It was only a matter of time before vermouth became fashionable again. It’s a half-century since its last heyday, an era when big Italian brands, Martini and Cinzano, were an essential element of a certain vision of jet-setting sophistication. That’s plenty of time for the cycle of fashion to complete its 360-degree rotation through naff and kitsch to ironic retro and sincere rediscovery.
It’s not just a matter of image. Vermouth’s characteristics suit the times. If a drink that derives so much of its character from an infusion of botanicals can’t find favour now, at the end of the long gin boom, it never will.
For someone of my generation, who grew up when vermouth was something found lurking at the back of parental drinks cabinets, there’s a certain amount of cultural baggage to ditch before taking a seat at the bar of one of the stylish new, specialist bars and restaurants that have emerged over the past five years. At Kings Cross’s Vermuteria and the Aperitivo Bar of Soho’s Mele e Pere, vermouth isn’t just a background ingredient in classic cocktails such as the martini, the manhattan and the negroni. It’s served as it would be in Turin or Barcelona: neat, over ice, with a slice of citrus – an aperitivo to be consumed with a bowl of olives.
Drinking it this way, it doesn’t take long to realise that vermouth can be every bit as complex as good sherry, port or, indeed, unfortified wine, even though the skills required for making it are a little different. Made from a base of fortified wine, choosing and infusing the range of bitters, citrus peels, herbs and spices that give each vermouth its own distinctive character, calls for something closer to the art of the chef or perfumer.
Mauro Vergano, the Piedmontese man behind some of the finest, most uplifting vermouths has perhaps the perfect experience for the job: after training in oenology, he spent 15 years working as a chemist developing flavours and aromas for a pharmaceutical company. Vergano, who began making his infusions as a hobby, is part of a wave of small-batch vermouth producers, many of them producing vermouth as a sideline from wine, others from the spirits and bartending worlds, that has emerged over the past decade in the drink’s traditional heartland in northern Italy and in France, but also in Spain, the US, South Africa and, increasingly, the UK.
With their fastidious attention to the quality of both wine and botanicals these crafty newcomers have brought a new, sometimes-quirky, polished dimension to a venerable drink.
But for me there’s at least as much pleasure in exploring the library of older brands you find at Mele e Pere. Among them is the original Turin vermouth, Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth. First produced in 1786, the modern-day 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 £12.95, thewhiskyexchange.com; cambridgewine.com; farehamwinecellar.com)
Spain has been at the forefront of the 21st-century vermouth revival and it has its own long tradition of producing aromatised wines. Many of the best examples in both eras are the work of Jerez’s sherry bodegas, with La Copa by González Byass (of Tío Pepe fame) a sweet, heady, red revival of a 19th-century classic.
Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambery
France (£14.95, thewhiskyexchange.com)
Vermouth’s origins may be on the Italian side of the Alps, but French versions of the drink had become enormously popular by the mid-19th century. Originally patented in 1820, Dolin’s original white mix of 30 Alpine botanicals remains as fragrant and citrus fresh as ever.
AA Badenhorst Caperitif Kaapse Dief
South Africa (£20, swig.co.uk)
One of the key winemakers to emerge from the creative ferment of South Africa’s Swartland region, Adi Badenhorst has proved no less adept at making this Cape version of 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 one of a new breed of producer paying as much attention to the wine as the botanicals. For example, this glorious concoction is based on riesling from top German winemaker Ernst Loosen and includes a little pineapple in the mix, too.
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 hand-blown bottle and the recipe of the 1786 original Turin vermouth invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. Antica Formula is a kind of medicine for hedonists: a swirl of dried red fruit, sweet spice and mouth-tingling bitterness.
Chinati Vergano Vermouth
Italy (£38, waywardwines.co.uk; gnarlyvines.co.uk)
Retired chemist Mauro Vergano’s small-batch production of various aromatised wines includes this intensely aromatic take on classic Piedmontese vermouth, built from a month’s maceration of herbs, wormwood and other botanicals on a base of quality dry white cortese and moscato wine.