For so long, the spirit that dare not speak its name whispered half in shame as a capped bottle briefly invaded the airspace of a martini glass while never threatening to drop its ordnance on the vodka below. But vermouth need not be an afterthought. Support for its unique contributions is growing. Vermouth’s Occupy moment is upon us.

Those of us who actually love the taste of this botanically infused elixir can come out into the light, not willing to take it anymore, and rejoice.

Real vermouth never went away, but until recently in this country, it was overshadowed by the shortcut-taking perversions foisted upon bar culture by industrialized producers who, seeking to cut costs, embraced the wonders of the chemical age in the wake of World War II and used whatever shortcuts were at hand: Corn syrup, laboratory-based flavor compounds, extracts, powders.

Faced with this marketing phenomenon, who wouldn’t want to fake splashing it in a martini or drown its offenses with cloying fruit juice?

There were always a few producers who stuck with the old ways. You take a base wine (the big brands don’t even do this; they start with a neutral spirit), fortify it and infuse it with numerous botanicals.

We who love wine especially ought to pay more attention to this real vermouth. Its intimate relationships with roots, plants and flowers render it the spirit most like wine in its susceptibility to the particularities of the natural world.

And it’s just so lovely to drink. From dry martinis that can proudly live in balance and a classic Manhattan (or just on the rocks) to the latest tightrope-walking concoctions willed into existence by avant-garde mixologists (as long as these exhibit the restraint of the artisan making the drink), it’s not only delicious, it’s subtle. Fascinating too.

My appreciation for vermouth has gained recently, but slowly. When you’re into wine, there’s always another wine out there to discover, and no other beverage has as good a chance of awakening me to the diversity of geology, climate and culture on this planet. I have a professional obligation, easy though it is to meet, to keep abreast.

When I’m out for a drink or a meal, there’s almost always some wine I’m eager to try, and I’m afraid of getting sloshed on a hard drink before the wine comes. But there are times to succumb to the happy, more human-administered pleasures that a good spirit can deliver, and for me, vermouth is it.

I’ve written previously about the vermouths of Andrew Quady, a kind of mad scientist based in California. They are wonderful if nonconformist, but the traditional vermouths of France – best delivered stateside by Boissiere and Dolin – and of Italy (chiefly, Cocchi) are revelations of purity and intrigue.

The only AOC- and DOC-designated vermouths available in the U.S., Dolin and Cocchi express the essences of their respective regions: Dolin Vermouth de Chambery from the Savoie on France’s mideastern edge, and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino in Italy’s northwest. They use indigenous grape varietals for the base wine and local plants for the infusions.

I like French vermouth for its prettiness, citrus and baking spice notes, intonations of parks and gardens; Italian for its bitter, grippy edge and more whacked-out, food-like array of flavors.

Both are well worth seeking out, first by tasting them on their own with a twist. Then, ask a trustworthy bartender or (ugly, ugly moniker) mixologist. Dolin, Boissiere and Cocchi are poured and skillfully used at several bars in the Portland area, including Hugo’s, Cinque Terre, Local 188 and Sonny’s.

Dolin makes a “dry” vermouth as well as a white and a red. Infused for at least one month with various botanicals from Chambery’s alpine meadows, with only pure sugar added, these have a stunning purity and luxurious texture.

The Rouge gains its color from rose petals and a slight caramelization of the added sugar. I adore the spruce-tinged Dry, especially with a splash of soda, and the red’s brown sugar and burnt orange notes are ideal for a Manhattan. Sold in 375-milliliter bottles for $10 and 750-milliliter bottles for $14, and distributed by Easterly.

Cocchi’s Vermouth di Torino ($19 for 750 milliliters, Easterly) carries more of those astringent characteristics that aficionados of Campari and Aperol adore. Its base wine is, brilliantly, Moscato D’Asti. (Cocchi also makes a Barolo-based spirit, at high cost.)

I love the challenge of those bitter wildflower notes merging with dry cocoa, sarsaparilla, rhubarb, blackstrap molasses and blood-orange marmalade. Spectacular and heady, definitely for the adventurous. Drink on its own, accompanied by nothing more than ice and a twist.

Cocchi’s Americano (also $19) is slightly less zany, and I’d think would play better with friends (i.e., in mixed drinks).

 

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]