“The World’s Greatest Aperitif”: Why This Wine Is An Essential In Every Bar
Vermouth is a vital element in classic cocktails like the martini and negroni, but in recent years it’s stepped out of the shadow and gone from support act to leading light.
Here’s everything you need to know about “the world’s greatest aperitif”.
So, what is vermouth?
Vermouth is an aromatised wine, which is essentially a fortified wine to which botanicals have been added. It developed as a style in the 17th Century and takes its name from one of the essential ingredients: bitter wormwood (the same plant used in absinthe).
Other flavouring agents have traditionally included a range of roots, leaves, barks and herbs, and ingredients like cinnamon, chamomile, cinchona, gentian and nutmeg are still common.
The result is a bittersweet, highly aromatic drink that’s often used to adjust flavour profiles in cocktails. This makes it an asset for bartenders, but the bitterness also has a useful side effect: it increases the drinkers’ metabolism (and hence, the speed of digestion).
This is what makes it an excellent aperitif or digestif, and the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (the “father of medicine”) prescribed his patients wine infused with wormwood and other herbs almost 2,500 years ago.
Along with reputed health benefits, early vermouth was also a way to hide the defects in oxidised (or just plain bad) wine, and large amounts of sugar were often added into the mix. But as tastes have evolved it has become a more refined drink using high quality wine as a base, and modern producers craft elegant vermouths that often have little or no sugar added.
Is vermouth sweet or dry?
Shaun Byrne literally wrote the book on vermouth. While working as a bartender at Melbourne’s Gin Palace, he began making vermouth under the Maidenii label with winemaker Gilles Lapalus in 2011. After releasing a range of award-winning drinks, the pair collaborated on The Book Of Vermouth, a toast to “the world’s greatest aperitif”.
He says one of vermouth’s greatest assets is its versatility. Vermouth is divided into sweet and dry categories that were traditionally made from red and white wine bases respectively.
Today it’s common to use white wines for sweet vermouths and there are multiple expressions across the spectrum including rosé vermouths that make their own rules. Byrne suggests dry for a pre-dinner drink, and sweet “with dessert or for sipping on afterwards”.
When it comes to cocktails, it’s important to know what you’re working with. Maidenii vermouths use 34 carefully balanced botanicals and the dry is literally made with a martini in mind while the sweet makes a perfectly balanced negroni. Other cocktails also demand a specific type: Manhattans need sweet vermouth while gibsons needs dry and a Bronx uses both.
How to drink vermouth
In Europe, vermouth is commonly enjoyed on its own and dedicated vermuterias have become increasingly popular in Barcelona, London and even Moscow. In Australia, though, it’s still largely used in negronis, martinis and spritzes. “I would estimate 80 per cent of vermouth in Australia in drunk in cocktails,” Byrne says, “whereas in Europe it’s probably 80 per cent consumed by itself.”
That’s slowly changing, led in part by labels like Regal Rogue. Founder Mark Ward has seen steady growth in the market since launching eight years ago, and while he’s happy to see it used in cocktails, his label “is all about bringing back the idea of just drinking vermouth over ice or with a mixer. That’s been our proposition since day one”.
Ward has also noticed a big increase in “reverse” cocktails over the last few years, where bartenders change the ratios so that drinks are more vermouth-led. As well as emphasising the aromatic botanicals, this lowers the alcohol content significantly as most vermouths sit between 13-22 per cent ABV.
Ward also tries to work with the flavour of his organic base wine rather than overpowering it so his four vermouths have around 50 per cent less sugar than comparable European brands (the Daring Dry has just 25 grams of sugar per litre).
Both Maidenii and Regal Rogue are among the 38 types of vermouth served at Sydney’s Banksii Vermouth Bar & Bistro, Australia’s only venue dedicated to the beverage. The Barangaroo venue’s aperitif list was named best in Australia by Gourmet Traveller last year and while it offers a range of cocktails and mixed drinks, sommelier and owner Rebecca Lines says most diners simply order their vermouth on ice to let the flavours shine.
“I see whole tables enjoying rounds of vermouth so they can try different types,” she says. But when it comes to cocktails her advice is to be as careful in selecting the spirit as the vermouth.
“It’s about balancing the vermouth with the other ingredients and I think that’s where some people get it wrong. With a martini, it’s important to look at whether the vermouth works with the gin and the same with a negroni.”
Because vermouth uses a wine base and sits at considerably lower alcohol than spirits, it needs to be refrigerated once opened. That means it’s often sitting in the fridge rather than displayed in the drinks cabinet but Ward is emphatic when asked if a bar is complete without vermouth. “Definitely not,” he says. “It is a bar staple for more than mixing reasons now.”
(Lead image: Maidenii & Regal Rogue / supplied)
Published 12 February, 2020