Vermouth: Its Production & Future

Another great Wines & Vines article from 1945

Vermouth: Its Production & Future

by H. Otto Sichel

The history of Vermouth in this country is colorful and interesting to follow. Before prohibition, imported Vermouths dominated the field. Small quantities of American Vermouths were produced in California as early as 1898, but could not attain prominence against the stronger imported competition.

When repeal came in 1933, it soon became obvious that mixed drinks were more popular than ever. Vermouth, being an ingredient of two of the most widely accepted cocktails, gained in importance. The market for Vermouth was then centered in the hands of a few world famous imported brands. U.S. Vermouth could not be produced at the time, as it was subject to a triple tax: on the base wine, on the finished product and a tax for fortification. This tax burden made American Vermouths non competitive in price with the well established imports.

A change in these conditions occurred when in 1936 the Liquor Administration Act was adopted which made Vermouth liable to one single tax, the one levied on dessert wines. To benefit from these new regulations, the Vermouth maker has to comply with certain restrictions. No brandy for fortification can be added in this country, and the extract can be prepared only by the use of wine with macerated herbs. Some methods, widely practiced abroad and partly responsible for the quality and character of the imports, cannot be employed in this country, among them fortification of the base wine, flavor extraction with brandy and distillation of the extract.

Since 1937 we have seen a steady and substantial growth in the production of American Vermouths, a growth remarkable for a new industry after only eight years of existence. This trend has been tremendously boosted by the precarious situation in which the imported brands found themselves since 1940 when Italy declared war on the side of the Axis and France was overrun by the Nazis. The main source of supplies for imported Vermouths was thus eliminated almost over night. Some of the most famous brands are today imported from South American countries where a great demand for Vermouth as an aperitif wine as induced locally owned wineries—many years before outbreak of the present conflict—to acquire franchises on name, label and formula from some of the leading Italian Vermouth makers. These South American Vermouths resemble very closely the original European product. However, even from South American imports are curtailed at the present time, due to difficulties in transportation and other causes.

Meanwhile the domestic Vermouth industry was growing stronger and stronger and at least during the last 3 years, as a result of war time conditions, had no longer to contend with the full competition of well established imported brands. There are principally two Vermouth producing sections in this country: One in California with 70 Vermouth producing wineries (according to latest statistics available, ending June 30, 1943); the other one in New York New Jersey with 116 Vermouth wineries. In these three states 186 Vermouth wineries are operating, out of 238 all over the United States. The remaining 52 premises are making Vermouth in 10 additional states of the Union. Productionwise, the three states, New York, New Jersey and California, produced in 1943 almost 94 per cent of the nationally made Vermouth and nearly 80 per cent of the national tax paid withdrawals.

We have seen that since repeal the Vermouth market in this country has undergone three distinct and separate stages: first from 1933 to 1937 when imports dominated the field and no Vermouth was made domestically; then from 1937 to 1940 when a domestic industry was being built up, but was not yet strong enough to give a clear picture of the competitive position with imported Vermouth; and finally from 1940 to the present day when the domestic industry grew very strong and imports were heavily curtailed. Not by any yardstick can these last years with their artificially increased buying power of the public be considered “normal” years. Only free competition after termination of present war time restrictions will give the answer to the potential of the Vermouth field in general and to the relative strength of imported versus domestic Vermouths. Undoubtedly there will be a lucrative field for both categories.

The diagram shows the apparent consumption figures for combined imported and domestic Vermouths, for fiscal years 1935 through 1943. Consumption figures for imports for last three years are not published and are estimated. It may be worthwhile to remember that these figures represent “apparent” consumption, based on tax withdrawals, not actual consumption and therefore last year’s figure may include ample stocks in distributors’ and dealers’ hands which have not yet reached the consumer. The figures show a steady increase, almost year by year. The tremendous progress made, particularly since 1940, is very satisfying. Consumption for almost 3,000,000 gallons for 1943 is more than triple the 1935 figure and represents a 40 per cent increase over the previous year, the biggest growth both in percentage and gallonage for any individual year since repeal.

