20th century thanks to the reputation of wormwood, many vermouth producers stopped using the herb as well. This irreparably confused aromatized wine classification for years to come as many of the vermouths we knew and loved didn't contain their title ingredient anymore. Now that the age of anti-absinthe propaganda has passed, wormwood has become common in bartending, but there are still numerous vermouths that use little or none of the herb in maceration. It doesn't help that there are no legal requirements for aromatized wine production, so anything can be added or omitted. This leaves us with history to aid in classification by looking at what the products originally contained in the cases where the recipes have been changed.
How are they made?
"Aromatized" wines are macerated with botanicals to impart both flavour and colour. Depending on the type of botanicals used, these wines are separated into basic categories: quinquinas, americanos, barolo chinatos, vino amari, and vermouths. Fortification is also an important part of this process, meaning that a spirit (usually brandy) is added to the wine at some point during the production process. This will increase alcohol content, and depending on the stage at which the wine is fortified, will also increase sugar content. Wines that are fortified but not aromatized include sherry, port, and madeira. Typically vermouths, americanos, and and quinquinas begin as a white wine or a mistelle, which is when a spirit is added to crushed grapes to produce alcohol rather than using strictly fermentation. These wines are then macerated with botanicals, and in the case of darker coloured aperitifs (such as sweet vermouth) usually coloured with caramel.
How each of these categories are differentiated is mainly by specific botanicals used for maceration. For example, vermouth used wormwood, quinquina used quinine from cinchona bark, and americano (named from “amer,” meaning bitter) used gentian and often wormwood as well.
Pictured is a chart of the basic types of aromatized wines, including their traditional specifications.
Because of the lack of clarification, some products end up in a sort of limbo between definitions. Lillet is an excellent example. Many bartenders call it a vermouth, but because it does not contain wormwood, it is not a vermouth by traditional definition. More importantly, Lillet is not aromatized, but rather a Bordeaux wine blend (85%) fortified with citrus liqueurs (15%), which themselves have been aromatized. This technically makes Lillet a fortified wine but not an aromatized one. Lillet was originally called Kina Lillet until the recipe was changed in 1987, and did actually contain quinine, so originally Lillet would be considered a quinquina. Today's recipe claims to still contain quinine, but this is neither confirmed nor evident. Cocchi Americano, which is supposedly a good approximation of Kina Lillet, contains gentian as a major component so is considered an americano (hence the name).
Things are for the most part confusing, so while it is important to know the history and general distinctions between these types of wines, the most important factor is taste. Each of these products has their own place and use and should not always be used interchangeably. Most importantly of all, they are wines and need to be treated as such. They will go off over the course of a few days to a few weeks depending on the product, and should be kept in the fridge if stored.
Next post I will delve deeper into vermouth with more specific history and geography of the major brands.
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