Actually, What is Vermouth?

To celebrate Vermouth Day, I decided to open a couple bottles of La Pivón from Madrid. But maybe I should talk about what Vermouth is, before I get specific about this one. Because I’ve found that most people don’t really know what Vermouth is, even if they have a bottle at home.

It’s easy to be confused about Vermouth, which is a fortified local wine enhanced with herbs and spices. Traditionally, both red and white styles of vermouth are made with white wine.

White vermouth can be dry or sweet: the label will tell you. Red vermouth is always a little sweet. The red coloring comes from some of the dozens of herbs and spices in this fortified wine. Because vermouth is so complex, you can simply pour it over ice, and you’ve got an invigorating aperitif. Or you can use it in a cocktail.

Vermouth was invented in Turin, Italy, in the late 1700s. Contrary to many internet postings, vermouth was not originally a medicinal wine. Instead, it was one of the first entertaining drinks. From the beginning, people have sipped it at the end of the day with a few snacks, using the occasion to have a little pause at the end of the day, before dinner. But rather than dulling the senses, vermouth’s spicy flavors and fragrances serve as a stimulant, opening the palate and renewing one’s energy for the evening. More cocktails than you can imagine have originated with vermouth: the Manhattan, the Martini and the Negroni are a few of the classics.

By the early 1800s demand for vermouth was skyrocketing. Many of today’s top Vermouth companies were founded during the 19th century in Italy as well as in France. Each used their local white wine along with both regional and imported herbs, and many of these vermouths were exported around the globe.

Vermouth production also spread to northern Spain, where producers put their own spin on vermouth in terms of wines and herbs. Soon the concept of a daily “vermouth hour” (la Hora del Vermut) became embedded in the culture of Barcelona, Tarragona, Reus and other northeastern Spanish cities.

Local bars created their own proprietary blends, and gained local followings – a custom that has been re-energized with vermouth’s worldwide explosion in popularity in the 21st century.

However, Spanish vermouths were rarely exported. Until now, when some of the enterprising sherry producers in Jerez, in the south of Spain have begun making really lovely vermouths with the same wines they use to make sherry – which they do have the capacity to export, so we may be seeing more of them in the US and UK in the near future.

Madrid is another city where in-house (or in-bar) vermouth production has, once again, become increasingly popular – though these vermouths are rarely found outside the local area. But one particular Madrid vermouth producer has begun to export a line of vermouth called La Pivón, which is a slang term for a very attractive person (sometimes written la pibón). And the La Pivón producers recently sent me their blanco (white) and rojo (red) styles to taste (retailing for around $27).

Red vermouth was the first style of vermouth ever produced. It is called rojo in Spanish, rouge in French and rosso in Italian, and its color comes from the herbs and spices traditionally macerated and then blended with white wine. La Pivón Rojo has a rose floral aroma and a substantial body, but it is lighter in feel and flavor than many other vermouths. Its lengthy finish carries vermouth’s signature bitter tones, still lightly held. Good on its own over ice, with orange or tangerine or lemon. Or in cocktails — though I would minimize any other ingredients in the drink so they don’t overwhelm the La Pivón Rojo.

There is a “dry” style of white vermouth, but the traditional “white” vermouth is lightly sweet. It’s called blanco in Spanish (blanc in French and bianco in Italian), and is also made with a dozen or more different herbs and spices. Rounded and flavorful, it works well both in cocktails and on its own. This particular white vermouth, La Pivón Blanco, has orange and herbs in the aroma, a solid mid-palate with herbs, florals and cinnamon-spice flavors, and a very light, short finish. I would recommend La Pivón Blanco as an aperitif: poured over ice, enhanced with mandarin orange slices and a touch of sparkling water.