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Back in vogue, vermouth takes center stage in Austin bar programs

“Make it with vodka, stirred, while waving an unopened bottle of vermouth over it.”

During the martini craze of the early 2000s, Austin bartender Travis Tober remembers making them, as requested, without vermouth — even though the classic cocktail, decades before then, had relied on the fortified, aromatized wine for extra flavor and less alcohol.

Author Adam Ford’s initial experience, as he wrote in his recently published book on vermouth, was similar.

“I thought I looked cool pouring a dash into a martini glass and then dumping it out.”

Both now are ardent supporters of having vermouth both in cocktails and all by itself, either up or on the rocks and accompanied by a slice of citrus fruit. As beverage director for new South Lamar Boulevard restaurant Vox Table, Tober’s incorporated vermouth into a handful of cocktails there and has made it clear to anyone who orders a martini that it’ll come with vermouth. He’s otherwise careful of the use of the still-dirty word.

“We don’t like to use the v-word. We say ‘fortified wine’ instead,” he says.

Ford, in his book “Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture” (The Countryman Press, $24.95), is a little more optimistic. After all, as the creator of a lauded American vermouth called Atsby, he’s seen attitudes shift considerably in favor of it, no matter if it’s from France, Italy or the U.S., now the major producers of vermouth. He’s a convert, too.

Vermouth, a wine fortified with a neutral spirit like brandy and infused with botanicals like herbs and spices, used to be so widely enjoyed that it was often the dominant ingredient of cocktails in the late 1800s and beyond — specifically the martini and the Manhattan. (“A far cry from the whisper of vermouth swished over the cocktail glass for the past three generations,” Ford writes.)

It’s always been so important, in fact, that “for the past 150 years, vermouth has shaped cocktail culture in the United States more than any other spirit,” he writes.

That’s in part thanks to many longtime producers of vermouth. They are names we still recognize and drink today, such as Italy’s Carpano and Cinzano and France’s Dolin and Noilly Prat.

Carpano — which technically did not appear here until 1994 — gets the credit for inventing vermouth as a sweet red fortified, aromatized wine in 1786. Dolin and Noilly Prat, on the other side of the vermouth coin, were the first to commercialize the blanc and dry styles, respectively. Martini & Rossi, another Italian brand, is perhaps the most recognizable, the biggest seller nowadays for sweet vermouth.

What distinguishes these vermouths from other fortified and aromatized wines? It’s actually not wormwood, a common misconception, Ford writes. The bitter herb once provided major flavor to many of the vermouths on the market, but that’s changed for the most part these days. “You don’t have to use wormwood in your product to call it vermouth,” he says.

Indeed, many American vermouth producers, including his Atsby, don’t have any trace of wormwood in them, and they purposely don’t taste anything like the Old World styles. The two expressions of Atsby Vermouth, which have a base of vintage Chardonnay instead of a more neutral wine like their European counterparts, contain a total of more than 40 botanicals, from cumin to dill to shiitake mushrooms, and are sweetened with either honey or caramel.

Ford first wanted to make vermouth after a trip abroad hiking the mountains of France, Switzerland and Italy with his wife. They spent one magical night in a little town called Courmayeur and did as the locals did: ordered a glass of vermouth.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever drank,” he says. “This enigmatic flavor seemed so familiar yet so far away, something I couldn’t put my finger on.”

He only figured out that ineffable quality upon making vermouth himself a few years later, discovering that it “turned out to be simply using the highest quality, locally sourced base ingredients and caring a great deal for the process.”

But you don’t have to be producing vermouth to fall under its spell — just ask Tober at Vox Table. Currently, his bar program has about eight cocktails on the menu featuring vermouth or another fortified, aromatized wine, such as Bonal or Cocchi Americano. He says he’ll always have about six to 10 of them on the menu at a time, just to get people on board with the idea of drinking them.

“For the first five years I bartended, I used maybe a quarter of a bottle of vermouth,” he says. “In the two months we’ve been opened, we’ve only gone through four bottles of Grey Goose and over 140 bottles of Cocchi. I think the culture is finally sort of changing.”

All of Vox Table’s martinis come with vermouth, he says. And one day, when the New American restaurant is open for lunch, he even wants to bring back the “Mad Men”-era three-martini lunch with heavily discounted cocktails.

At another Austin eatery, the Italian-focused Italic, the drinks menu includes a list of mainly Italian vermouths that are all served on the rocks with an orange twist. Try these — I recommend the Cocchi di Torino, a well-rounded example of the bittersweet soul at the center of vermouth — once you’re ready to step beyond vermouth in cocktails. If you do, you’ll find yourself drinking vermouth exactly as many Europeans do.

“In Italy, (vermouth is) treated as a delicious way to awaken the palate before a meal,” Italic’s menu reads.

Although guests previously shied away from the vermouth, they’ll order it now as an aperitif at dinnertime, assistant general manager Zac Sagay says. That’s becoming a more widespread habit across the U.S. in general, Ford writes.

“Americans have now reached a point where we are ready for bold new flavors and ideas,” he writes. “We are getting into bitters and ‘unusual’ tastes, and vermouth should be at the forefront of introducing ever-changing, radical and delicious new flavors from now until, well, forever.”

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