As I watched the barman pour from the taps labeled “vermut Madrid,” “vermut reus,” and “vermut Rioja,” I had no idea that I was about to sip my way into an obsession. Never mind that our host was holding forth on the provenance of the green olives shining like precious orbs before us (they were from Campo Real, and were also excellent, but that’s for another story), I was more transfixed by what I had quaffed from the draft.
Savory, sweet, exotically aromatic, and when mixed with soda, bracingly refreshing, Spanish vermouth has since had me in its heady grip. It’s become the object of an obsession that found me combing Manila’s bars and liquor shops for anything other than the serviceable and ubiquitous Martini & Rosso, and gaining me curious looks (and luckily, more often than not, instant conviviality) from bartenders as I order the good stuff, whenever available, simply on the rocks, or with prosecco instead of sparkling water when I’m feeling a little jaunty. One bartender remarked that only older Europeans ever order vermouth straight, which is unsurprising since aperitif culture has yet to make it big in Manila. Elsewhere in the world, however, vermouth has been the comeback star, reemerging from the dusty recesses of liquor cabinets to be enjoyed on its own, and even materializing in new, sexier concoctions cooked up by artisanal enthusiasts.
Savory, sweet, exotically aromatic, and when mixed with soda, bracingly refreshing, Spanish vermouth has since had me in its heady grip.
Vermouth is a fortified white wine strengthened with brandy, sweetened with syrup or honey, and flavored with roots and aromatics, and traditionally, wormwood (or the German wermüt, where its name possibly comes from). Italy’s Antonio Benedetto Carpano is credited with creating the sweet vermouth we know today, while France’s Joseph Noilly developed the dry vermouth that goes so well with gin in your martini. However, the history of fortified wine goes all the way back to 1000 B.C.E., not in Europe, but in China, of all places. It is perhaps this rich history, not to mention the breadth of experimentation that it affords, that has made it the latest darling of today’s increasingly obsessive craft drinking culture. But really, more than anything, vermouth is just damn delicious.
American craft distillers agree. While Europe (notably, Barcelona, where an invitation to step out for a drink translates to “fer un vermut,” or literally “to do a vermouth”) is the home of traditional formulations such as the fullbodied Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, the pioneering Noilly Prat, and the homemade, barrel-stored recipes of Spanish abuelas, Americans are quickly claiming vermouth as their own. A wealth of wines, botanicals, and aromatics invites limitless preparations: small-batch producers such as Vya from California, Uncouth Vermouth from Brooklyn, and Atsby from Long Island experiment with American wines and foraged herbs to come up with distinctly flavored versions. California-based Tempus Fugit Spirits, meanwhile, capitalizes on the mystique of church banned recipes from the 16th century for Piedmontese-style bottlings. Closer to home, Giancarlo Mancino, who is based in Hong Kong, has produced Mancino Vecchio, a limited-edition barrel-aged vermouth, blended with as many as 38 botanicals.
The revival sees no sign of slowing down, definitely not in the United States, where more and more bartenders are creating cocktails with vermouth as the star, and not even in Barcelona, where Albert Adrià opened Bodega 1900, a vermutería specializing in you know what. Manila has yet to catch up, with great bottles such as Carpano Antica Formula, Cocchi, and Dolin being sold only by specialty purveyors and stocked by more serious bars. We know, however, that Manila is not immune to trends, and with a drinking and dining public that’s proving to be more eager, informed, and discerning, there might just be more of us indulging in vermouth on its own.
Make your way to The Curator, Bank Bar, ABV, and Lusso, which all have excellent vermouths in the fridge.
Margarita Forés introduces the Italian vermouth aperitivo at Lusso. Greenbelt 5, 756.5893.