If somebody offered us a vermouth and asked: "Italian or French?" We would probably answer: "A Savoyan". Because that's where they come from, the former Duchy of Savoy. Or was it Germany? And more importantly where are they now? Italy, France? Yes and Spain and a little bit everywhere actually, even Belgium has one. Vermouth is fantastic, but instead of the countless classic cocktails you can make with it or mix it with tonic, you can also drink it differently.
In most cases, years ago, when you asked somebody what vermouth is, you got the following common knowledge: ” Oh well, erm… let’s see. It’s an Italian fortified wine with lots of herbs and stuff, very nice. Oeh! And the French have a drier, white version of it. Excellent in fish sauces.” Fast forward a couple of years and the more savvy, suave and sartorial bartenders twisted their waxed moustaches and added passionately – with twinkling eyes – the following facts: it all started in the thriving city of Turin in the late 17OO’s with a gentleman called Antonio Benedetto Carpano who made it into the wonderful aperitif which we all know today. The name comes from the German word “wermut” which means ‘wormwood’ in English and is one of the defining ingredients of the drink. Etc, etc, …
This is all true and you’re somehow fine with it, until after a while you realise something is gnawing at you. Why would an Italian spirit vendor name his invention after the French pronunciation of the German word for one of the herbal ingredients in it. He could have called it “Assenzio”, no? Or “Vino Assenzio”. He didn’t, this later came to be the name for absinthe, you know the drink made of… yes, wormwood (officially called ‘artemisia absinthium’). Still with me?
So, why did he call it ‘vermut’? Well, we’ll never know, but the following is how we like to see it. Mister Carpano didn’t invent his drink, but rather made a personalised version of an old drink, which stopped being popular 100 years earlier: wormwood wine. More specific: German wormwood wine (from the Habsburgian Holy Roman Empire).
Now, we all know that people have been putting stuff in their wine ever since the first man accidentally squished a grape, but apparently wormwood is something particular. This goes as far as Ancient Egypt if you please (probably to try to revive erroneously mummified persons or something), then centuries later the Greeks almost made a sport out of it and left us with a couple of dozens of recipes. Then the Romans put a “made in the Roman Empire” stamp on it, mainly by conquering Greece. After that everything becomes a little hazy in the Dark Ages only for it to come back as a perfect medicine against the plague and all sorts of intestinal parasites (“worms”) and stomach aches in general. This vaguely reminds us of the origin of genever, which was also conceived as a cure against the plague in a similar fashion, only instead of wormwood you’d put in juniper berries.
Anyways, fast forward a couple of centuries and we arrive at the pinnacle of popularity of German wormwood wine (16th – 17th Century) and of course the Holy Roman Empire by then was stretched to its outmost borders. Guess what was part of it then? Yes, the Duchy of Savoy, including Turin and Chambéry (home of Dolin).
Wormwood wine spread widely in those days. Of course, we had our own version in Belgium and the Netherlands called “Alsem wine“. ‘Alsem‘ being the Dutch word for wormwood. Now alsem wine made his introduction into the British Isles thanks to… yes, William III, the Dutch-born king who gave the English people gin, because they couldn’t pronounce genever. Now, funny fact, they also seemed to have trouble with something as simple as the word ‘alsem’ and quickly dubbed it ‘wholesome wine‘ (which is almost the pronunciation of the Dutch word ‘alsem’). Mind you, the British already knew wormwood wine long before William III and produced it under the name of “eisel”, but they must have liked and imported alsem wine too.
In short we can conclude that practically everybody made his version of wine aromatised with wormwood and by the 16th-17th Century people started fortifying it. Until the hype died in 1700. Upon which Carpano decided to relaunch it in 1786. And with great success! By the 19th century vermouth was all over the place and the aperitif of choice. But how did they drink it?
Well apparently a lot like they drink their coffee, in small amounts and standing up. On the go, as it were. We don’t really know the measurements, I think it must have been something between 3 and 6 cl, a Piedmont glass maybe (4,5cl). Later in bigger glasses when they started to add soda water. Actually I still like it this way, it is delicious on a hot summer afternoon. Soon they added drops of bitters to their vermouth and the Milano Torino was created when using Campari. Later the Americano arrived. No one really knows why they called it like that, but there are of course several theories.
- it has nothing to do with Americans, but refers to the Italian word for bitter “amaro”. Personally I don’t think that this one is correct, because they would have called it “amaricato” and not Americano.
- They called it so, because it was very popular with American tourists of those days. We doubt this one too, otherwise a lot of things would have been called “americano”, like an americano with extra cheese and olives or an americano bolognese, etc…
- It refers to the style of the drink, “American style“, drink. The theory goes that it being a ‘mixed drink’, a cocktail, they called it an American style drink. We like this idea better, although we don’t believe it refers to the “mixed drink” part.
- So we want to add a fourth theory: it is called Americano, referring to American style drink, because it was probably served in larger than usual quantities, adding soda and -more importantly- had ice (cubes) in it. Suppose they drank the first Milano Torinos like they drank their vermouth, meaning in small quantities, the amaro added literally in drops and later they would prefer their Milano Torino made the American way and ordered: “Milano Torino, Americano.”Which could later have been abbreviated to just “Americano”.
It also makes more sense when you consider the origin of the Negroni as being told by the inventor himself: Fosco Scarselli, in an 1962 interview. Fosco tells us that Count Negroni liked to drink Americanos and preferred them a bit stronger, “so I added a few drops (!) of unsweetened gin to his drink.” Then he continues: “the Count’s habit of adding a few drops of bitter (amaro) to his cocktail started to spread among the other customers and soon they were ordering ‘Negronis’.” Considering the ingredients of a Negroni we must conclude that his Americano must have been vermouth over ice perhaps with a splash of soda.
Anyway, ordering your “Savoyan vermouth, American style” in this day and age will get you nowhere, but you can say: “vermouth on the rocks with a splash of soda, please and an orange wheel.” And that’s how we prefer to drink it, sometimes even omitting the soda. You know vermouth isn’t just there as a mixing ingredient, it can very well carry its own. Do try it!
If you want to learn more about vermouth, be sure to read the excellent ‘Mixellany Guide To Vermouth‘ by Jared Brown & Anistatia Miller. More about the Negroni in ‘Negroni Cocktail, An Italian Legend‘ by Luca Picchi.