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Vermouth: History and Legal Regulations

VermouthAt this year's Golden State of Cocktails in Los Angeles, I attended a seminar by Giuseppe Gallo called "The Truth About Vermouth." 

I knew a few things having visited both Martini and Noilly Prat in the past (follow those links to my distillery visit posts), but learned a lot more about the history and legal categorization of vermouth during this talk. 

Below are my notes. You can see most of this information on Giuseppe Gallo's Slideshare page as well.

  • The word "vermouth" is based on the word for wormwood.
  • Absinthe (also containing wormwood) is based on the Greek word for unpalatable, referring to wormwood's bitterness.
  • Wormwood-infused wines go way, way back. 
  • The spice trade in the vermouth region was monopolized by Genova in Italy (bordering the Piedmont region in which Turin is located) and Marseille in France (across the bay from Noilly Prat's Marseillan)
  • Part of Piedmont and part of Southern France were both part of the Kingdom of Savoy at one time. Then the Chambery region (where Dolin was founded; interior of France, north of Marseille) was traded to France, and the capital of Savoy was moved to Turin (where Martini was founded). So both sweet and dry styles of vermouth can essentially be traced to one place. 
  • The first commercial vermouth was Carpano, founded in 1786. Sweet-style vermouth. A legal decree made the official style of vermouth in Turin be the sweet "rosso" style. 
  • Noilly Prat in Marseillan was a dry style of vermouth, founded in 1813. It helped make France the center of dry-style of vermouth. 
  • The EU laws for vermouth (note all legal stuff below is based on the EU law, which is not the same as in the US) are here: EEC No 1601/91 and state
    • Must be at least 75% wine
    • Must use artemesia ( of which wormwood is a member) as the main bittering agent [edit: the actual language around it is "the characteristic taste of which is obtained by the use of appropriate derived substances, in particular of the Artemisia species, which must always be used"]
    • 14.5% - 21% ABV
    • Must be fortified
  • Categories of Aromatized Wine (all have added alcohol and artemesia) are:
    • Vermouth - as above
    • Americano - with gentian as the main bittering agent, and orange peel
    • Bitter Wine - including Amer Picon. Gentian
    • Vino Chinato - quinine wine
    • Vino All'uovo - Marsala and wine-based egg liqueurs like Vuv 
  • Geographical Indications for Vermouth Can Be:
    • Vermouth d Chambery
    • Vermouth di Torino (which uses wormwood from the Piedmont region, and produced and bottled within region)
  • Sugar quantities for vermouth are:
    • (a) 'extra-dry': in the case of products with a sugar content of less than 80 grams per litre;
    • (b) 'dry': in the case of products with a sugar content of less than 50 grams per litre;
    • (c) 'semi-dry': in the case of products with a sugar content of between 50 and 90 grams per litre;
    • (d) 'semi-sweet': in the case of products with a sugar content of between 90 and 130 grams per litre;
    • (e) 'sweet': in the case of products with a sugar content of more than 130 grams per litre.
  • Martini vermouth does all their infusions into neutral alcohol, not into the wine itself
  • Martini (sweet, I assume) vermouth lasts 28 months after bottling when closed, and up to 8 months in the refrigerator after being opened. 



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Douglas Prats

When I receive visitors from abroad here in Madrid, many are surprised to discover that red vermouth is the local "official drink" of sorts, considered "typical" of the city. Many brands of red vermouth here in the Spanish capital are served ON TAP (!!!) alongside the beer, and sometimes cider (northern Spain influence in that case). The most typical time to drink this "vermú de grifo" is as an "aperitivo" before lunch. Not sure how this vermouth tradition came about. I'll let you investigate :) ¡Salud from Spain!

François Monti

It's always good to read about vermouth and see more knowledge being spread around.
A few comments, though:
a) Dry and Sweet can't be traced "to one place". Dry style wasn't invented by Dolin or anyone in Chambéry. It's really a French thing - even, in 1810. In fact, beyond sugar levels, the main difference between the original sweet Italian style and Dry French is that the first was made with wine + sugar, while the latter with wine + mistelle.
b) Artemisia is a genus that comprises hundreds of plants, many of them not wormwood. So the really interesting thing is that EU regulations *do not* force producers to use wormwood, contrarily to what's being claimed right, left and centre (I'm of course of the opinion that you *need* wormwood, but I don't make laws)
c) Americano is actually defined as gentian + wormwood (in this case, wormwood is indeed required by the EU)
Finally, Douglas' right about the Spanish tradition. Spaniards started producing vermouth 150 years ago and have never stopped. They have dozens of brands, and new ones are being launched monthly. It's all very exciting. Historically, vermouth would be stored in bars and bodegas in little barrels behind the bars and would be served from there. In the late 70's, when vermouth started losing ground to beer, some brands thought it necessary to modernize the whole thing and installed vermouth tap right next to the beer ones. They way it works is that vermouth is delivered as bag-in-box and the tap of the box is connected to the tap system. Not really sophisticated, but it odes the trick…
If Douglas is interested in Spanish vermouth history (or indeed vermouth history in general) and reads spanish, I will blow my horn and recommend he reads my book (http://www.edicionesb.com/catalogo/libro/el-gran-libro-del-vermut_3647.html) out in two weeks and available in all bookshops, physical or not.

Douglas Prats

Thanks for your thorough answer with lots of information I did not know about, François. Now I understand why I rarely seem to see the same brand twice. I'd also add that a very common way to drink vermouth here is mixed with soda water from a "sifón," when you want something a bit lighter.

Congratulations on a wonderful-looking book. I noticed that to see the link properly, one must remove the parenthesis at the end: http://www.edicionesb.com/catalogo/libro/el-gran-libro-del-vermut_3647.html Cheers.

François Monti

Yes, "sifón" is very often de rigueur and works really well with Spanish vermouth, which tends to be less bitter and lighter than classic Italian vermouths. This service method is (or rather was) not exclusive to Spain as it was very common both in France and Italy - before both country seemingly forgot about drinking vermouth unmixed.
Thanks, Douglas, for your comments. See you, maybe, at the book presentation in Madrid. There's a FB page for the book, details will be announced there.


Yep, the vermouth thing in Madrid is excellent. Loved it.

That said, most vermouth taps around central Madrid seemed to be just a couple of brands. The actual number of brands floating around is much larger, but only a few seem to have invested in tap space that puts them 'in your face' - so to speak.


"buttering agent"? Presumably you mean bittering! :)

Camper English

lol - oops, fixed.

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