Cocktail culture drives appeal
I asked mixologist Fabien Maillard, owner of Montreal’s Lab cocktail bar, about vermouth’s recent spike in popularity. His response: “When I was growing up in France, vermouth was associated with older people. It’s really interesting that vermouth and other styles that until only recently were considered oldfashioned are making a comeback.”
In Spain, vermouth bars are now the rage. So strong is the demand that, last year, sherry specialists Gonzalez Byass relaunched a vermouth that had been discontinued for decades using a recipe they created in 1884. La Copa will be available in the coming months at the SAQ.
While we don’t have vermouth bars in Quebec, at least for the moment, its appeal is moving beyond an ingredient in classic drinks like martinis, Negronis and Manhattans. There are 24 vermouths listed at the SAQ, with more on the way. And they’re not only coming from vermouth’s native homes of Italy and France. I’ve been drinking vermouths from Spain, South Africa, the United States and two made right here in Quebec.
What’s driving this trend? First, a little bit about vermouth.
Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine whose name is derived from “wermut,” the German word for wormwood, which is an ingredient in its production. However, not all modern vermouths contain wormwood.
It’s made by adding a neutral alcohol and a sweetener, either sugar or unfermented juice, to a base wine, which is then flavoured with herbs, spices and other botanicals. A sweetener is used to balance out the bitterness from the wormwood and other botanicals. Producers keep their recipes and production methods secret, but some may contain more than 50 ingredients.
Like many fortified and aromatized drinks, vermouths were originally developed as medicines. While adding herbs to wine goes back thousands of years, what we call vermouth was first developed in Italy’s Piedmont region near the end of the 18th century.
In the early 19th century, vermouth production started up in southern France. This is where styles began to differentiate themselves. Italian vermouth was red and sweet, while the French style was white and dry. Today, the two countries tend to make both styles, along with a third called bianco or blanc, which is essentially a sweeter white style.
The base for vermouth production is a white wine. The colour for red vermouth comes from adding caramelized sugar, as well as from the plants used in the maceration and oxidation of the white wine.
STRAIGHT UP OR A MIXER?
Vermouth is a member of the broad category of wine-based apéritifs. Because of the alcohol and plants, these drinks are designed to stimulate the appetite. Maybe that’s why they were considered medicinal.
In Europe, while vermouth is used in cocktails, it’s often drunk straight.
“We have a culture of drinking apéritifs,” said Maillard, who is from Normandy. “We haven’t seen that here in North America, but it’s starting to develop.”
Vermouth’s boom in Quebec can be attributed to bartenders and the increased interest in cocktails. Maillard cited a few reasons why vermouthbased drinks have become more popular: “Vermouth is lower in alcohol and bartenders are looking for lower proof but interesting cocktail options. Also, the younger generation used to drink the cheapest thing available. Now they’re filling cocktail bars and are interested in discovering new flavours, and the world of alcohol is so rich.”
HOW TO DRINK VERMOUTH
Vermouth can be made into a seemingly endless number of cocktails. Mixologist Sam Dalcourt, the ambassador for Invasion Cocktail, a city-wide Montreal cocktail festival that will take place from May 10-16, made me one of his creations, L’Agave écarlate (Scarlet Agave). The main ingredients are a Quebec-made vermouth called Rouge Gorge and tequila. You can see the video with this story on the Montreal Gazette’s website, and the recipe can be found in the tasting suggestions, below.
I find the variety of vermouths fascinating. Each label has its particularity, depending on which botanicals they use and the amount of sweetness. I’ve become a devotee of straight vermouth on ice, and drink it both before and after dinner.
But whether you drink it straight or in a cocktail, if you’re looking for a break from the usual wine, beer or mixed drink, try one of the suggestions on this page.