Bartenders have known for generations what casual drinkers were stubbornly slow to pick up on: The value of vermouth cannot be overstated. For far too long, the fortified wine sat on home bar shelves, collecting dust. Occasional Martini notwithstanding, most folks never seemed to know what to do with it. But times have changed. Now that we are all home bartenders — at least for the foreseeable future — the category is ready for its star turn. Make sure you’re ready, with a little insight from the experts.
Sweet vs. Dry
Traditionally speaking, vermouths have long been broken down into two simple categories: sweet and dry. Dry vermouths typically contain less than 50 grams of sugar per liter, whereas sweet vermouths contain approximately 150 grams of sugar per liter. Dry is usually made with white grapes, and sweet with red. There are, of course, exceptions to these generalizations. Today the styles have expanded to include sweet white, extra-dry, and even rosé-based offerings. Further, many sweet vermouths are now actually made of white grapes with caramel added to darken the color.
A typical offering will range from 16 to 18 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). These are mere guidelines, however. The only category with formalized parameters is Vermouth di Torino, out of northern Italy, which must stay within the 16 to 22 percent ABV marks.
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Beyond grape type and sugar content, vermouth collects its flavor profile from a proprietary smattering of botanicals macerated into the base liquid. Everything from common kitchen spices — cinnamon, citrus peel, clove, cardamom, coriander — to more esoteric roots and barks including cinchona, hyssop, and mugwort. Much like gin must have juniper somewhere in the mix, vermouth always incorporates some form of its namesake shrub: wormwood.
“Since they’re wine-based and each one uses a distinct set of herbs and botanicals, every one is different,” points out John McCarthy, co-author of “Be Your Own Bartender.” “Before Prohibition, vermouth was everywhere. After Prohibition, Americans all but forgot about it, but Europe never lost the tradition.”
And that is why to this day, some of the best examples stem from the Old World, where they have maintained an uninterrupted tradition of production. Spain, Italy, and France — specifically — are hubs of production, each imparting its own spin upon the liquid.
Italian production, centered around the northern city of Torino, enjoys its own denomination of origin. They often exhibit dark fruit tendencies. Their French counterparts are frequently barrel-aged, brighter in acidity, with subtle tropical aromas. In formative cocktail books from the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian vermouth meant “sweet” and French, “dry.”
Not to be overlooked, the Spaniards have developed quite the affinity for bittersweet fortified wines. They are big on the sort of complexities that make the drink well suited to sipping with nothing more than sparkling water in the glass. Some of their blanco variations veer slightly toward the salty and oxidative, perhaps inspired by their native thirst for sherry.
Ultimately, however, vermouth can be made anywhere in the world. Indeed, there is a steadily expanding stable of labels now spilling out of U.S. wineries. Some are more than worthy of consideration in your next cocktail. Check out laudable examples from Lo-Fi Aperitifs or Vya out of California, as well as a botanically complex dry offering from Little City Vermouth, made in Harlem, New York.
Go Big and Go Home
When you’re ready to pull the trigger, don’t skimp on quality, advises barman Aaron Polsky, founder of Livewire Drinks. “A really high-quality label will make your Manhattans and Negronis next-level delicious. My favorites are Cocchi Torino and Alessio.”
The more you study the classics, the more you’ll be amazed at how vital a role the right vermouth plays in their execution. And it’s a relatively affordable value-add. Even the higher-end rossos necessary for the aforementioned Manhattans and Negronis shouldn’t set you back more than $30. The dry varieties necessary for professional-grade Martinis go for half that.
So don’t be afraid to pour with a heavy hand or to even use it as a base in some low-alcohol cocktail experimentation. “One misconception around its use is that people have whittled its application down to a whisper,” laments Polsky. “But you can do 2:1 for Manhattans and even 1:1 for Martinis for a delicious lower-ABV treat.”
Once you’ve landed on your bottles of choice, make sure you store them properly. A shockingly large percentage of drinkers do not. “The biggest tip I can give is to refrigerate,” stresses McCarthy. “Vermouth is wine-based and therefore once it’s opened, it will go bad. Get a small bottle and it’ll be fine for weeks in the fridge.”
McCarthy contends that many people only think they hate the drink because they started off sniffing a mismanaged offering that was way past its prime. “Wine would taste bad, too, if you opened it and then left in a cabinet for months or years. Vermouth should be fresh and lively, whether sweet or dry. “
In addition to the old bartender standbys of Carpano Antica (for cocktails built around aged spirits) and Dolin Dry (for those with clear), McCarthy is fond of the vivid flavors in the Mancino line of Italian vermouths. “They’re tasty enough that you want to drink them on their own — on the rocks or with soda,” he says.
But the ultimate value of vermouth is measured in its ability to modify effortlessly. “A quality vermouth has so much complexity that once you have it, a cocktail can be super simple yet you’re still left pondering the nuance,” adds McCarthy. “It’s a through line that affects your perception of the whole. It doesn’t carry the melody, but it’s fundamental.”
5 Vermouths to Try
Pleasingly dry with a hint of gentian-informed bitterness, this vermouth whets the appetite wondrously during aperitivo hour. Pour over rocks and notes of lemon zest and orange pith will enliven your taste buds.
White wine and herbal notes on the palate with a maritime brine in the finish. The gold standard in Martini making.
Top notes of honey and fresh spring flowers dominate the bouquet. The sweetness of this vermouth is tempered by pine and a touch of tannic astringency.
A soulful assortment of bitter orange, cooked rhubarb, and cinchona bark entwined with vanilla. Named “Best Vermouth” at this year’s San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Rich with raisins, berry fruit, and dark chocolate. Imbues Manhattans and Negronis with a weighty and tangy finish.