Vermouth, in my humble opinion, is underrated. A key ingredient in iconic, ubiquitous cocktails like the Negroni, the Martini, and the Manhattan, vermouth also happens to be delicious on its own merit. Made from a blend of wine, neutral distilled spirit, and any number of botanical ingredients, vermouth can be enjoyed by itself before, after, or during dinner. Vermouth straddles the line between liquor and wine, usually having a ABV% of 18%-20%. The two major groups of vermouth are Rosso (Sweet) and Dry. A bottle of great vermouth will also not set you as far back as its equal in whiskey, wine or other drinks. So why wait, let’s see what makes vermouth so great.
Fortified wines have been made around the world for thousands of years in areas like China and India. Ancient Greek recipes for fortified herbal wines have been dated all the way back to 400 BC. However, the word “vermouth” comes from the French pronunciation of wermut, the German word for wormwood, a herbal ingredient often included in fortified wines (as well as being the chief “hallucinogenic” ingredient in Absinthe). Fortified wines became prevalent in Europe in the period after the Renaissance. Most were combined with botanical ingredients like wormwood. The name stuck.
Antonio Benedetto Carpano (take note of the name) introduced the first sweet vermouth in Turin, Italy in 1786, which quickly became popular with the Royal Court of Turin. Joseph Noilly (again, take note of the name) of France made the first dry, pale vermouth at the start of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the introduction of cocktail culture that vermouth began to really take off.
The creation of cocktails like the Manhattan and Martini in the late 19th century showed vermouth’s versatility as a mixer in drinks. With a little help from celebrities like James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, vermouth started to appear more regularly in American bars as customers wanted more and more of whatever those celebrities were drinking. Although not as popular in America outside of its role in cocktails, vermouth remains a popular aperitif throughout Europe to this day. Let’s move on two the two main types of Vermouth: Rosso and Dry.
Rosso translates to red in Italian, but the this sweet version of vermouth is more often a deep amber or caramel color than a straight red. Rosso is the sweeter version of vermouth, and has upwards of 130 grams of sugar per liter added to the fortified wine. Rosso vermouth can have more syrupy mouthfeel, as well. Still, the sugar levels aren’t overwhelming, and are balanced by the bitter botanical ingredients.
Brands to Try
- Martini & Rossi – This is the most ubiquitous rosso style vermouth around, and unsuprisingly, it comes from the company that may or may not have given the Martini its name. It has a smooth sweetness and a peppery, vegatal bite.
- Punt e Mes – The preeminent sweet vermouth to drink on the rocks. Recommended with a twist of orange or lemon. Made by the Carpano corporation. Yes, that Carpano (Antonio Benedetto) mentioned above. This is a vermouth with some history behind it.
- Alessio – This is more of a boutique buy. The bottle alone is beautiful enough to make a person buy it.
- Negroni – A genius mix of sweet vermouth, Campari, gin and a twist of orange, this is the ultimate aperitif.
- Manhattan – Tradition insists on a 5:2 ratio of rye whiskey to sweet vermouth with a dash of angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry. But rumor has it the drink is pretty good with bourbon and Tennessee whiskies too.
Dry vermouth does not have the same amount of added sugar or the dark color that rosso vermouth has. Originating in France, the dry style is what made crystal clear cocktails like the Martini possible. It has a lighter mouth feel and is usually less alcoholic than its sweet couterpart.
Brands to Try
- Noilly Prat – Just like Punt e Mes, this brand is an original. Noilly Prat is the descendant of Joseph Noilly, creator of the first dry, pale style of vermouth.
- Cinzano – Another well established brand of vermouth, Cinzano also has a rosso vermouth and extra dry varities of vermouth.
- Dolin Blanc – Technically it’s own style of vermouth (Blanc), Dolin Blanc is meant to be drunk on the rocks or with some soda and a slice of strawberry.
Cocktails to Try
- Martini – Good enough for James Bond; it should be good enough for you. Some Martini drinkers swear on different levels of vermouth, from half and half, to waving the cup in the general direction of Italy.
- Bronx – this classic cocktail came in third place in a 1936 poll for the world’s best cocktail style, after the Manhattan and Martini. Vermouth seems to be the key ingredient for a truly excellent cocktail.
Next time you are in your local liquor store pick up a bottle and try it in a cocktail or on the rocks. You’ll be happy you did.