Thursday, June 25, 2015

Vermouth the book: not as tasty as Vermouth the wine

Vermouth is the most misunderstood, and underrated, wine in the U.S. Many people don't realize it actually is wine, which means they don't treat it that way.

I'm going to recommend a very good book about Vermouth that will teach you a lot. But it's not the new one to your right.

Adam Ford writes in the introduction to his new book "Vermouth" that on a first date at a Manhattan speakeasy, his date ordered a glass of chilled sweet vermouth.

"Who orders vermouth? I thought, and was immediately drawn in by the mystery ... I had never tasted vermouth, nor was I interested," Ford writes. "I thought I looked cool pouring a dash into a martini glass and then dumping it out."

That drink changed Ford's life completely -- and he didn't even taste it. He ended up marrying the woman, and now he makes vermouth for a living. And you thought you've had powerful cocktails.

If you are a cocktail fan, you've had plenty of vermouth, but might never have given it much thought. But a great vermouth is a good wine with something extra: a mix of spices and botanicals that were originally added for health reasons (vermouth's good for the digestion), but now are in there because they taste good.

The problem most Americans have with vermouth is the biggest omission from Ford's book. Because it's wine, vermouth spoils at room temperature fairly quickly. This is why most people don't like it. Imagine if the only wine you ever tasted had been sitting open on a back bar for a month.

It's a surprising omission because the best part of the book is not the global history of vermouth, which is overly concerned with historical antecedents and not enough with the development of the famous European brands we all drink. This book is clearly written by an American about Americans; imagine if somebody tried to write a book about, say, Pinot Noir that way. But the positive aspect of that strange focus is that Ford's New York-centric version of the history of vermouth in America is  interesting.

The cocktail is an American invention. Ford makes a historical link between the first common mentions of vermouth, in the 1860s, and the explosion of cocktail culture. Both were present in small quantities beforehand. Colonial Americans were fond of punch; George Washington went on a 3-day Fish House Punch bender in 1787. And Vermouth was imported to the U.S. from at least 1836, although to Ford it didn't initially count because it went to San Francisco.

Once New York bars got ahold of Vermouth in the 1860s, though, they quickly caught up to the cocktail culture that was going on in California. Jerry Thomas, the "father of American mixology," learned to make cocktails in California during the Gold Rush before moving back to New York in 1851. In 1862 Thomas published "Bar-Tender's Guide," the most influential cocktail book ever written. If you look at the recipes, he doesn't include vermouth in many of them, but when Thomas does use it, he uses a lot: his version of the Martinez (the precusor to the Martini) calls for a "wine glass" of vermouth.

Ford writes that in the 19th century, most vermouth imported to the U.S. was the Italian sweet style. Drier French vermouths didn't take off until just before Prohibition when refrigeration became widespread, and people discovered the affinity of chilled gin and dry vermouth.

Ford downplays the role Prohibition played in killing vermouth's popularity in America, which I think is a mistake. Speakeasies didn't take the risk of smuggling just for vermouth. Americans learned to drink "martinis" that were just big glasses of gin with maybe some bitters, and bartenders tried to milk the bottles of vermouth they did have, which meant vermouth was less likely to be fresh.

The real damage to vermouth's reputation was done by World War II though, and Ford's myopic American worldview prevents him from clearly seeing it. With France occupied and Italy on the wrong side, the supply of quality vermouth was immediately cut off. California wineries had been making vermouth since Prohibition ended and were happy to fill in. Ford is loath to say what needs saying, that these were inferior products.

But the damage was worse than that. World War II was when some of the most disparaging quotes about vermouth came from across the pond, both because vermouth was hard to come by and because nobody wanted to praise a product made by fascists. Winston Churchill said the best way to make a martini was with ice-cold gin and a bow in the direction of France. Alfred Hitchcock said the closest he wanted to get to a bottle of vermouth was to look at it from across the room. By the time the war was over, vermouth had a bad reputation in the U.S. that it has never quite shaken.

Because people had forgotten how to use vermouth (you need to keep it in the fridge, a point Ford never makes), by the 1960s, it was a popular punching bag. People recommended a spritz of vermouth from an atomizer, or a rinse of the glass. Nobody recommended drinking the stuff. Americans didn't know what they were missing.

As you can tell, I really like vermouth the drink and wish I could recommend Vermouth the book. But I can't, because other than its interesting and somewhat misguided history of vermouth in America, there isn't much worthwhile in here. Ford profiles American vermouths but not comprehensively. I agree with him that "Petal and Thorn" from Oregon's Imbue is delicious (buy it here), but he completely misses the idiosyncratic vermouths made in California by Massican. He writes about New York vermouths from his own company, Atsby, and Uncouth Vermouth, and that's fine.

Problem is, I've never seen a bottle of either of these. To readers anywhere outside the trendiest Manhattan bars, Vermouth is still Carpano and Noilly Prat and Dolin and Martini, etc. And he doesn't address these at all. The hippest vermouths on the West Coast are Spanish; he doesn't address them at all. I love that there's a new book on vermouth, but it misses almost the entirety of the vermouth story.

So if you want to read a book on Vermouth, check out the utilitarian guide "The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth and Other Aperitifs," published in 2011. Its world history of aromatized wine is shorter and more interesting. There's an extremely useful index of the botanicals that go into vermouth, everything from allspice to musk yarrow. Best of all, there are short descriptions of the major vermouths from France, Italy and Spain, as well as of some amaros and other aperitifs.

I consult the Mixellany Guide all the time, but it is the only good book I have ever read about vermouth. Sadly that's still true, but I'm glad Ford gave vermouth a shot. So, I'm sure, is his wife.

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Miquel said...

We are awash in fantastic vermouth at the moment in Catalonia. The Dos Deus which came out last year is stellar although pricier than a standard vermouth. Miró, De Muller, Rofes, and others are regularly at my bar. Martini can die a very slow death for all I care at this point and yes it's the reason why I thoroughly didn't care for vermouth prior to moving to Spain from California.

W. Blake Gray said...

I was just in Catalonia! You're right, I saw lots of wonderful Spanish Vermouths, some of them on tap. And yet, everybody was drinking gin and tonics, mostly with English gin and American tonic.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

For your readers who had no idea Vermouth was a wine drink, could you perhaps recommend a small selection (imported and domestic) to help us get a basic survey of the Vermouth landscape? And best way to drink them?

W. Blake Gray said...

Aaron: Your wish is my command! Well, not really, because if you told me to jump off ... anyway, it's a good idea, worthy of its own post. Will try to get to it after this San Francisco heatwave abates.

Aaron said...

Sounds awesome! So what, it's 80 degrees there right now? Or is it that the sun is actually out and shining? :P

W. Blake Gray said...

Yeah, that's it. There's no place within miles of my apartment with air conditioning, so when it gets over 80 degrees here, my brain starts shutting down, saving essential power for the cooling systems. Where's the Fog? Where the hell are you, Karl?

Aaron said...

Well, avoid LA than ;) Unless you want to come down and I'll treat you to one of my "drink my wine" nights that I do with my friends. Randomly pull out wine as the night progresses and see what we get. Very eclectic nights!

Don Stone said...

Blake, I just bought the book that you suggested and am looking forward to your advice on Vermouths as well as Aaron.