Vermouth… Some Practical Hints

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This is a reproduction of a 1945 Wines & Vines article. It may be under copyright but I’m reproducing it anyhow to make the information more available and give the wonderful people at inter library loan a break. Hopefully this great body of work can help rejuvenate interest in aromatized wines.

by George V. Carson

As an old hand in making both dry and sweet vermouth, I have read with great interest H. Otto Sichel’s excellent article about vermouth in the March issue of Wines & Vines. There is no doubt in my mind that domestic vermouth is going to stay, especially as it is quite feasible to produce vermouth in this country on a par with the best French and Italian products. Some herbs now obtainable are not so intensive as those formerly imported from Europe, but in the not too distant future we may expect to import these again which will greatly ease the work of the vermouth producers.

There are a few points in Mr. Sichel’s article which might be elucidated with advantage. Speaking from many years’ practice, I would like to give a few hints as to the best way of producing both dry and sweet vermouth under present conditions of government regulations and market conditions.

There have been published innumerable vermouth formulas, both in Europe and in this country—some fantastic, some misleading, but hardly a single one of them can be used with good practical results. European houses try to keep their formulas secret and it is not likely that the published formulas actually are those being used in a recognized winery. Nevertheless, after many years of research and experimenting I can say that, with eight extract of herbs for dry vermouth and six extracts for sweet, it is possible to produce qualities as good as any manufactured in France or Italy.

I do not favor the addition of herbs directly to the wine. It is much better to macerate these herbs in fortified white wine of 21 per cent alcohol, in separate containers, stirring them daily for two to three weeks. Of these macerated herbs, one-half of 1 percent of some, and up to 5 per cent of others, are added to the fortified white wine, together with other wines or sweetening material to turn it into vermouth.

The maceration in white fortified wine or unbaked sherry material is quite as effective as any method used in Europe. There, brandy or neutral spirits, cut down to 20 to 25 per cent by volume, is being used in the process of maceration, with the cutting down being effective in some cases by water at or near the boiling point. It is new to me “that in Italy herbs are being macerated in spirits of about 170 proof” which is equal to 85 per cent by volume –a procedure which, in my opinion is more likely to kill the aroma than to bring it out.

According to article 86-A, regulations No. 7, approved October 6, 1937, amended-distilled spirits may be used for manufacturing essences “to extract and hold in solution the flavoring materials” for vermouth. However, as the distilled spirits for such essences have to be taxpaid, the above method, while being quite as effective, is more economical.

It is advisable, after the herbs have been macerated sufficiently, to make a trial blend in a small quantity to ascertain whether the combination is according to the quality desired or whether adjustments are necessary.

This trial blend should be observed for at least three weeks, so as to be sure that there is no excessive bitterness in the finished product. Artemesia and some other herbs have the tendency sometimes to develop an excessively bitter taste after some weeks, but it is a taste which cannot be detected immediately. However, if the trial blend is satisfactory after about three weeks in storage, the big blend can be produced in safety.

Speaking about herba absinthii or artemisia I would like to point out that, as far as I am aware, no law in this or any other country prohibits the use of these herbs for maceration, the product of which is harmless. The distillation of these herbs, however, is outlawed in most countries because the end product is absinth, a liquor that is considered harmful. As for the basic material to be used for dry and sweet vermouth, any sound, neutral white wine with a high total of fixed acidity fortified to 21 per cent for dry and 24 per cent for sweet vermouth can be employed. As the white wines with the necessary fixed acidity are scarce in California the addition of citric or tartaric acid as suggested by Mr. Sichel is indicated.

The same wines should be used for the maceration of the herbs.

For sweet vermouth the addition, beside sugar, of about 10 per cent of a good muscatel with greatly improve the quality, while dry vermouth needs only a very slight addition of sugar or sweet wine, refrigeration of the finished product is highly advisable.

It would greatly facilitate the production of vermouth if fortification of white wine, sweetening material and extracts of herbs were to be permitted in the fortifying room of a winery, as suggested in my article, “some suggestion to simplify regulations concerning the production of dessert wines,” published in no. 5 of Wines and Vines in may, 1943.

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This article seems to be a reply to another article in Wine & Vines by a Mr. Sichel. I do have a request in for Sichel’s article with inter library loan and hopefully will have it soon. One of the important things to take away from the article is Carson’s take on vermouth’s high art style of exclusivity. He theorizes that many of the available vermouth recipes might even be intentionally misleading. He is confident that 8 botanicals can make a vermouth though I think it would create flavors fun but less refined as in Carpano’s Antica. Carson’s maceration technique is notable. He infuses at the minimum of alcohol that can keep the wine stable so as not to over extract the botanicals. Carson claims the European’s do the same but differs in that he primarily uses wine as the base instead of water and a distillate. He claims it is for tax purposes but it also has the effect of preserving the natural acidity in the wine which is pointed out as a problem in California wines. (though its noted you can just add acid powder)

Carson’s maceration advice would probably help in production of cocktail bitters. I’ve tasted too many lately that were ruthlessly bitter in a negative way. In my opinion, bitters do not have to be bitter. They are merely a set of extracts that borrowed the name “bitters” from their previously medicinal heritage. To make them non potable the TCB should focus, not on making them objectionably “bitter” but rather on having a sufficiently high extract. extract. Being over a certain level probably sufficiently leads to non potability.

Interestingly, Carson explains vermouth’s take on wormwood. It is not illegal until its distilled and it comes across as the less it is talked about, the better (to avoid scrutiny). Carson never really talks about the analytical technique of constructing a formula and over all seems like he is making budget vermouth and not high art stuff. Amerine’s bibliography of vermouth has another article by Carson in it that is mainly about proposals for the tax code and the abstract notes that all of his suggestions were adopted.

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