Keeping It Couth With Vermouth
Poor vermouth. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of many a home bar: everyone has some, but dammit, it gets no respect. It’s the key ingredient in your beloved Manhattan, Martini, or Negroni, but at shopping time it rarely receives the same attention that your Whiskey or Gin selection does. Generally, this isn’t out of a true disdain for the stuff, but rather habit and lack of awareness of what it really is. That ends here and now, with our quick primer on how to stop worrying and love the vermouth. You can also learn how to love other fortified wines we’ve been obsessing over with our deep dives on Sherry and Lillet.
First of all, Vermouth is wine!
Many assume that vermouth is a spirit of some kind, as it’s mostly associated with cocktails, but it’s actually a Fortified and Aromatized wine. This means it’s fortified by adding a neutral grape spirit or other neutral spirit, and then aromatized with a blend of various botanicals and spices to give it added aroma and flavor.
It should be kept in the fridge!
As vermouth is a wine and not a spirit, it is not shelf stable, and begins to oxidize a short while after opening it, thus losing its intended characteristics and taking on an unpleasant flavor and aroma. It is recommended to store your vermouth (and any other wine based product!) in the fridge, where it will keep its qualities for up to around two months. If you are a true Manhattan, Martini, or Negroni fiend and can go through a bottle in a week or two, then no need (and congratulations!). But for the rest of us, our precious cocktails will be well served by us clearing some space in the fridge.
It’s all white wine!
Yes, sweet vermouth is generally dark brownish red, but that is simply due to added caramel to give it color. The varieties of wine used as a base are all the same no matter what kind of vermouth. Some of the botanicals infused can give a bit of color to dry or sweet styles, but the dark color associated with sweet vermouth is added purposefully to give color along with sugar to sweeten it.
It hails originally from Italy and France!
Most vermouths, even today, come from Italy or France, although many other countries including the U.S. now produce vermouths as well. The Piedmont region of Italy (where Italian vermouth originates) and Chambéry, France (where French vermouth originates) were both part of the historic Duchy of Savoy until 1860, and thus share a common cultural heritage. The name vermouth itself comes from the French pronunciation of the German Wermut, or wormwood. Wormwood was historically the key ingredient in vermouth making, as it was believed to have medicinal properties. Wormwood infused wines can even be traced back to Ancient Greece and India!
The first commercially available vermouth, a dark, sweet variety, was made by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin, Italy in 1786. It quickly caught on with the Italian nobility and more commercial producers soon followed suit. By the beginning of the 19th century, Frenchman Joseph Noilly was producing a dry, pale variety as well, solidifying the general association of France with dry vermouth and Italy with sweet vermouth, although both countries eventually produced a variety of styles.
By this point, the medicinal application had waned in favor of vermouth’s popularity as an aperitif (or aperitivo depending on your persuasion), a pre-prandial tipple to stimulate the appetite and welcome the evening with style.
It’s meant to be enjoyed on its own!
As you may have noticed, vermouth, like almost all alcoholic beverages, was not originally designed to be mixed in drinks! It gained popularity in France and Italy on its own as an aperitif, and still can and should be enjoyed this way. Whether neat, on the rocks with a twist of citrus, or even just a small splash of soda, vermouth doesn’t need any help from other spirits or mixers to make a damn fine drink.
America was the first to mix it!
Vermouth was first brought to the American market in the 1850’s, appearing first in New Orleans and San Francisco. By the 1880’s, New York had caught on to it as well, and soon gave us legendary, urbane vermouth cocktails like the Manhattan, and later, the Martini. America was, after all, the home of cocktails, and it was inevitable that we would end mixing some up with vermouth.
Sweet Vermouth is often referred to as Italian or Red vermouth, or even more specifically as Vermouth di Torino, although not all sweet vermouths are necessarily in the Torino style. These vermouths are fortified and aromatized, and are then sweetened with sugar and colored with caramel coloring to give them their distinctive red-brown hue. Famous cocktails made with sweet vermouth include the Manhattan, Negroni, and Rob Roy, among others. For a discussion of what vermouths may work best in different cocktails, see Melissa’s fabulous post about choosing the right vermouth for your drink.
