Mixologist Micah Olson believes vermouth is at its best in a cocktail glass. To chef Cullen Campbell, it’s better on a plate.
The co-owners of the Phoenix hot spot Crudo are both right. Vermouth, a wine aromatized with herbs and spices and lightly fortified with brandy, shines in both.
Native to Germany, northwest Italy and southern France, vermouth has played a role at the bar and in the kitchen for centuries in Europe. It’s most often served as an aperitif, a nip before a meal to stimulate the appetite.
Today, after decades of neglect, vermouth is making a comeback in the U.S.
“Vermouth has never been as popular here as it is in Europe. That is beginning to change,” said Olson, who runs Bar Crudo, inside Arcadia’s acclaimed 2-year-old modern-Italian restaurant.
Olson, a certified sommelier, is helping vermouth return to its heydays in the 1880s, a time when its signature cocktails — the martini and Manhattan — were all the rage.
Martin Doudoroff, a New York City software designer, cocktail enthusiast and founder of vermouth101.com, said a surge in small vermouth producers in this country and abroad has led to a new “golden age” and record inventory.
Although Italian and French companies still make most of the world’s vermouth, several U.S. producers are making this 18th-century drink and aiming its appeal at younger drinkers.
Vermouth’s newfound glory is tied to several factors. One is its relatively low-alcohol content — about 13 percent to 16 percent alcohol by volume. Another is low cost, with decent 750-milliliter bottles selling for $10 to $20. A third factor is vermouth’s potential to lift a cocktail above the ordinary.
“Vermouth has been ubiquitous in the U.S. for well over a century, but few Americans actually understand or appreciate the stuff, and some have even maligned it,” said Doudoroff, who urges novices to sip some solo along with shaking and stirring in a cocktail.
Vermouth is made by steeping wine with a rambling mix of herbs, barks, roots and fruits. Similarly to wines, the length of time varies. Where vermouth differs from other aromatic wines is with wormwood, a bitter herb once considered medicinal.
According to historians, Hippocrates prescribed wormwood-based wines for anemia and other aliments.
There are three types of vermouth:
Russo or red is a sweet variety that owes its color to caramel.
Bianco or white is equivalent to red, but with a softer taste.
Dry is the bitterest variety.
Generally speaking, French producers are better known for lighter, dry and white vermouth; Italian producers for the red, spicy Torino styles.
All last about a month in the refrigerator after opening.
Olson recommends sampling varieties and allowing your taste to be the guide.
“It’s difficult to say which are the best because every bottle has its own flavor profile,” he said. “There’s a vermouth for any taste.”
Like wine, chefs also pair the the botanical flavors in vermouth to the dish.
“Vermouth is very versatile in the kitchen and at the bar,” said Campbell, who uses vermouth to spice up grape jam to serve with biscuits and simmer with beef broth, herbs, garlic, capers and pork belly. “It’s right at home in cooking and cocktails.”