IIt was only a matter of time before vermouth became fashionable again. Half a century has passed since its last heyday, a time when the great Italian brands, Martini and Cinzano, were an essential part of a certain vision of jet-set sophistication. That’s plenty of time for the fashion cycle to complete its 360-degree rotation through naff and kitsch to ironic retro and heartfelt rediscovery.
It’s not just a question of image. The characteristics of vermouth are adapted to its time. If a drink that derives so much of its character from an herbal infusion can’t find favor now, at the end of the long gin boom, it never will.
For someone of my generation, who grew up when vermouth lurked in the bottom of parental beverage cabinets, there’s a certain cultural baggage to let go of before sitting down at the bar of one of the sleek new bars and restaurants. and specialized. that have emerged over the past five years. At King’s Cross Vermuteria and the Aperitif Bar from Soho’s Mele e Pere, vermouth isn’t just a staple ingredient in classic cocktails like the martini, manhattan, and negroni. It is served as in Turin or Barcelona: pure, on ice, with a slice of citrus fruit – an aperitif to be enjoyed with a bowl of olives.
Drinking it this way, it doesn’t take long to realize that vermouth can be just as complex as a fine sherry, port or, indeed, an unfortified wine, even if the skills required to make it are a little different. Made with fortified wine, choosing and infusing the range of bitters, citrus peels, herbs and spices that give each vermouth its distinctive character calls for something closer to the art of chef or perfumer.
Mauro Vergano, the Piedmontese man behind some of the finest and most uplifting vermouths, may have the perfect background for the job: after training in oenology, he spent 15 years working as a chemist developing flavors and aromas for a pharmaceutical company. Vergano, who started making his infusions as a hobby, is part of a wave of small-batch vermouth producers, many of whom produce vermouth on the sidelines of wine, others from the world of spirits and bartending, who has emerged over the last decade as the traditional heart of the drink in northern Italy and France, but also in Spain, the United States, South Africa and, increasingly, the United Kingdom .
With their meticulous attention to wine quality and botanicals, these astute newcomers have brought a new, sometimes quirky and refined dimension to a venerable drink.
But for me, there is at least as much fun exploring the library of old brands that you find at Mele e Pere. Among them is Turin’s original vermouth, Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth. First produced in 1786, the modern version still uses the same recipe. Its intensely medicinal bitter sweetness – a blend of alpine herbs and spices including saffron – will never go out of style.
Six vermouths to try
Gonzalez Byass Vermouth La Copa Rojo
Spain (from 1€2.95, thewhiskyexchange.com; cambridgewine.com; farehamwinecellar.com)
Spain has been at the forefront of the vermouth revival in the 21st century and has its own long tradition of producing flavored wines. Many of the best examples from both eras are the work of the sherry bodegas of Jerez, with La Copa de González Byass (of Tío Pepe fame) a sweet, heady, red revival of a 19th-century classic.
Dolin Dry Vermouth from Chambery
France (£14.95, thewhiskyexchange.com)
Vermouth’s origins may lie on the Italian side of the Alps, but French versions of the drink had become hugely popular by the mid-19th century. Originally patented in 1820, Dolin’s original white blend of 30 alpine botanicals stays as fragrant and fresh as ever.
AA Badenhorst Caperitiv Kaapse Dief
South Africa (£20, swig.co.uk)
One of the leading vintners to emerge from the creative effervescence of South Africa’s Swartland region, Adi Badenhorst proved no less adept at making this wrapper version of the vermouth, which includes local fynbos among its 35 infusing ingredients. in an intensely tangy-bitter orange-floral style.
Belsazar Summer Edition Riesling Vermouth
Germany (from £22, waitrosecellar.com; thewhiskyexchange.com).
German vermouth maker Belsazar is part of a new generation of producers who pay as much attention to wine as they do to plants. For example, this glorious concoction is based on Riesling from top German winemaker Ernst Loosen and also includes a little pineapple in the mix.
Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth
Italy, (from £30.95, thewhiskyexchange.com; masterofmalt.com)
A faithful reproduction by the Branca distillery, of Fernet Branca fame, of both the mouth-blown bottle and the recipe for the original 1786 Turin vermouth invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. Antica Formula is a kind of medicine for hedonists: a whirlwind of dried red fruits, sweet spices and bitterness in the mouth.
Vermouth Chinati Vergano
Italy (£38, waywardwines.co.uk; gnarlyvines.co.uk)
Small-batch production of various flavored wines by retired chemist Mauro Vergano includes this intensely aromatic version of the classic Piedmontese vermouth, constructed from a month-long maceration of herbs, wormwood and other botanicals on a base of quality dry white cortese and moscato wine.