Drink of the Day — Ancient Roman Vermouth Wine


Ancient Roman Wine Vessel

Today’s drink of the day is the oldest known vermouth wine.

How old is vermouth wine? It is older than the year 1786 on the label of Carpano’s Antica Formula [sic]. It’s even older than Hippocras wine of the middle ages — which has been recently suggested as the ancestor of vermouth wine. Vermouth wine actually dates back to ancient Rome.

A recipe for Absintium Romanum is found in the cookbook traditionally attributed to Apicius, called De Re Coquinaria (‘on cookery’) That book dates back to late imperial Rome (~400 c.e.), and surely contains recipes from earlier centuries.

In Latin, Romanum means ‘Roman’ and absintium or absinthium means ‘wormwood.’ The French word absinthe is obviously directly from the Latin absinthium. German for wormwood is wermud — or in older German, vermouth. So, whether you call it absinthe or vermouth, in linguistics it’s the same word, ‘wormwood.’

That is absolutely true. But, modern English idiom has it that when we use the French word, we are talking about a wormwood spirit — and when we use the German word, we are talking about wormwood flavored wine.

In his 1936 translation of De Re Coquinaria, Joseph Dommers Vehling called the recipe ‘Roman Vermouth.’ His reason for doing so was very good — both on linguistic and culinary grounds. The ancient Romans made wormwood-flavored wine — or in other words, vermouth wine. That’s exactly what it turns out to be — even according to modern idiom.

One can still make ancient Roman vermouth wine, with some preparation.

You should be able to get wormwood very easily online. Saffron, dates and honey should not be difficult to find in a shop near you.

Dried costmary leaves are the most difficult of the ingredients to obtain. When in season, you can purchase them here. Otherwise, you will need to grow some costmary for yourself. It’s worth doing so — since a few fresh costmary leaves really deliciously accent a pitcher of lemonade or a bowl of punch. Fresh costmary is equally wonderful as garniture for that great, nearly-forgotten type of drink, the cup. In 2006, I made myself a Gin Costmary Julep that was as good a julep as a julep can be (at least the way I remember it). I have never made costmary syrup, but I can think of no reason that it would be anything but delicious.

It can also be a bit difficult to find mastic resin. A good Greek market should have some. Otherwise, you can order it here.

It seems that the recipe instructs the use of Camerinian wine in making Roman vermouth wine. Whatever that might have been is unknown to me. A red wine would be the safest assumption.

So, here is the recipe for making yourself a bottle of ancient Roman vermouth wine:

Ancient Roman Vermouth Wine

2 thoughts on “Drink of the Day — Ancient Roman Vermouth Wine

  1. Costmary Julep also sounds interesting. Same genus as tansy, which was apparently quite popular as a julep in the past, but is considered toxic (not sure if that’s only in large doses, or if a tansy julep would be safe). Nonetheless, lots of interesting things in this post.

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