Originally created for medicinal purposes, vermouth has a long history and broad footprint. Everyone from the Romans to the ancient Greeks has crafted their own version.
The fortified wine flavored with botanicals, roots, and herbs gets its name from a 16th-century Bavarian wine, vermutwein, which was flavored with wormwood. Wormwood is the defining ingredient in vermouth and the herb provides the drink with its distinct bitterness.
An ingredient in a number of classic cocktails, vermouth has enjoyed a quiet revival the past two decades. Now, with a growing trend toward lower-ABV imbibing, the fortified wine is beginning to thrive on its own as a refreshing aperitif.
Want to brush up on some of the finer details on the fortified wine? Here are seven tricky questions about vermouth, answered.
What are the different styles of vermouth?
Vermouth is commonly broken down into two main categories: dry and sweet. Dry vermouths are made using a white wine base and generally contain less than 50 grams of sugar per liter. Sweet vermouths are traditionally made from red wine, though some feature white wine and are colored with caramel. Sweet vermouth is fuller-bodied than white and contains around 150 grams of sugar per liter.
Two less common styles include bianco vermouths, which look like dry white vermouth but are unctuous and sweet; and rosso vermouths, which look like rosé and taste like a blend of sweet and dry vermouth.
Where does vermouth come from?
Commercial vermouth production started in 18th-century Piemonte, Italy, where there was a plentiful supply of the necessary herbs to infuse the wine.
Italy is most famous for bianco and sweet vermouth, though the world’s leading vermouth brand, Martini & Rossi, also makes a dry example. The dry category is otherwise much more closely associated with France, and with brands like Dolin and Noilly Prat.
Vermouth is made in most winemaking regions worldwide, from Spain to Australia to the U.S. A number of new brands are currently emerging, too.
What does vermouth taste like?
Given the range of botanicals used in vermouth, each brand tastes different — sort of like gin. But, like juniper in gin, there are defining flavor characteristics. For vermouths, the earthy bitterness of wormwood, and the alcoholic kick of the grape spirit used to fortify the wine, tend to differentiate one brand from another.
How do I know which vermouth to use in a cocktail?
If a recipe includes vermouth, it should identify which type to use. If it doesn’t, you should be able to make an educated guess, as long as you know what the drink looks or tastes like.
For dry, light-colored cocktails, like a Martini, pour dry vermouth. (If you want a slightly sweeter Martini, use bianco.) For bittersweet, rich drinks like a Negroni or Boulevardier, mix with sweet vermouth. A Manhattan also includes sweet vermouth, unless it’s “perfect,” in which case the recipe calls for both sweet and dry.
Is it only for cocktails?
Just because you’ll often find an old, dusty bottle of vermouth in the liquor cabinet doesn’t mean it should only be consumed in cocktails. High-quality vermouths don’t need soda and are just as delicious served chilled and neat, like a fino or manzanilla sherry.
In Spain, it’s traditional to drink vermouth during la hora del vermut (vermouth hour) in the early afternoon sometime before lunch. The drink is served on the rocks with a splash of club soda, and usually accompanied by some simple plates of tapas to stimulate appetites.
How long is a bottle good for after it’s opened?
Fortification allows open vermouth bottles a significantly longer life than regular wine, which is handy if you’re mixing it into cocktails in small amounts. After opening a bottle, you should plan to drink it within three months, though.
Should I store it on my bar cart or in the fridge?
Like wine, once you’ve opened a bottle of vermouth, it should be stored in the fridge to maintain freshness. Unopened bottles can sit out at room temperature with no risk of loss of quality.