war on the rocks

The Americano and Vermouth, or How to Drink Like Bond

April 24, 2015

You would be hard-pressed to find a moviegoer who doesn’t know that James Bond’s drink of choice is a “vodka martini shaken, not stirred.” However, it’s the humble Americano that has the singular distinction of being the first drink Bond ever consumes in the bar of the Hermitage Hotel in Chapter Five of Casino Royale, the first novel in the 007 series. Like all truly great cocktails, the Americano is simple and elegant. It is bold enough to enjoy slowly, mild enough to drink quickly, and it strikes the perfect balance between refreshing and rich, so that it is a pleasant accompaniment to any type of weather or mood. It is also fairly low in alcohol, which means you can knock a few back and still play cards, which is the main reason both James and I like them.

The drink features a mere three ingredients: Campari (a bitter liqueur from Milan with a candy apple red color, which many would say is the lynchpin of the drink), sweet vermouth, and soda water (Bond insisted on Perrier). Cocktail enthusiasts and the Americano’s creator might disagree, but in my opinion the vermouth used in the Americano is even more important than the Campari itself.

My assertion is somewhat outrageous given that the drink was invented in the 1860s by Gaspare Campari, in his own bar, specifically for his eponymous liqueur. Back then, it was known as a Milano-Torino; the Milano representing the hometown of Campari, and the Torino representing the hometown of a particular brand of vermouth called Carpano Antica. When discussing the original Americano, Carpano Antica and Campari are the two quintessential ingredients.

If you take a look at cocktail recipes published in the 1890s, you’ll notice that vermouth appears in all sorts of places that you wouldn’t expect, often in quantities that seem obscene by modern standards. However, by the mid-20th century, vermouth practically disappeared from the cocktail lexicon. Even Winston Churchill, who was an avid drinker of just about anything, is rumored to have prepared his martinis by merely glancing in the direction of his bottle of dry vermouth and/or bowing towards France while stirring his cocktail. So, what happened to the world’s appreciation of vermouth?

While its commercial production didn’t begin until the 18th century, vermouth has been around for a long time in the form of aromatized and fortified wines. The Romans are especially famous for spreading wine culture across Europe. While Roman wine and Bacchanalias are often romanticized in pop culture, the truth is most Roman wine was probably disgusting. Unsanitary conditions coupled with poor temperature control and storage, are typically a recipe for bad wine, and ancient Rome had these problems in spades. In reality, the lack of sanitation and food preservation techniques was one of the reasons that the ancients consumed fermented beverages in the first place. It was a way to preserve and sanitize food. However, fermentation doesn’t preserve grapes indefinitely. Acetification (the process where wine turns into vinegar) and other deteriorating processes eventually take hold and turn wine sour or otherwise unpalatable. Transporting wine across vast distances, at constantly changing temperatures, only serves to compound these negative effects.

To solve this problem, the Romans frequently added blends of aromatic herbs and spices (typically whatever was available locally) to their wine to make it more palatable. Like other herbaceous elixirs, these concoctions likely played a medicinal role in Roman society. Wormwood, known by the Romans for its palliative effects on stomach parasites, is still recommended by quacks on the Internet as a home remedy for tapeworms. It is likely also the basis for the English word vermouth. Through some etymological gymnastics, the word vermouth derives from a French bastardization of the old German for wormwood, wermut (pronounced ver-moot).

The Italians continued the tradition of aromatizing wine right up until the commercial production of vermouth began in 1786 with Antonio Carpano. By this time, distillation had been perfected in Europe, and wine could be fortified (e.g. have neutral grain spirit added) as well as aromatized to help preserve it even longer. Carpano’s vermouth became an emblematic example of the Turin style of vermouth which we know today as Italian or “sweet” vermouth. The French or “dry” style emerged shortly after Carpano in nearby Savoy, France. Much like their Roman predecessors, all of these aromatized wines were mixed with herbs and spices.

By late 1800s vermouth was wildly popular in the United States where it was consumed straight, over ice and in cocktails such as the Manhattan and the Martini. American soldiers bolstered the popularity of vermouth after sampling various parochial styles whilst deployed in France, Germany, and Italy during their tours in WWI. American demand for vermouth and its subordinate cocktails fueled an explosion of brands and styles that ultimately led to the Italians renaming the Milano-Torino to pay homage to the American lust for the Campari/Carpano cocktail.

Vermouth never quite recovered from the deleterious effects of Prohibition on American drinking culture. However it did enjoy a brief spike in popularity during the Mad Men-era of the 1950s and 60s. European manufacturers modified their traditional recipes to try and appeal to the changing taste preferences in America. Kina Lillet, the original vermouth in James Bond’s Vesper martini (technically Kina Lillet is a quinquina, meaning a wine aromatized with cinchona, or quinine as opposed to other traditional aromatics), was changed in the 1980s to Lillet Blanc, a sweeter version made to appeal to the American market.

Across the board, vermouth gradually faded away as an ingredient, and was less commonly enjoyed on its own as it was in the past. It’s now all-too-common to see vermouth bottles stored unrefrigerated for months on end collecting dust and deteriorating from the effects of light and oxidation. It’s no wonder that Americans, whose only experience with vermouth comes from one of these unfortunate bottles, no longer want to order drinks that have vermouth as a primary ingredient.

The cocktail renaissance in the United States is beginning to change that, and vermouth is making a comeback as well. There are even a burgeoning number of American-produced brands and styles. None of these, however, can compete with the original: Carpano Antica Formula. I think James Bond would agree.

Recipe for the Milano-Torino, aka the Americano:

1oz Carpano Antica Formula
1oz Campari
2oz Perrier
Build in a Collins glass over ice and garnish with an orange slice. Drink.

 

Frank Swigonsk is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.

 

Photo credit: Rob Ireton