What's the Deal with Vermouth?

What's the Deal with Vermouth?

For too long, Vermouth, the bitter-sweet has relegated to second-banana status in the mind’s of cocktail lovers—always playing a supporting role but never the star. People who make a big deal out of how their Martini is made: Gin or Vodka, dry or bone dry, olive or twist— rarely ask what type of Vermouth is being used. And Manhattan lovers who’ll fight you over whether the drink should be made with Rye or Bourbon will just shrug when asked which Vermouth they prefer.

But it wasn’t always like this. “Vermouth was big in the U.S. from the 1920s to the 1950s,“ says Leith Shenstone, co-founder of aperitif importer Fasel Shenstone. “In fact, many domestic Wine producers like E&J Gallo started to make their own Vermouths in the 1930s.”

By the 70s, the bottom fell out of the Vermouth market as tastes in booze changed. It wasn’t until the modern craft cocktail boom of the early 2000s that interest picked up as mixologists demanded better quality Vermouths than what was available on the market.

But it’s high time Vermouth was put in the spotlight.

Okay, so what is it?

Basically, Vermouth is a Wine, infused with botanicals and fortified with neutral grape Brandy. But those technical specs only tell part of the story. “Like Wine, Vermouth is very much an extension of the place it comes from and the person who makes it, but it has more room for personal expression,” says Margaret Warren, a bartender who has curated a list of Vermouths and fortified Wines on the menu at Detroit’s Friend & Associate. “Part of what makes Vermouth so special is the secrecy in recipe, with dozens of herbs and spices and botanicals added to the infusion.”

Those botanicals, which give Vermouth its signature bitter sweet flavor, can include angelica, cinnamon, gentian, lemon peel, chinchona, star anise, cardamom, and licorice, among a dizzying array of others. But the main bittering ingredient is wormwood—better known as a key ingredient in Absinthe.

Sounds heavy. How much of this stuff can I drink before I’m wrecked?

Quite a bit, actually. No matter the type, red or white, dry or sweet, most Vermouths clock in well under 40 proof. That means Vermouth is perfect for day drinking—it’s about adding flavor and depth, not a quicker way to get drunk.

Wait, Vermouth comes in dry, sweet, red and white varieties?

Relax, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Sweet Vermouth comes in red or white, with the white being the sweetest. “The sugar content is typically around 200 grams of sugar per liter or more,” says Shenstone.

Red Vermouth, which turns up in cocktails like the Negroni, the Manhattan, the Americano, and the Boulevardier, typically clocks in at 120 to 250 grams of sugar per liter. “Italian Vermouths tend to have more sugar, while Spanish Vermouths have less,” says Shenstone.

Dry Vermouth—the type used in Martinis— is white and the least sweet type. “These typically have less than 50 grams of sugar per liter, “ says Shenstone. “But note that ‘extra dry’ on the label means nothing, it’s just a marketing point.”

Well, if there’s one thing I know about Vermouth is that it’s Italian.

Not really. Think of it as European. Although Carpano, founded in 1786, produced the first commercial version, Vermouth can be traced back to fortified Wines made in ancient Greece and Rome. And the Germans were making Wermut (wormwood) Wine as far back as the1500s.

“The Italians commercialized it successfully, but Spain created some of the earliest Vermouths in parallel to Italians,” says Shenstone. “They just never really exported the idea well. In fact, Spain is the biggest consumer per capita.”

European and ancient? Sounds like a drink for old people.

While Americans tend to associate Vermouth with sunglasses wearing, cravat-and-pocket-square-sporting European gentlemen of a certain age—the type that can charm your grandma and your girlfriend—the truth is Vermouth is enjoyed by both old and young drinkers across Europe and is slowly growing in popularity in the U.S.

Wait, did you say cravat? Is there any way I can get into drinking Vermouth without having to overhaul my wardrobe?

Calm down. Vermouth may have a European pedigree but it’s not fussy. Here in the States, cocktails made with Vermouth—the Martini, Manhattan, Negroni and Boulevardier— are likely already in heavy rotation at your favorite watering hole.

The simple-but-elegant Spritz, made with equal parts of either red or white Vermouth and soda deserves a place as a happy hour staple. According to Warren, other Vermouth-forward cocktails such as the Bamboo (see below), “a sherry/dry Vermouth split, and its sweet Vermouth cousin, the Adonis” represent the next step up for those wanting to get more into Vermouth.

OK, I’m in. How do I get started? What to buy, how to store?

For those new to Vermouth, Warren the bartender recommends Noilly Prat. “That and Dolin are my liquor store go-tos for great at-home cocktails,” she says.

Shenstone, the importer, cautions against settling for a bargain. “You’re better off buying a more expensive Vermouth and a less expensive spirit than the other way around,” he says. “Under $16 you are likely getting really bad stuff, so you either buy something solid or just ignore the category.”

As for premium Vermouths, Shenstone suggests Mancino, Contratto, and Yzaguirre Rojo Reserva. “It’s aged in Cognac barrels, which gives it a richness but also a softness that means it mixes super well,” he says.

Great, I’m all set on what to buy, but how should I store it?

Because Vermouth is essentially Wine, it needs to be treated as such. Once opened, Vermouth is subject to oxidation which will change the color and flavor and eventually acquire a vinegary aroma.

That dusty opened bottle you have in the back of the shelf next to the equally dusty bottle of Galliano? Yeah, it’s a wrap on that for drinking. “Vermouth goes in the fridge!” says Warren. “This is the hill I will die on.”

She recommends buying the smallest available size bottle of your preferred Vermouth and vacuum sealing it with a Wine pump before putting in on the refrigerator shelf. “When you store it like this your Vermouth should last for 1-2 months,” she says.

You can still cook with past-its-prime Vermouth. Use it with any recipe that calls for Wine, like stews, braised meats, and the like. Just remember, it has a more powerful flavor than drinking Wine so a little goes a long way.

How do you make a Bamboo cocktail?

Warren, who admits to enjoying a “healthy pour of Dolin Dry on a couple of rocks” before a meal, calls the Bamboo her personal favorite Vermouth cocktail. Her preferred recipe comes from Jim Meehan's book Meehan's Bartender Manual.

“It’s 1.5 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth, 1.5 oz Lustau Palo Cortado Sherry, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 1 dash Regan's bitters, built in the glass and garnished with a lemon twist.”

Cover image: Mancino Vermouth

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