Title: Vermouth: The Spirit That Started It All
Speaker: Adam Ford
Date: Thursday, January 21, 2016
Location: Park Avenue United Methodist Church

Vermouth has had an enduring impact on the way we drink, especially when it comes to classic cocktails. What would a Manhattan or a Martini be without vermouth, even if it’s only a light spritz? Even though vermouth is a major player in potable culture, very little of its history has been studied or written.

vermouth line up

Enter Adam Ford, this program’s speaker. A New York City lawyer and founder of Atsby Vermouth, Ford exhaustively researched the history of vermouth and wrote the first comprehensive book on the subject, Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created Americas Cocktail Culture. His findings were the source of the talk, as well as of the recipes for the Manhattan and gin-based Martini served during the reception.

To outline the history of vermouth, defined as an aromatized, fortified wine (aromatized with edible and flavorful botanicals and fortified with spirits), Ford took the audience back 8,000 years, to the Neolithic period in China, the seemingly unlikely place of vermouth’s prototype, a wine mixed with potentially healthful botanicals—fruit, honey, and rice malt. This mixture hints at the common thread in all of vermouth’s incarnations throughout the world and historical time periods: it’s a wine based-beverage drunk for pleasure and health benefits.

With its origins in China, it wouldn’t be farfetched to hypothesize that vermouth spread to Europe via the Silk Road. Ford asserts this not to be the case. Rather, aromatized wines sprung up independently and much earlier throughout the world, in the form, for example, of resinated wines in Neolithic Iran and herbal wines in early dynastic Egypt. The Silk Road and other established trade routes, by land and sea, between East and West certainly did create the exchange of spices and sugar that led to today’s version of vermouth.

What we think of as vermouth started in Italy in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin. It was he who was the first to commercialize an aromatized, fortified wine, which Carpano called “wermut,” the Germanic word for “wormwood,” or the catch-all term for members of the Artemisia family which was believed to have healthful properties. The industry took off, with plenty of other producers coming onto the scene. Vermouth crossed the Atlantic and arrived in New York City with the World’s Fair in 1853. Not immediately popular, vermouth became firmly established in New York City in the 1860s when a more elegant way of public drinking took hold in the city. Dozens of new cocktails were created with the addition of vermouth, many of which lasted to the present day or are currently being rediscovered during the current cocktail renaissance.

Vermouth fell out of favor in the U.S. with World War II, a reason of which was anti-Italian sentiment, and the quality of the diminished amount of vermouth coming into the United States and being made domestically fell drastically. This situation has changed only recently, as of 2009 or so, with the growing fascination and demand for craft cocktails and the resumption of domestic, artisanal production. Vermouth is back and better than ever.

Some practical notes on vermouth, as outlined by a guest speaker, Bianca Miraglia of Uncouth Vermouth, another New York producer. Once you (re)discover the pleasures of vermouth, be sure to place opened bottles in the fridge to prevent them from turning to vinegar. Also, stir your cocktails as was done in the 1860s and 1870s in New York City: with twice as much vermouth as spirit. Not only is this ratio classic but it is also prudent: the intoxicating effect of the cocktail is reduced. This way, you can drink more and isn’t that the point?