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Bittersweet dreams

It's been in and out of fashion for at least 200 years and it's now on every bartender's A List. Alice Lascelles hymns the glories of vermouth

Words by Alice Lascelles

Photography by Debbie Wastie

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Ever since I drank my first aperitivo in a bustling Italian bar more than ten years ago, I have adored vermouth. Bittersweet, aromatic, complex, esoteric, it’s a drink which makes the mind and mouth water. You can drink it a hundred ways – in a Negroni, a Martini, with tonic, or simply sloshed over ice with a slice (which is how all real aficionados take it). And it comes in a kaleidoscope of styles. It can be white, gold, amber, rosé or red; spicy and sweet as Christmas pudding or as dry as fino sherry. No two vermouths are alike. Yet they are all, in essence, the same thing: fortified wine that’s been sweetened and flavoured with wormwood, a silver-grey herb with a sagelike flavour, and a face-puckeringly bitter finish.

By law, all vermouths must contain wormwood – the word itself derives from the German for wormwood, wermut. But most vermouths contain more than a dozen different botanicals including citrus peels, herbs, spices and flowers, which are blended together like a giant perfume. You can find vermouths flavoured with roses, myrrh, sandalwood, citrus peels, rhubarb, nutmeg, raspberries and coffee. There are vermouths that showcase botanicals from the forests of California and the Sussex countryside, the Australian outback and the French Alps. Each recipe tells a story.

Vermouth
Rose Martini

Almost all vermouths are based on white wine (most red vermouths get their colour from the botanicals or a touch of caramel). Traditionally that wine was something quite fresh and neutral like Trebbiano or Picpoul, but craft producers are now using local wines and botanicals to give their vermouths a more distinct character. English wine producer Rathfinney has a vermouth in the pipeline, while Chazalettes (see below) uses, unusually, Barbera wine as its base. The Swartland wine producer Adi Badenhorst makes a vermouthstyle aperitif called Caperitif using his own Chenin Blanc and Cape botanicals including geraniums and bergamot-scented buchu.

People have been making spiced and flavoured wines for thousands of years – originally for medicinal purposes. But vermouth as we know it today took off in the 18th century, when an Italian elixir called Carpano arrived on the scene in Turin. Tantalising and exotic, it quickly became of toast of fashionable café society, paving the way for a host of new brands including Martini, Cinzano and the French vermouth Noilly Prat.

Vermouth
Thyme; star anise; rhubarb

Fast-forward 200 years, and the boom in craft distilling, coupled with a trend for bittersweet Italian drinks including the Negroni and the Spritz, means vermouth is now in the midst of a renaissance. There are dozens of brands on the market, and some top bars even make their own: Leroy wine bar in Shoreditch does a particularly good vermouth flavoured with dandelion root and fennel.

One of the leading lights in the vermouth revival has been Roberto Bava, the inimitable boss of the 130-year-old Italian brand Cocchi (as well as Piedmont’s Bava Winery). President and co-founder of the Vermouth di Torino Institute, an organisation which promotes classic, Turin-style vermouth, Bava is so mad about vermouth he actually puts it in his fountain pen. An avid collector of Futurist memorabilia, he also published Futurist Mixology by Fulvio Piccinino, a delightfully wacky book that shines a light on the role vermouth had to play in this provocative, prewar art movement.

Vermouth
Cinnamon; vanilla; rosemary

History isn’t just about churches and paintings,’ says Bava, as he hands me a vermouth on ice, with a twist of lemon peel. ‘Sometimes it can also be a flavour.’

Like I said. Every vermouth tells a story.

Vermouth
Nutmeg; rose petals; plum stone

Vermouth Bars

London

Vermuteria
One of the stars of the swish new Coal Drops Yard development in Kings Cross is the delightful little Vermuteria, a continental-style vermouth bar stocking more than 30 varieties including vintage and homemade vermouths on tap.

Temper
For aperitivi with a more ‘New World’ vibe head to Neil Rankin’s Temper restaurant in Covent Garden, for grilled meats and Negronis made with vermouth from Australia, Greece and the UK.

New York

Dante
Conceived by vermouth-mad bartender Naren Young, and recently voted no.9 in World’s 50 Best Bars, this light-filled café-bar in Greenwich Village is a stylish hommage to Italian drinks. Negronis are their speciality: whet your whistle with a Golden Negroni Sbagliato made with Cinzano Rosso vermouth, bergamot liqueur and Prosecco. Or try one of several spritzes on draught.

Paris

La Mary Celeste 
Oysters and vermouth cocktails are the order of the day at this fashionable new bar in the 3rd Arrondissement, which is from the same people behind the highly-rated Candelaria: order a plate of crustaceans and a 66 Thunderbird, made with a palate-sharpening mix of tequila, dry vermouth, clarified tomato water and green lemon.

Vermouth
Grapefruit; clove; lime

Milan

Lacerba
Cramped, chaotic and bristling with Futurist artwork, the perennially popular Lacerba feels, at times, more like a house party than a bar. Bag a spot on one of the mid-century sofas and sip a Cocchi on ice with the art crowd, before heading through to dinner in the vaulted restaurant next door.

Singapore

Atlas Bar 
The towering gin collection in the midst of this Art Deco cocktail lounge is an absolute show-stopper, but the vermouth list is five-star, too. A Dry Martini is a must, under the circumstances. So try the house Martini with dry gin, Martini Ambrato and orange bitters, or splash out on a vintage Martini made with gin and vermouth from the 1930s.

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