Published on August 4th, 2013 | by Dipsology0
Drink Better: Intro to Vermouth
Vermouth is a critical component of many classic cocktails (think the Martini and the Manhattan, to name two). But while you may recognize the word, do you know what it is? Have you ever tasted vermouth on its own?
As the cocktail scene grows, more and more vermouths are popping up, whether they be old products from Europe just now making it to American shores, new recipes developed to meet the growing demand, or even domestic varieties that come in flavors called “Armadillo Cake” or made with Oregon beets.
This year at Tales of the Cocktail, we tasted a lot of vermouths, and left with a new appreciation for the category. Over the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to some of new products we encountered, but first, we give you this “Intro to Vermouth” to help set the stage.
What is vermouth?
Vermouth is an aromatized, fortified wine. Here is what that means:
1. Start with a (usually white) wine base
Even “red” vermouths are almost always made with a white wine base and colored with caramel.
Add herbs, spices & other aromatics. Common examples include chamomile, chinchona bark, cinnamon, lavender, marjoram, citrus peel, vanilla, coriander, rose, sage, angelica and wormwood. Most vermouths keep their exact blend secret and any one bottle may contain 10-50 (or more) botanicals.
Add a high proof spirit, usually a neutral, grape based one. This stops fermentation of the grapes (thereby retaining a higher level of sugar) and obviously increases the alcohol content. Fortification may take place before or after aromatization, or it may happen in two stages.
The exact production methods – such as the length of time each component is aged, when it is blended, how it is stored, etc – vary tremendously from producer to producer. For example, Noilly Prat, fortifies and then ages the base wines in oak barrels outside where they begin to oxidize and take on a saline quality from the sea air. In contrast, Dolin macerates their wine with botanicals first, then fortifies it as a final step.
What does it taste like?
All vermouth has a sweet-bitter taste, with different botanicals and base wines creating different specific flavors in each one. The most common vermouth classifications are Dry and Sweet:
Dry vermouth is light colored – usually like pale white wine – and generally features brighter acidity, herbaceous & floral flavors, and a dry bitterness. There is some sweetness, but less than in a sweet vermouth. It is perhaps most famous for its classic use in a Martini (Dipsology suggests using gin over vodka for this purpose).
Common Examples: Dolin Dry, Noilly Prat Dry, Martini & Rossi Extra Dry
Sweet, or “red”, vermouth is brown or reddish (almost always from caramel coloring, not red wine) and has a stronger taste & heavier body, often featuring vegetal notes, dark or stewed fruit and baking spices. It is also, as the name suggests, sweeter than dry vermouth. Its classic use is in in a Manhattan, where it is paired with rye.
Common Examples: Dolin Rouge, Carpano Antica, Martini & Rossi Rosso
There are many other categories and sub-categories, like Blanc (or Bianco), which is pale in color but very sweet, and “vermouth amaro” which is sweet vermouth with bitters (and sugar) added to it. An example of vermouth amaro is Punt e Mes. In addition, many American producers do not follow the traditional styles at all and are taking vermouth in a totally new direction. Some examples of US vermouth producers that we’ll be addressing in the coming weeks are Imbue Cellars, Vya Vermouth (which are traditional) and Hammer & Tongs.
A little bit of history
Originally, vermouth was created to 1) mask bad flavors in poorly made wine, and/or 2) make bitter herbs & botanicals – which were used for medicinal purposes – more palatable.
In Europe, it is traditionally served as an “aperitif”. Aperitif, or aperitivo in Italian, refers to the European custom of having a drink before dinner to open the palate and encourage the appetite (indeed, the word is derived from the Latin aperire, which means “to open”). These days, aperitif is used to refer to almost any pre-dinner drink & a snack, but classically it means a light, (usually) dry and moderately alcoholic drink. Other examples of aperitifs are Lillet, Campari and Sherry, to name a few.
The word vermouth comes from “vermut”, the German word for wormwood and to this day all European vermouth must, by law, contain wormwood. In the US, the term vermouth is used much more loosely. (As a result, many of the US products don’t fit nicely into classic vermouth categories.)
Ok, now what?
If you want to nerd out and learn even more about vermouth, check out Vermouth 101.
Head out to your local Dipsology bar and pay attention to the menu, talk to the bartender and take a closer look at all those bottles you might have glossed over before. Amor y Amargo even does flights of various vermouths and other amari (bitter liqueurs) that include three 1 oz pours plus an education.
Both Astor Wines or Drink Up NY have great selections of vermouth if you want to get some for your home bar. Buy the smaller 375ml bottles where possible and store in the fridge after opening. Because they are wine based, vermouths will oxidize and “get tired” after a few weeks. For maximum life pump them out like you would a wine bottle. Of course you can still drink oxidized vermouth, but it will taste a little different and lose some of its fruit.
Vermouth is a critical component to many classic cocktails. Our go to for recipes is the Bartender’s Choice app by the team behind Milk & Honey and Attaboy. The PDT Cocktail Book is also a solid hard copy choice.
But vermouth need not be relegated to cocktails: it is fantastic to drink on its own. Drier styles can be served chilled in a wine glass (Noilly Prat Dry, for example, pairs fantastically with oysters), and sweeter styles are great on the rocks with a lemon or grapefruit twist.
Let us know your favorite vermouth, and how you like to drink it, in the comments below!
Adrienne is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dipsology. When she’s not drinking, sleeping & breathing cocktails, she can probably be found in Napa, drinking wine instead. You can read about her non-cocktail adventures on her blog “à la gourmande” and follow her @alstillman.