Carpano Antica Formula is made by the same producer that sold the first commercially available vermouth in the 18th century, although the actual original recipe is no longer produced. Antica Formula is a Vermouth Alla Vaniglia, an especially rich variety that features very prominent vanilla flavors. Famously beloved in making rich, beautiful Manhattans. [See it here]
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino is one of the few true Vermouth di Torinos on the market, made with a Moscato base, and featuring botanicals such as cocoa, citrus, and rhubarb. A workhorse of a vermouth if ever there was one, this one is just as at home in a Negroni as it is in a Manhattan. [See it here]
Bordiga Rosso is another true Vermouth di Torino, produced outside of Turin in the small town of Cuneo, near the Occitan Alps. Bordiga has much lighter body than most other sweet vermouths, with a moscato base and lovely warm flavors of cinnamon, cola, as well as a soft bitterness. It works beautifully in a light Negroni or in a Rum Manhattan, where a less spicy and assertive vermouth is called for. [See it here]
BLANC | BIANCO | WHITE VERMOUTH
Blanc, Bianco, or White Vermouth (not the same as dry!) is a style that is only recently widely available in the United States, basically a sweet vermouth, but without caramel coloring and often with a more herbal, less spicy profile. Sometimes called for specifically as Vermouth de Chambery (referring to its place of origin) it’s rarely called for in classic cocktails. One special example is the El Presidente, a brilliant rum-soaked, early 20th century Cuban spin on the Manhattan. The original recipe calls for Vermouth de Chambery, but just about every El Presidente recipe reprinted in the United States misinterpreted this to mean Dry Vermouth, as that was what French vermouth largely implied in that time. This created a largely unsavory cocktail, and as such it’s been mostly, and sadly forgotten. Luckily for the El Presidente, though, more and more blanc vermouths are coming onto the market for us to sink our teeth into.
Dolin Blanc is the standard, and most commonly seen and called for. The original Vermouth de Chambery, Dolin was the first to produce a blanc variety in the late 19th century. Works exceptionally well as a lighter sweet vermouth whenever you don’t want the big spices or dark color in your cocktail. [See it here]
Vermouth Del Professore Bianco is a newer product, made near Turin from Moscato wine and more than a dozen botanicals, including chamomile, gentian, and wormwood. This more herbal, but still sweet bianco vermouth is a perfect candidate for an El Presidente, playing well with the spicy notes of a good, dry, Spanish style rum. [See it here]
Contratto Bianco is also produced just outside of Turin, and is based on their own original 1910 recipe. It uses a Cortese wine base, and features over 50 botanicals, such as wormwood, ginger, hibiscus, and elderberry, among many others. This makes for a floral, slightly spicy, and very complex bianco that has a little more in common with traditional Vermouth Di Torino than most other biancos. [See it here]
Dry Vermouth, often referred to as French Vermouth, is fortified and aromatized, like any vermouth, but is only very lightly sweetened and is not colored. It is, as it’s name implies, dry, although the range of dryness varies greatly, and some dry vermouths have a perceptible sweetness to them. It’s most famously called for in a Martini, in which it is often and unfortunately relegated to just a few drops, or even worse, not used at all and simply made the butt of a bad joke (and a bad drink!). However, folks are changing the way they drink Martinis, and these days it’s not uncommon to hear a 50/50 Martini ordered at your local cocktail bar, with vermouth getting just as much love and real estate as the gin. Dry vermouth is finally getting the respect it deserves, and the varieties available are likewise increasing.
Noilly Prat Extra Dry is produced in the Provence region in the south of France, from a blend of wines and using botanicals such as chamomile, gentian, nutmeg, and bitter orange. It is made near the sea, and although lighter on the oxidized brine flavors than their original (not extra) dry formula, a certain amount of salinity is still very present. This makes for a great dirty Martini, or simply a regular Martini, but decidedly one with an olive garnish, rather than a twist. [See it here]
Dolin Dry is, like their blanc variety, made in Chambery, France, and it boasts a lighter, brighter, fresher, and cleaner profile than most other dry vermouths on the market. A favorite cocktailing dry vermouth for many, and a Martini favorite in many modern bars, especially when served with a twist. [See it here]
Ransom Dry Vermouth is made in Oregon from organic wine and botanicals, and demonstrates the United States’s big and bold take on vermouth. Although dry, this lightly golden vermouth is by no means light or restrained, with big herbal flavors of wormwood, fennel, cardamom, and vanilla. Great for bold modern cocktails or for sipping, rather than making a standard dry Martini. [See it here]
Punt e Mes (Italian for “point and a half”) is a vermouth first made in 1870 in Turin, reportedly when a patron at the Carpano wine shop ordered his normal vermouth, but with half a measure (or point) of bitter to add complexity. Whether or not that story is true, the bittered vermouth became a classic. Simply a traditional Vermouth di Torino style sweet vermouth with quinine added for bitterness, it’s called for by name in cocktail recipes that want that bittersweet boost. Try it in a Manhattan or even a Negroni for extra bitterness. [See it here]
Mancino Sakura Vermouth is a lightly sweet Italian bianco vermouth originally produced exclusively for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo. It’s strange and defining quality is the major floral flavor that comes from the infusion of Japanese Cherry Blossom and Violet, which also lends the vermouth a lovely light pink color. Use in a sweet floral Martini, split with dry vermouth, or in a Japanese Negroni, along with Nikka’s wonderful and unique Coffey Gin. [See it here]
La Madre Rosé “Strawberry Touch” is a sweet Spanish Rosé vermouth that is most certainly the most far out example on this list. Strawberries are macerated in the wine along with the more standard botanicals, lending an extra fruitiness and sweetness, along with that classic pink color. Flavors of aniseed, citrus peel, cinnamon, and obviously strawberry dominate. Enjoy as a fruity summertime tipple with some soda and fresh strawberries. [See it here]