Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com
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Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

“Will you have whiskey in your water or sugar with your tea? What are these crazy questions that they are asking of me?”

For some reason the lyrics to that Randy Newman ditty, which was a hit for Three Dog Night two or three generations ago, comes to mind when I think of Vermouth. Maybe it’s because Vermouth seems to be that extra little thing that goes into a Martini. Crazy, I know.

My friend Laura Werlin, who is the globe’s authority on artisanal American cheese (she knows a lot about cheese from other places as well, including the moon), recently queried me on what Vermouth is and what it does for a Martini. As Laura is both wonderful and inquisitive, I thought I’d look into and share, with both you and her, what I discovered.

First, what is Vermouth? Perhaps you have heard of, or tasted Cinzano or Martini and Rossi in a European cafe with a splash of sparkling water and a twist of lemon. If so, then you have had Vermouth.

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Vermouth is made from wine, usually neutral in flavor and light in body, that has been infused or flavored with the taste and scent of herbs and spices and bark. The word used by those who make the stuff to describe the infusion is “aromatized.” The spices may include cinnamon, cardamom, marjoram and chamomile and many concoctions are trade secrets.

Once the wine has been aromatized, Vermouth gets a jolt of a fortifying neutral brandy, a spirit that is distilled from fermented grapes. As a rule (one made to be broken by today’s innovators and pioneers) there are three styles of Vermouth: extra dry with very little sugar, white/sweet and red/sweet. The sweet Vermouth, especially those made with red wine, are generally, though not always, Italian with Martini and Rossi being the top selling Vermouth in the world. The French are known for dry Vermouth with Noilly Prat founded in 1813 being the most famous.

The sweet and red, or rose, Vermouths are popular straight-up or on the rocks with mixers, as aperitifs in Europe. Dry Vermouth doubles as white wine in cooking, as it is stable and has a long shelf-life thanks to the fortification. It is also the Vermouth used in the Martini.

In its earliest incarnations in Italy in the 1700s, the bark of the wormwood plant was frequently used in the mixture. Wormwood is spelled “Wermuth” in German and it assumed that the name Vermouth is a derivation of such. Wormwood is also a key ingredient in Absinthe, the notorious green liquor that was banned in the United States in 1912 before making a recent comeback.

In the late 1800s, the first golden age of cocktails, Vermouth was not just a popular ingredient, it dominated recipes. As time has gone by however, the amount of Vermouth used in drinks has decreased dramatically. My “Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender’s Guide,” the 43rd printing, circa 1968, of the original printed in 1935, states the following:

“The original Martini recipe called for one-half dry Gin and one half dry Vermouth. This proportion began to change in the early 1940s to two or three parts dry Gin to one part dry Vermouth. Today, popular proportions for an extra-dry Martini range from a 5-1 to an 8-1 ratio. The greater the proportion of Gin to Vermouth the ‘drier’ the Martini.”

So what does a dose of Vermouth add to a Martini? Well for one thing it cuts the alcohol content of the Gin or Vodka. (Yes, I know there are those who say that Gin is the only true Martini but, in fairness, as many if not more Martinis are ordered with Vodka these days). If one is drinking an 80 Proof Gin or Vodka and adds a 3-1 ratio of 36 Proof, dry Vermouth, the drink drops to 69 Proof. The less Vermouth used the higher the alcohol content remains.

Secondly, there are those who like the aromatic, spicy, botanical flavor of Vermouth in their drinks. Martinis, Negronis, Manhattans all get a boost from a shot of sweet or dry Vermouth. As we see the continued growth of cocktail culture in this country and an appreciation for all things old, I predict Vermouth will make something of a comeback.

I’ll look forward to sharing a Martini with a 3-1 Gin to Vermouth ratio with my friend Laura.

Preferably with Randy Newman crooning in the background.


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