Revolution in Vermouth

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Another mid century Wines & Vines article. From an anonymous author. Hopefully I can post some comments soon. A chart comparing foreign and domestically produced vermouth sales throughout the 1940’s accompanies the article. Basically, before the war foreign vermouth outsold American significantly then due to the war, American vermouth sales rose significantly and stayed that way, even after the war.

Revolution in Vermouth

How and why U.S. Vermouths, once a poor second in quality and sales to foreign Vermouths, took over the market

Essentially, vermouth is a wine which has soaked up the essences of certain herbs to give it a particular flavor.

Its tough to describe this flavor. Even the government, in spite of having at its command all the men who know all the words, can only say that vermouth is a wine which looks and tastes like vermouth.

To get that look and taste is a kind of art. Sometimes twenty-five different herbs, roots, and flowers are used, sometimes more. Each winery has its own vermouth formula and it’s quite unlikely that any two wineries use the exact same formula in making their vermouths.

Since that is the case, it’s almost a miracle how close to each other in color, bouquet and taste the various top quality vermouths come.

Vermouths made in the United States are called “Italian” or “French” without actually being labeled as such—not that anybody wants to fool the consumer, but because the terms have become descriptive of the type of vermouth.

The Italians originated the spiced wine which we now call vermouth. The French tried to copy it but their light wines could not produce the same type. Eventually, a world market was built up for both vermouth types; and the term “Italian” (sweet) or “French” (dry) is almost always used as a descriptive word.

In Europe, vermouth is often consumed alone as an apertif—an appetizer wine. In this country we use it mainly to dress up gin or whiskey so that we can call it a Martini or a Manhattan. Fifteen years ago when a U.S. Taxpayer bought a bottle of “Italian” vermouth, he got stuff made in Italy; and when he put down his money for “French” vermouth it was a cinch the contents of the bottle was produced in France. Today most vermouths sold over U.S. Retail store counters are made, spiced, and bottled right in this country.

This reversal practically constitutes a revolution—but a legal revolution, because a change in Federal law made it possible.

Previous to 1936 a U.S. Winery which made vermouth was only kidding itself that it was going to sell it. Vermouth production was handicapped, not only by lack of experienced vermouth men, but by the fact that the Treasury Department figured the spiced wine was good for double taxes.

One tax was collected on the beverage when it was turned from grape juice to wine. The second—and bigger—tax was collected when the wine was given its herbal tastes. This, our government said, was rectification and the maker should pay the same tax rate as for rectified brandy or whiskey, or what-not.

With a deal like that, it was almost impossible for a U.S. Winery to make and sell a vermouth to the public at a price in line with what the market would bear. U.S. vermouth production was practically non-existent.

But the 1936 change in the law removed the rectification tax and made it possible to produce vermouth in this country at a reasonable cost.

A number of our wineries went into the business, but it would be nothing more than charity to call their first efforts a success, either from a taste viewpoint or from a sales outlook.

But out citizens are stubborn. They don’t know when they’re licked. The industry stuck to it, learned something about vermouth production, and even imported a few European vermouth experts to take over.

The product got better, but it still was a long way from matching the imported varieties either in quality or sales.

Then came World War II. The flow of imported vermouth from Europe slowed down as gradually as a automobile which as smashed into a telephone pole. The tiny stock of European vermouth in U.S. Warehouses became smaller and smaller, while demand for vermouth obstinately got bigger and bigger.

The U.S. wine industry bugged its eyes at what was happening.

“Look,” said many a vintner to himself, “Here’s a thirsty, ready-made market for vermouth, and nobody to feed it but little old me?”

He jumped in along with many, many others. They made “Italian” vermouth and “French” vermouth, hurried it to market and sat back to await results.

The U.S. vermouths sold—but only few of them were good, and fewer excellent. However, the public needed vermouth. Practically the only vermouth to be had was that made in the U.S. and so the stuff sold.

Up to here the story of U.S. vermouth was a sad one. From this point on, it became a happier tale.

The producers got mad about not being able to make good vermouth. They brought in more experts, studied their methods, made extensive experiments, worked harder and harder, and gradually the quality of U.S. vermouth moved out of the poor range into the “fair” out of the “fair” and into the “good”–and in a few cases, even into the “excellent.” U.S. vermouths were going places.

The producers were happy, but in their hearts they knew that the real test of the future would come only after the war, when European vermouths once again got their one-way tickets to the U.S. Could our products hold their own?

In 1946, the testing period began. Vermouths began to pour into our customs houses from dollar-hungry France and Italy. Once again the store shelves carried noted foreign vermouth labels, but this time they had plenty of company from U.S. producers.

The public looked, pondered and tested, trying to make up its mind. Finally, the decision became clear. European vermouths were generally excellent; they had their place in our market. But U.S. vermouths also ranged from good to excellent, and they didn’t coast as much.

From that point on, the U.S. product was assured of its place as the big vermouth seller. Taking 1949 as an example, our consumption of U.S. vermouth and other appetizer wines was 2,385,000 gallons; of foreign vermouth, 1,021,000 gallons a ratio of 2/1/4 to 1 in our favor. (A decade ago, the ration was 7 to 1 in favor of foreign vermouths.)

In those same ten years, U.S. consumption of vermouth has increased 25 per cent—a sign of public satisfaction.

The U.S. industry has come a long way in ten years. It hopes to go farther.

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