Vermouth Production

The art of making Vermouth entails great experience, long research, infinite care and much patience. Vermouth production consists of three distinct separate steps: the preparation of the base wine, the extraction of the herb flavors and finally the finishing and bottling of the product.

The wine base of sweet Vermouth is a sweetened white wine. In Italy, a wine made from a mild Muscat grape, the Muscat Canelli, served as a base for the best Vermouth of this type. It is mild in character, low in alcohol, high in sugar. Grape concentrate is added to arrive at the required degree of sweetness of about 10 per cent; the color is adjusted by caramel. The wine is then fortified with brandy. Italian law prescribes that no wines younger than one year of age may be used in the making of Vermouth.

American Vermouth regulations prohibit the addition of brandy during production. The base wine for American Vermouth is, therefore, a neutral dessert wine type of 21 to 24 per cent alcohol, most frequently a blend of an Angelica or White Port type wine with Muscatel. It is sweetened with sugar or grape concentrate and blended with other wine of lower alcohol content so as to reach the desired 16 to 18 per cent of alcohol. Acidity of the blend is adjusted by citric acid. Baked Sherry wine should be avoided; its rancid flavor is undesirable in Vermouth. Wines from the east of the country must be used with caution, as the foxiness of the native grape tends to overshadow the herb flavor. The more neutral California wines are generally favored.

Base wine for American dry Vermouths are similarly blended from white table wines and fortified Sauterne type wines of about 24 per cent, thereby arriving at a blend of about 18 to 19 per cent alcohol. In France, the neutral light colored wines from the department Herault, well aged for two or three years, are considered the most desirable. They are often blended with a slightly sweeter and fuller wine made from the Grenache grape. These blends are then fortified with brandy to about 18 per cent; their sweetness is adjusted by adding “mistelles” (fortified grape juice). It appears that both in France and Italy considerably more time is allowed for the aging of the base wine than is usual in this country.

Flavor and aroma of Vermouth is derived from a carefully selected variety of herbs, seeds, flowers, fruits, barks, and peels. The herb formulas used show great individual differences as to quantity and composition. The origin, right selection, relative quantities and absolute purity of the herbs is of utmost importance to the quality of the finished product. Most herbs are imported in dried form. Their storage should be given great attention since many of them easily acquire a certain mustiness if stored in an insufficiently ventilated warehouse, whereas too much ventilation results in loss of flavor-giving properties.

About 60 to 80 herbs and other ingredients are known to be part of the numerous herb formulas. An individual herb mixture for sweet Vermouth has anywhere between 10 and 30 different herbs, whereas recipes for dry Vermouths consist of scarcely more than 20 different ingredients, The exact composition of the herb mixture used is a jealously guarded secret of the producers, though some of the older recipes, mainly of European origin, have been published. The occasional stories of a herb formula consisting of 100 and more ingredients, belong to the realm of fancy.

Another point of great variance is the quantity of herb mixture necessary to produce one gallon of Vermouth. Quantities as low as ½ ounce and as high as 4 ounces have been suggested. Average figures in this country are in the neighborhood of 1 to 1.2 ounce of herbs per gallon sweet Vermouth and .5 to .7 ounce per gallon of dry Vermouth.

In the following are listed those herbs and parts of the plants which we most frequently encounter in Vermouth formulas:

Coriander (seed)

Bitter Orange (fruit peel)

Angelica (root and seed)

Calamus (root)

Chincona (bark)

Clove (flower)

Elecampane (root)

Cinnamon (bark)

European Centaury (plant)

Roman Wormwood (plant)

Gentian (root)

Elder (flowers)

Blessed Thistle (plant) is mainly used for dry Vermouth, though occasionally we may find it also in herb mixtures for sweet Vermouths. Coriander and Cloves are more important for production of sweet Vermouth and only infrequently found in recipes for dry Vermouth. Other ingredients such as Lesser Cardamon (fruit), Anise (seed), Tonca (beans), Vanilla (beans), Quassia (wood), Dittany of Crete (aerial portion and flowers), Germander (plant) and many other may be part of the herb formula. This list is far from complete.

