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The vermouth way: Origins of the drink

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

by Helena Bilney

Where did it all begin?

When we think of Vermouth, traditionally we associate it with Italy, Spain, Germany or France, and there’s much debate between these countries as to who brought it to our tables. Here we look at the origins of the drink - the results may surprise you!

Perhaps one of the reasons for the confusion as to the roots of the drink, is due to the many names Vermouth has adopted over time. We find vermut, wermut and even vino de axenjo...not surprising then, that the origins vary depending on who you ask. I think I may have to pour a glass of Vermouth before we get started…

In fact, Vermouth first came about during the Shang Dynasty (1250 BC) thanks to the discovery of bronze vessels in 2004 from Anyang, China, by a team of archaeologists led by Dr Patrick McGovern. Upon analysing the vessels and pottery, it was clear that wine and herbal residue (wormwood Artemisia) still remained. It was known as chang – a type of medicinal wine. Who knew that herbal residue could last that long!

In 1500 BC, Ancient India, the Atharvaveda used Ayurvedic herbal wine for medicinal use which also contained sweet wormwood was used to treat intestinal issues, anaemia and heart conditions. It was deemed as antibacterial in its properties and used medicinally up until the 1600’s.

It was only in Ancient Greece that wormwood was infused with white wine to form the basis of hypossis wine, also known as Hippocratical wines. These had properties more closely associated to the Vermouth we know today and we could say are an “ancestor” of Vermouth. Back then, they would put celery in it to promote appetite, and wormwood wine was then used as a reward to drivers. It circulated the outskirts of Rome where its commercial journey began as an aperitif.

In 1544, translations of ancient texts began to appear as medicinal books. By this time the printing press had arrived in Rome and Girolamo Ruscelli, who went under his pseudonym Alessio of Piedmont, published a book of recipes with reference to different spices. He then began to produce aromatised wines from his home in Venice as a form of experimentation. From there the wave of Vermouth spread throughout Italy from Genoa and Turin and across into France.

This location was perfect for Italy’s development of Vermouth; more exotic flavours were able to be added due to its geographical location within a spice-trading corridor from Asia to Genoa, through to Turin and then poured into northern Europe. The drink was also produced and enjoyed in Catalonia, with bodegas around Spain joining the Vermouth wave.

It is said that Antonio Benedetto Carpano produced the first commercial Vermouth in Turin in 1786 where he took Moscato, his favourite wine, and combined it with 30 botanicals. He named it wermut, which is the German for wormwood and echoes its origins from the Shang Dynasty.

Although the 18th Century marks the boom of Vermouth commercially, it is clear this fortified wine that takes you on an aromatic journey to all corners of the world is steeped in history long before we can imagine; from The Shang Dynasty, Ancient India to Ancient Greece. Looking through the long and varied history of this wonderful drink, it becomes clear that an array of countries and cultures have influenced the drink we know and love today.

A Quick Look at Today

How do these countries enjoy Vermouth now? Hang on… let me go and put another slice of orange in my glass...

In Spain, vermut is enjoyed chilled, poured over ice and garnished with a slice of citrus fruit. Lemon for white vermouth and orange for red vermouth typically, with an olive adding the finishing touches. Scrap “Happy Hour”, we'll take “la hora del vermut” (Vermouth Hour) any day.

In Italy, Vermouth is traditionally seen in connection with the world-famous Negroni and also enjoyed before dinner. Whether in Italy of Spain, Vermouth can be diluted with a splash of soda water.

Vermouth in France is enjoyed in a slightly different way. Unlike in Spain or Italy it is an aperitif before dinner, the French drink Vermouth as a pre-lunch essential, with the French white style much more dry in profile than its Spanish counterpart.

Over the last few years Vermouth has made a comeback in China and Hong Kong even has its own Vermouth brand. Mancino Vermouth is produced in Italy with an emphasis on the “Italian way”, but managed directly from the city itself.

In Greece, we find Otto's vermouth, an aromatic and citrus lead aperitif. Legend has it, the vermouth was produced originally for King Otto, who moved the capital to Athens and, in 1850, demanded a vermouth be created in his name. Our recommendation if visiting the city is an Athenian Spritz... Vermouth topped with tonic water garnished with lemon peel. Refreshing and delicious!

Vermouth may have evolved over time, with the cultural variations that come with changes in tastes and demand, but it becomes clear that this is a drink that will stand the test of time. After all, it's been doing just that for centuries. Long may it continue, we say.

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