The (Deliciously) Bitter Truth about Vermouth

33933542 - red and white vermouth in a bar.

We’ve gotten more and more interested in vermouth over the past few years. But tasting the stunning Miro Vermut De Reus Extra Seco and Rojo from Catalonia, Spain, made us out and out vermouth fans. You can hear more about Miro Vermut in the video below and see all the options we have now – including the very handy 187 ml quarter bottles – by clicking here.

 

You may be asking yourself, What the heck is vermouth? Where did it come? When do you drink it? How do you drink it? How long can you keep vermouth? And, most important, what is the classic food match for vermouth?

Read on for answers to all these pressing questions!

What is vermouth? It’s a white or red wine that’s been fortified with neutral brandy to 15-20% abv and then flavored with an infusion of herbs, seeds, spices, berries, flowers and barks and then, almost always, sweetened a bit. The base wines are usually pretty terrible, having little flavor, harsh acids, and pretty low alcohol. The brandy is added to give the thin wine body and also help preserve it. And, the alcohol helps pull out the flavors and aromas of the infusion ingredients.

wormwood

The herb wormwood, often added to vermouth. The German word for this shrub,”Wermut,” gave us the name Vermouth.

Every vermouth maker has their own secret list of ingredients, but almost all vermouth gets a big dose of wormwood – specifically the shrub Artemisia Pontica that grows across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Wormwood is loaded with exotic flavors and aromas, but most importantly, it’s super bitter. While “bitter” doesn’t sound like something you want to have in your drink, it’s the magic that lets vermouth enhance higher alcohol spirits and makes vermouth on the rocks so refreshing.

Where did vermouth come from? The Greeks and Romans hit on the idea of adding botanicals to wine, including wormwood, back in ancient times. Doctors in China’s Shang dynasty (1250-1000BC) and in ancient India seem to have begun the practice of soaking herbs and roots in wine to create medicines. And, the Greeks started using wormwood in sweetened wine around 400BC because they thought the shrub would help upset stomachs (and it was too bitter to drink on its own).

But the practice of making “wormwood wine” to drink for pleasure emerged in Europe in the 1600s and was common in England by mid-century. The first sweetened vermouths came out of Turin, Italy, in 1786 and gained popularity in early 19th century France – where the German “Wermut” (for wormwood) evolved to “vermouth.” Once cocktail culture emerged in the mid-1800s, vermouth was soon made and drunk across Europe and in the USA.

19th Century Americans LOVED the flavor of vermouth and the typical pre-Prohibition cocktail often included two or three parts vermouth to one part of whiskey or gin. But gradually vermouth fell by the wayside here and abroad as more dry – i.e., less sweet – cocktails gained favor. Eventually, Winston Churchill defined the ultimate dry Martini: three parts gin plus a nod towards France.

Today’s fad for “craft cocktails” – which, as near as I can figure, means any cocktail that costs more than $4 per ounce – is bringing vermouth back into fashion. But, in Spain, it’s never been anything other than a daily treat.

When do you drink vermouth? Anytime you’d like a flavorful, refreshing sip of something tasty with a bit more kick than wine but low enough alcohol to keep you sharp! In Spain – the world’s largest consumer of vermouth today – “vermouth hour” is the time before 2pm lunch or anytime Sunday afternoons.

The Spanish didn’t invent vermouth, but they caught onto the concept pretty quickly once it arrived in the mid-1800s (and today grow most of the wormwood used in vermouth no matter where it’s made). The Catalan city of Reus quickly became the epicenter of Spain’s vermouth (or “vermut” in Catalan) production – in the late 1800s, the city’s largest producer actually laid pipes to the local train station to pump the stuff into tanker cars for shipment across the country.

Under Franco, the tradition of fer vermut – literally “to have vermouth” – fell by the wayside as wine and beer gained popularity, but vermut remained the pre-lunch aperitif of choice in rural villages and among factory workers. In every working class and small town bar, you’d find not a bottle of vermut, but a set of kegs and taps ready to dispense what was then the least expensive alcohol in Spain.

Then, about 15 years ago, Spain’s young adults re-discovered the pleasures of vermut/vermouth. Today, as Saveur magazine reports, fer vermut “is to Spain what grabbing an espresso is to Italy. It’s a social activity undertaken pretty much whenever over the course of daylight hours, preferably with a friend or three. The beverage is less an intoxicant than a way to pass the time. It accelerates your afternoon rather than ending it, unlike New York City’s excessive bottomless mimosas. In Spain, excess is not the point; enjoyment is.”

How do you drink vermouth? In a glass of some kind is always best (although those little 187ml Miro Vermut bottles do tempt one to just take a little nip). Otherwise, there’s not much to it. Vermut Rojo is made from a red wine base, is lightly sweet, and pumps out fun flavors of sweet red and black cherry, ginger, spice, and a hint of cola. To steal the slogan of a not-very-nice vermouth, “Vermut Rojo on ice is nice!” But, if it’s especially hot outside or you’d like to have more than one, there’s no harm in adding a splash of soda water and a squeeze of lime or lemon!

Most white vermouth is at least a little bit sweet and can be treated the same way. But Miro’s Vermut Extra Seco is a special treat that deserves special treatment. Because Miro uses only top-quality white wine for its base, this is the rare vermouth that needs zero added sweetener for balance. In fact, Miro Extra Seco is the only commercial vermouth in the world bottled bone dry.

Take it out of the refrigerator and pour it into a wine glass and you’ve got something like a more complex and biting Fino Sherry – loaded with savory notes of olive, bitter almond, and sea shell and delicious with just an olive dropped in the glass. But our favorite Extra Seco sip is to add equal parts tonic water – giving yet another dimension of bitterness and a hint of sweetness – and a twist or wheel of orange. It drinks like a very sexy, complex cocktail you had to go to bartender school to learn how to make. And, an 8oz drink has about as much alcohol as a beer – have two!

How long can you keep vermouth? Feel free to stock up and keep unopened bottles of any good vermouth – like Miro – in a cool, dark place for six months or a year. It’s pretty stable. Once you’ve opened it, vermouth’s life is somewhere between wine and whiskey. In a kitchen cabinet, opened vermouth begins losing some charm after six-eight weeks. In the refrigerator or your wine cellar, enjoy over the next 3-6 months.

What’s the best food match for vermouth? Pretty much anything savory or salty pairs very nicely with dry vermouth and slightly sweeter, richer Rojo is even pretty tasty with a burger. In Spain, you’ll find friends and family passing the Vermut Hour with classic nibbles like salted almonds, olives, and pickled or smoked clams, oysters, or anchovies.

But – and this is the very final reason we’ve come to love vermouth – the very most classic, delicious, perfect match for vermouth on the rocks or with a twist is: potato chips. Yum.

Feeling thirsty yet? If you’re in McLean on Saturday, July 9, come by the store between noon and 4pm and try Miro Vermut for yourself. You’ll have the chance to taste both the Extra Seco and Rojo straight up and with an added pour of tonic and twist of orange. We’ll even have some olives and potato chips to enjoy with the wine.

And, if you’re can’t come taste, check out our current selection of Miro Vermut right here. Let us know what you think!

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