An important ingredient in some of the original Italian sweet Vermouth formulas and in most of the older French herb mixtures for dry Vermouth was the wormwood herb (artemisia absinthium) which contains the glucoside absinthe. The use of this herb is prohibited today, in this country as well as in most foreign countries, as absinthe is classed as a habit forming drug, impairing the public health. Another member of the artemisia family, however, artemisia pontica or Roman wormwood, is harmless and frequently used in herb-mixtures for sweet Vermouths.

Whereas flavor and aroma of Vermouth are quite characteristic, the composition of the herb mixture varies widely. It is typical for the great variety of herbs used, that of 12 Vermouth formulas before us, not one single herb is a component of all of these 12 herb recipes.

Before the outbreak of the present war, most herbs were imported to this country; some from Europe and many from the Far East, the traditional treasure house for spices and herbs since time immemorial. Wartime restrictions have led to a great shortage of many of these herbs. Successful attempts have been made in many instances to either substitute such herbs for similar ones available here or to grow formerly imported herbs in the Western Hemisphere. The flavor of such “home grown” herbs is satisfactory, but its intensity is frequently less pronounced than in the imported varieties. To counteract the diminished pungency, a slightly increased quantity per gallon of Vermouth is often advisable.

To impart the herb flower to the base wine is a delicate operation. The herb mixture is either allowed to macerate directly in the wine or a concentrated extract is prepared which is later blended with the base wine. In certain proportions. The herb flavor is most frequently extracted with wine or alcohol; boiling water is occasionally used. The usual method of flavor extraction for production of dry Vermouth in France is by infusion in the wine base. In Italy, the herbs macerate for one week in spirits of about 170 proof; the extract is then mixed with some more alcohol and white wine. This blend is sometime concentrated by distillation to about half its original volume and after several weeks of rest is blended with the base wine.

Extraction of herbs with spirits of brandy is prohibited in this country. Preparation of an extract by maceration is the most generally accepted method and is favored over direction infusion in the wine since it guarantees a more uniform quality of the finished product. The herbs stay in the wine for one to three weeks during which time they are constantly stirred. If they are left in contact with the wine for too extended a period, an undesirable bitterness of flavor may result. Occasionally percolation instead of the simpler method of maceration is used. Some herbs and barks, known to cause cloudiness in Vermouth, are subjected to individual extraction and separate treatment of the infusion from such components is advisable to avoid sediment in the Vermouth later on.

The extract should be allowed to age till the varied flavor components are well “married” and no one herb dominates over others. The herb concentrate is then blended with the base wine in predetermined proportions. Further aging over several months is highly recommended to improve the quality. The finishing methods usually employed for treatment of dessert wine are applied. Refrigeration at low temperatures is frequently a necessary step to precipitate certain chemical substances derived from the herbs which, if not eliminated, may lead to cloudiness. The Vermouth should be fined and filtered and then is ready for bottling. Aging in the bottle for more than two months is unnecessary, as it will not improve the quality of the product.

The Future of Vermouth

During the last 10 years we have seen an astonishing growth of Vermouth sales from a yearly figure of less than ½ million cases to well over 1 million in 1943. The figure for 1943 alone constitutes a 40 per cent increase over the previous year. A similar growth is not expected in 1944; the consumption figure for this year is anticipated to be about the same as in 1943.

