"Vermouth is arguably the Cinderella of the drink world". Well, that is the opening sentence of a slim volume on the subject of Vermouth, which answers many of the most-often-asked questions about a very familiar drink.
This 100-page pocket-hardback deals with its historic origins and its modern history. There are chapters on the making of vermouth and the craft of the Vermouth maker. We meet the classic Italian and French vermouths, read about the use of vermouth in cocktails and cooking — especially in fish sauces.
But above all the booklet helps to identify the key role that vermouth plays in any serious drinker's life-style —
"The story of the Dry Martini".
Your correspondent — a lifetime enjoyer of that particular vermouth use — is happy to offer the following review of "A Volume on Vermouth" written by Gerard Noel, in association with wine-writer Michael Edwards, and produced by Wine Destination Publications in 2006 at £14.99.
Most modern references to vermouth come in the 18th century, with its first recording in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary as:
"White wine flavoured with wormwood or other aromatic herbs and taken to stimulate the appetite".
But as one soon learns, the origins of wine flavoured with herbs dates back to the empire that was Greece and is now in Italy, in the fifth century B.C.
There are even suggestions that the drink that Jesus Christ was offered at his crucifixion and described in Matthew chapter 27 verse 34
"as vinegar mingled with gall" was not a taunting insult. Depending on the translation it might have been meant as a painkiller — a mixture of the sour white wine that was the standard ration of the Roman army, while the 'gall' was the myrrh of St. Mark's Gospel, a catchall term meaning anything bitter. Jesus thus turned down the offer and was nailed to the cross fully aware of the sacrifice he was making for the world's sins and with nothing to dull the pain of crucifixion.
Although wine flavoured by herbs stretches back into history, dry vermouth as we would recognise it today, goes back at least a couple of centuries. And it was developed in both Italy and France, generally with medicinal or narcotic aims. Its side-development in the form of absinthe would be found to have unwelcome effects, and for a time was banned in many countries.
But vermouth had the advantage that it did not need a basis of fine wines or vintage years, good local whites would do, so that its production could take place in many places. The herbal recipes were often promoted as having a secret formula, but though it might not be popular to say so, most of the constituent herbs could be deduced or encountered locally. Admittedly some of the herbs employed might just as easily have come from Africa (Zanzibar cloves), from India and Sri Lanka (cinnamon) or South America (quessia).
In "A Volume on Vermouth" the techniques used in modern blending are usefully described and many of the early producers are still known among our latter-day makers: Noilly and Prat, Carpano and Cinzano, Martini and Rossi, and so on. It was not long before the emphasis on their medicinal (or sexually stimulating) properties gave way to vermouth becoming regarded as simply part of the Good Life — and an excellent "wine" to mix with grain spirits.
Cocktail mixtures probably came into prominence in the early 20th Century, when particularly at the time of American Prohibition just about every mixture of grain and grape was tried out. In those days informed and serious drinkers developed their own favourite combinations, and the book being reviewed here defines the ingredients and mixology of some two dozen cocktails - out of a possible listing of some three hundred. Indeed every barman will create his own, and annual competitions always justify some attention even in the most humdrum of newspapers. Although Gin (and later Vodka) were the most constant base, rye and bourbon whiskies in the USA brought in those who preferred a Manhattan to a Martini, or perhaps a Vermouth Cocktail involving both the white and sweeter red versions.
It was excellent timing for this vermouth book to appear at the very moment
that a new version of the first James Bond film "Casino Royale" was being launched with a greatly updated range of technological modernities (mobile phones, I-pods, even mysterious poisonings) in which the author Ian Fleming's own favourite cocktail is described: Vespers (gin, vodka and the Bordeaux-based aperitif Lillet) The use of the mantra
"shaken, not stirred" promoted in later Bond films, in this re-edit is not said by the new version of the hero, Daniel Craig, but by a senior waiter serving cocktails in the casino.
A Volume on Vermouth contains useful advice about the proper serving of a dry martini, such as the use of a chilled glass into which to pour the cocktail. It examines the use of flavourings such as an olive or a zest of lemon-peel; as well as the exact ratio of the mixtures of the more common ingredients and whether these should be poured "on the rocks" or the ice left in the shaker.
The book is full of useful little bits of information about how various cocktails came about, and the reasons for their popularity. For instance it relates how the 40 herbs in Gancia are steeped for seven days in alcohol and only then infused with lightly fortified wine and purified water to obtain an extract at 30% abv. Their version of the Americano proved especially popular in Buenos Aires, Argentina being heavily-populated by Italian immigrants.
It so happens that Lovat Stephen's undergraduate days came in the early years after the Second World War in the United States when the truly Dry Martini reigned supreme. A bourbon or rye whisky flask was useful and even essential in watching American football in icy cold autumnal conditions, but for sophisticated after-match drinking a dry martini made with gin was the must-have in college rooms or university clubs.
And the gimmick of that time was to make sure that the Dry Martini on offer was the driest of the dry. At first the requisite dryness was ensured by the proportion of gin to vermouth, starting somewhere in a ratio of 3 to 1. But discerning hosts were soon mixing cocktails at 5 to 1; 6 to 1 even 12 to 1. From this came the gimmick of merely spraying a taste of vermouth on the top of neat gin from an atomiser or holding a vermouth cork over the drink. With the final refinement being to pour out the iced gin, then send a friend out of the party-room, where on being re-admitted he (or she) merely whispered the word "Vermouth" before hurriedly closing the door before any further contaminating dilution could be allowed to happen.
In later more grown-up days, Lovat Stephen would enjoy the traditional Dry Martini all over New York and in most larger towns of New England. He still maintains that the strongest and most conscientious martini was to be found in the 6th floor bar at the United Nations building, with the runner-up the one produced at the Yale Club near to New York's Grand Central Station.
For a martini with literary associations the place to go was to the Algonquin Hotel's round-table, the haunt of a generation of writers from the New Yorker magazine. Here some of the more publishable anecdotes concerning the martini must include Robert Benchley's quip:
"Must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini" and James Thurber's comment on the martini:
"One is all right, two is too many and three is not enough". Yes, your correspondent is well aware of Dorothy Parker's equally famous quote, but feels it is perhaps inappropriate for repetition in a family blog.
A Volume on Vermouth is published by:
ISBN 0-9549799-1-0 & ISBN 978-0-95499799-1-1
Information Check: Nick Mendes
Measuring 8.5 by 5 inches (220 by 130 cms)
It fits neatly into one's drinks cupboard.