Are we witnessing global reconquest by wormwood? Artemisia absinthium, the plant known in German as vermut and the chief ingredient in absinthe, is very much back in fashion. It's also one of the defining botanicals that go into vermouth, the fortified wine aperitif whose name mimics the German.
And vermouth, too, is on a roll. Martini, the old Piemontese vermouth dynasty, oddly headed by a member of the Bacardi Cuban rum family, celebrated its 150th birthday this summer by jetting a couple of containerloads of celebs and racing cars into a palazzo on Lake Como for a glittering shindig.
The company simultaneously released a new limited edition Martini Gran Lusso that supersedes the saffron-tinted, myrrh and bergamot-scented, Dolce & Gabbana-designed Martini Gold bestseller.
Gran Lusso is the brainchild of the London-based cocktail expert Giuseppe Gallo, the Martini brand ambassador, who seems to divide his life between bars, laboratories and Formula One paddocks. "Until recently, vermouth by itself had almost disappeared from London bars, but the fashion for vermouth in cocktails made up for it," Gallo tells me.
Now interest in vermouth per se is building. The 150,000 bottles of Gran Lusso, that modifies a 1904 recipe, undercutting its sweetness with bitter quinine, have flown out of the warehouse and every- body's drumming their fingers impatiently waiting for demijohns of an ingredient called Extract 21 to complete their eight-year maturation and permit the creation of another batch.
Ed Scother and Jack Adair Bevan represent the other face of the UK vermouth resurgence, sort of Morgan enthusiasts to the Fiat colossus that is Martini. Scother is drinks man at Mele e Pere, a Soho trattoria and vermouth bar in Brewer Street. The bar still stocks Martini, says Scother, but it's hard to imagine young Soho hipsters ordering a straight Martini nowadays.
But they might order a Cocchi, a Carpano Antica Formula, a Dolin, a Lillet, a Sacred (made in London N6), or a Californian Vya, or one of the other dozen vermouths on the bar list and on the elegant posters on the restaurant's walls. Or indeed, Mele e Pere's homemade vermouths, glinting ruby and pale straw-coloured on the bar in twin flasks, in front of the shelf of botanicals steeping in alcohol that constitute their flavouring.
Down in Somerset, in the Edwardian garden outbuildings of the Ethicurean restaurant, Jack Adair Bevan is a kindred soul. "I came across Mele e Pere last week, and spent about an hour and a half talking and tasting non-stop," says Bevan, relaxing after a presentation of Ethicurean's own vermouth at the Abergavenny Food Festival.
The Ethicurean's vermouth is the product of meticulous analysis of models, notably Punt e Mes and Antica Formula, followed by the selection of herbs – as many as possible from its Somerset garden – to create a sweetish vermouth, strong on orange, angelica and bay. Ethicurean is currently looking for investment from the growing number of spirit companies eyeing this new market in a bid to step up its current 30 to 40 bottles a week production.
Although the UK is coming up fast, it's Spain that is making the running vermouth-wise: specifically Barcelona, capital of the country's chief vermouth region, Catalonia. A year ago, reports were emerging of the return to fashion of vermut, or vermu, as the Spanish call it, and the arrival of the first "vermuterias". Nowadays, there are a half a dozen websites devoted to vermut, while bars that last month boasted shelves laden with recherché gins for the previous craze are stocking up on recherché vermuts.
The southern wine region around Tarragona and Reus is the chief producer, and home to big brands such as Yzaguirre, Miro, and Perucchi, the Martinis of Catalonia that became the staple ingredient of the established Catalan vermut habit – practised on a Sunday after mass – of the men and youngsters heading for the café while the women prepared lunch.
Sophisticated Barcelona is the new vermut eldorado, and the Raval, the old semi-gentrified red-light district off the Ramblas, contains a good cross-section of the species. At the top of the range, the Barcelo Hotel, a sort of giant mauve-lit UFO from planet design, sits amid tenements, mosques, and hooker bars. Its own bar features DJs, brunch, and smart bottles of Casa Mariol, the leader of the neo-vermouth tendency, a particularly fresh and vinous drink served with plenty of ice and a slice of orange. Ten minutes away is the latest and most gourmet of the new vermuterias, the immaculately restored Bodega 1900 belonging to Albert Adria, brother of Ferran.
Here, the menu lists 17 vermouths, from the smooth, white oak-aged Izaguirre Reserva, strong but velvety, to a red Perucchi, owing its distinctive but delicate bouquet to herbs, roots and barks macerated in 100-year-old soleras. They are accompanied by the well established Vermut nibbles – a quite different type of snack to the southern tapas – with the chief elements being potato crisps, tinned or home preserved cockles, mussels, anchovies and other seafood of the highest quality.
Nearby, old classics such as Quimet and Quimet, over in Poble Sec, still serves slightly less soigné versions of the same repertoire, nowadays to as many Japanese tourists as locals. To shake off the tourists, you can search out fascinating establishments such as Els Clavells, a choral club café where the house vermut is Cisa, a musky bitterish blend from an old family firm that also specialises in altar wine. Or there's the Bar Borell, with its handwritten vermuteria sign, its authentic 1950s wall-mounted bull's head, and the house vermut in plastic jerrycans, bought direct from an un-named vineyard. It's sweet but bracing and served in textbook, old-school fashion with ice and an olive, plus the soda siphon on the side.
Anonymous draught vermouths are the tradition in Catalonia, where hundreds of small winemakers once produced a vermouth as a sideline, sometimes labelled "vino aromatizado", as certified vermouth requires a spirits licence. Casa Mariol, a smart, modern shop and café near the Sagrada Familia cathedral, represents their updated face and new look. As a succession of customers filled their plastic containers from the row of new casks, Miguel Angel Vaquer, Casa Mariol's owner, explained how he'd had the brainwave of improving and repackaging his family vineyard's vermouth, then heading for New York with five bottles to convince the world's most influential bartenders.
Job rapidly accomplished, the vermouth was introduced into the UK, where Mariol is now in a dozen shops and restaurants. In Mariol's wake, plenty of other Catalan vermouths are on the way here: Falset, from an old co-operative operating out of a spectacular modernist winery near Reus; Espinaler, another historic family firm venturing into vermut bars and the marketing of vermut and snack "kits".
As far as Mariol is concerned, we've seen nothing yet. "I'm launching another redesigned product soon," Vaquer tells me. "Actually, half the items in a supermarket could be redesigned."
And not just a supermarket: the Vatican should really think about its altar wine. Jazzed up a bit by Cisa with a Dolce & Gabbana label, it could be the best thing for church recruitment since original sin.