To what, then, can we look forward in Vermouth sales when, after termination of the war, more normal conditions prevail on the market again? The whiskey shortage of the last two years is certainly responsible in part for the increased consumption. Many bars and restaurants, being short of whiskey and gin, tried to stretch existing stocks by boosting mixed drinks, such as Manhattans and Martinis. A more ample whiskey supply and reduced earning power of the public are likely to reduce consumption of mixed drinks to a normal level after return of pre-war conditions. It is our opinion that additional promotional efforts to increase the consumption of these cocktails will be of little avail: The drinks are too well known to respond casily to further sales promotion. Their peace time consumption is nearing the saturation point.

More promising is the field of lesser-known mixed drinks made with Vermouth. In this category we mention the great favorite of pre-war France, Vermouth Cassis. This delightful drink, if promoted by smart sales efforts, may become a summer favorite and thereby create a new outlet for Vermouth.

However, any further substantial expansion of the Vermouth business beyond its present level depends on successful education of the public towards consumption of straight Vermouth. It is so used in Italy and France almost exclusively. Too many consumer in this country, when using Vermouth think of it only as an ingredient for mixed drinks. They are unaware that Vermouth is in itself a fully finished product, a “herb cocktail” that can stand on its own merits. It may be taken either straight, slightly chilled with a piece of lemon peel twisted over it, as an appetizer, or as a long drink, a Vermouth highball. Great efforts should be made to make the consuming public understand that Vermouth is a wine and a most enjoyable one at that. Good progress has been made in this direction during the last two years. It is in the sphere of straight Vermouth consumption that we see a great potential for further expansion of the Vermouth business in this country.

Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth

I had requested an article from inter library loan to try and learn more about vermouth production. The article was from the 1948 Wines & Vines publication which is really hard to come across. Hopefully some day they will all be digitized and archived on the web but until then I might just have to type them up and break some copyright laws. Tragically, the article is not overly useful and has a secretive tone. I got the reference to the article from Maynard Amerine’s Vermouth: an annotated bibliography and it seemed like the most promising place to start.

I’m going to plagiarize the entire article and retype the scanning that was sent to me for the sake of education.

Bo, M. J., and M.J. Filice

1948. Gold medal sweet vermouth. Wines & vines 29 (8):27.

From Amerine’s abstract:

“The author’s describe their method of flavoring the sweet vermouth that won the Gold Medal at the 1947 California State Fair: acceptable wine base, herbs (from a secret Italian recipe of 1924), and the process (details given). The authors controlled the plant part used, its source, and the effect of plant particle size. Experiments showed that source of herbs was important. Some herbs gave better results when granulated, other when powdered and others at specific particle size. Their process involved leaving the wine in contact with herbs (starting at 60 degrees C and leaving for 24 hours). The finished vermouth was then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavoring and aromatic components.”

The article:

Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth by Michael J. BO and Michael J. Filice San Martin Vineyards Company

In this article we wish to present the inside story of San Martin Sweet Vermouth, Gold Medal winner in competition at the California, 1947, State Fair, and to discuss the basic principles adhered to in its preparation.

THE WINE BASE

In selecting our wine base we turn to well-aged special dessert type wines only, which are stable, clean and clear. Samples of these wines are taken to the laboratory where a series of small scale blends are conducted. Blending is carried on until a base, balanced as closely as possible in total acidity, volatile acidity, and alcohol, is obtained–and one which is consistent, in flavor and aroma with previous wines used.

We want our wine base to possess a certain delicate aroma and flavor, because we have found that it is complementary to our particular formula. It forms a harmonious blend with the herbs employed both in aroma and flavor. It gives a finished product possessing the characteristics strived for.

Experimentation with several other wine bases obtained through various blends and the use a a neutral wine base in conjunction with our particular formula have failed to give us the same quality and desirable characteristics.

From this we concluded that, in order to bring out the best qualities of a combination of herbs used in any particular formula, the wine base used was definitely an essential factor. Every effort was made to find one that would do most to enhance our herb recipe.

THE HERBS

The selection and combination of the herbs used in developing a vermouth formula is almost unlimited.

The plant portions utilized are the seeds, flowers, barks, stems, leaves and roots. Each of these portions taken from the same herb plant, in most cases, will produce from shades to marked differences in flavor and aroma.

