Adam Ford’s “Vermouth” Brings a Sidekick Spirit Into the Spotlight
The challenge of making a sidekick sexy is a fairly daunting task. Robin’s earnestness has no swoon-worthy allure when compared to Batman’s brooding darkness. Chewbacca? Everyone’s favorite Wookiee might keep the Millennium Falcon humming, but Han Solo still gets all the credit (and all the chicks).
Vermouth—the aromatized, fortified wine that has played the dutiful supporting cast member in Martinis and Manhattans for decades—has long gotten a similarly raw deal. In spite of its botanical complexity and stomach settling benefits, vermouth was long relegated to a role as (at best) a fusty necessity within cocktail culture. In his new book, “Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America's Cocktail Culture,” Adam Ford, founder of Atsby New York Vermouth, seeks to unshackle vermouth from its place in the dust-covered trenches of the back bar and shed light on why this spirit is ready for the limelight.
A scholar both of vermouth’s past and present, Ford’s book dutifully traces its ebbs and flows in pleasantly digestible detail and a warmly conversational tone. Gingerly balancing anecdote and greater historical context, the book dials all the way back to the ancient predecessors of the first Italian wermut (vermouth) crafted in 1786, runs the story through France and Dickensian England, then finally lands in the United States, where we remain for the majority of the work.
America’s vermouth-soaked history is not without surprising stats, cameos from famous figures and fascinating glimpses into the work of unsung industry heroes. Vermouth was once spirit for the masses, and at certain points in American history, far surpassed the sales of table wine. To wit, after the ratification of the 21st Amendment, both the entire staff of the New Yorker and F.D.R. himself included vermouth as their first (officially legal) drink of choice.
Not to be outshined by presidents and the literati, vermouth’s internal history even has a few mad scientist-style celebrities of its own, most notably Otto F. Jacoby of the Berkeley Yeast Laboratory. In the 1940s, Jacoby encouraged American vermouth manufacturers to buck the trend of simply mimicking Italian and French vermouth flavors and instead to “experiment with every non-poisonous plant with a pronounced taste or odor.”
Jacoby’s desire to make American vermouth stand apart from its predecessors is a sentiment echoed time and again by Ford throughout the book. In keeping with this theme, one of the most interesting dichotomies present in “Vermouth” is the push and pull between the standard-bearing, old-line European vermouth manufacturers and their scrappy American counterparts.
Ford positions himself as a champion for the recent rebirth of high-quality American vermouth, occasionally hinting at its status as — perhaps — superior to its European counterparts. Considering the fact that Ford himself is an American vermouth maker, this should come as no surprise. The playfully sparring undercurrent is quite noticeable in Ford’s description of a scene at the 2014 Manhattan Cocktail Classic, during which “…a panel on ‘The Rise of Artisanal Vermouth in America’ presented to a sold-out crowd, while the panel hosted by Martini & Rossi to counteract the American vermouth resurgence had a significant number of empty chairs.”
While he teeters on the edge of throwing down a competitive gauntlet on numerous occasions (“American vermouth manufacturers have taken the idea of vermouth, which has, for the past 200 years, been defined by European producers and we have made the next evolutionary step...”), he always stops just short, instead genuflecting with a scholar’s grace towards the spirit’s rich history (“…Evolution, of course, doesn’t equal improvement; it refers to adaptation.”).
At the very least, Ford suggests that the majority of vermouth cocktail recipes in the book — of which there are more than two dozen — be crafted with American vermouth. Elegantly photographed with styling that oozes dark-wood-and-leather-style sophistication, recipes are broken down by the time of day or occasion when best consumed. The description of “late night” vermouth cocktails as drinks that should “keep you going like a bunny” is particularly amusing, and more of us should perhaps adopt the appetite-whetting Spanish aperitif ritual of fer vermut (“to do vermouth”) in the late afternoons.
Those curious about specific brands in America’s current vermouth’s renaissance will be pleased with the number of detailed profiles highlighting the diverse companies currently leading the charge. While this has the potential to quickly date Ford’s work (or call for constantly updated versions), there’s no finer modern pocket guide for ambling through the deeply nuanced nature of the America’s blossoming, distinctive vermouth culture.
More than just being a free-fall down a bittersweet rabbit hole or another collection of drink recipes to add to the shelf, Ford’s book also serves as a call to action and catalyst for vermouth’s future. In fact, towards the book’s end, the author out-and-out asks that Americans interested in producing their own vermouth step up to the plate.
“I encourage all people interested in getting into vermouth production to do it,” Ford trumpets, “and ask only that they commit to making vermouth with new, unique flavor profiles.”
Anyone up for the challenge?