During the many years required to develop our formula to its present composition, we had as a basis for our work a secret Italian recipe, obtained through family sources in Italy about 1924. The combination of herbs contained therein gave us to a close degree the characteristics we desired, but not exactly what we wanted.

We sought, therefore, to change the imported recipe to an extent necessary to make it conform exactly with what we had in mind. Through the long experimental process of adding other herbs to the formula, substituting and eliminating, we found that herb recipe that met with our satisfaction.

We then decided to investigate the possibility of improving and refining that which we already had, without making any material changes in the constituent elements. This decision narrowed the avenues through which improvement might be realized to primarily the following three:

1. To conduct experiments using different portions of the same herb plant than the one called for by the formula.

2. To purchase herbs from different reliable botanical firms, both in this country and abroad, compare their qualities and note what effect each would have when exclusively used in our formula and when used in combination with herbs obtained from other firms.

3. To explore the effect of herb particle size in the extraction of desirable flavors to the elimination of those least desirable.

The first mentioned series of experiments brought about one advantageous and desirable change. The portion used, in the case of one herb, was changed from the seed to the root.

In the second series of experiments, results noted in the laboratory proved that the same herb purchased from several different botanical houses did not in all cases afford the same quality in the finished product. We therefore confined our purchasing of individual herbs to those firms whose particular product did more, in our estimation, to improve our vermouth. Such tests have been preserved as an integral part of our vermouth production.

In the third approach, extractions were made of whole, chopped, granulated and powdered portions of the different herbs used in the formula. Results of subsequent comparisons, demonstrated that certain herbs yielded a more preferred extraction when in granulated form, and others when in a powdered form. From that time forward our herbs have been ordered, specifying particle size, in conformity with the above mentioned tests, with the same desirable results in evidence.

THE PROCESS

Following the determination of the wine base blend in the laboratory, a corresponding large scale blend is made in the cellar, the total amount being based on the quantity of vermouth we have decided to produce.

Approximately 5 per cent of the prepared wine base is pumped in the vermouth processing tank and heated to 140 degrees F. The herbs, accurately weighed, are placed in the hot wine and all openings of the tank tightly closed in order not to lose any of the volatile aromatic constituents. The herbs are allowed to stay in contact with the hot wine for a period of 24 hours, after which the remainder of the wine base, at cellar temperature, is added.

The mass is allowed to stand for 24 hours more and is then circulated daily, by means of a small pump, for a period of seven days. On the seventh day, a sample is drawn and checked for flavor and aroma. This procedure is followed daily until the desired flavor and aroma have developed. Under no circumstances do we allow a complete extraction of the herbs, because with our particular formula we have found that partial extraction of the herbs gives us a much smoother vermouth, free from harsh tannins, etc.

When the maceration is completed, the sugar content is adjusted to 10 Balling by the use of concentrate and pure cane sugar. It is then filtered and, if necessary, stabilized in the usual manner.

The finished vermouth is then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavorings and aromatic components. When this condition is considered, through periodical tastings, to have been accomplished, the vermouth is bottled and held in storage as a backlog for future market requirements.

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So I see how they are very analytical and systematically tried many different options but I could have figured that out myself. I would love to find more logic to particle extraction like maybe powder things that can be fully extracted like an orange peel and go upwards in particle size as you want to minimize the extraction like your wormwood or overly bitter roots.

What I’m looking for is a language that was used to describe the shades of difference producers sorted through. How do you describe the different shades of something elemental like orange peel? and what is the difference between quality within herbs and terroir?

What are the mechanics of the wine base and how do they function relative to particular herb formulas. Perhaps formulas with less fruit modifiers rely less on a high extract wine base and neutral wine bases came to be because producers would build more fruit modifiers into their herb formulas and therefore streamline their massive productions as well as hedge against year to year variance. Does the language in these articles ever get more useful than “it forms a harmonious blend”?