Food & Drink

Enjoy Vermouth With Confidence With This Handy Guide

Vermouth lessons are usually learned the hard way. You leave a bottle of dry vermouth on the bar for a year or two, try to make a Martini with it and end up with a glass of revolting, vinegary swamp water. While drinking one horrible drink made with expired vermouth is almost a rite of passage for an educated drinker, you'd probably prefer to leapfrog the bad or otherwise confusing experiences with vermouth, and start enjoying the fortified wine immediately. Here, the answers to the basic vermouth questions you were afraid to ask.

What’s vermouth made of?

Vermouth is traditionally based on white wine fortified with a neutral spirit. It can also be made from mistelle, in which the spirit is mixed with grape juice before fermentation. Depending on the type of vermouth being made, some sort of sweetener may be added, followed by any sorts of flavorings and herbs.

Producers use lots of things—from juniper to chamomile to ginger to raspberry—to create unique flavors, but wormwood (a member of the Artemisia species) is the most important. The term vermouth comes from the German wermut (or its figuration in other romance languages) meaning wormwood, and EU law even stipulates, “The characteristic taste of [vermouth] is obtained by the use of appropriate derived substances, in particular of the Artemisia species, which must always be used.”

Where is vermouth made?

Red vermouth historically hails from Italy while the drier white vermouth originally came from France, but vermouth can be made anywhere. Heck, you could make it in your backyard if you wanted.

What’s the difference between dry, sweet, white and red vermouth?

“Sweet vermouth” is often referred to as “red vermouth,” while “white” and “dry” vermouth are often used interchangeably (though that gets slightly more complicated below). Originally the difference was primarily that red vermouth was made from red wine and sweetened, while white vermouth was made with white wine and remained dry. Today both are typically made with white wine and the biggest difference between the two types is that red vermouth is sweetened with up to 15 percent sugar,

Are there other kinds of vermouth?

Along with dry white vermouth, France also offers blanc (called bianco in Italy), which is sweeter than dry but not quite as sweet as red. Blanc vermouth also tends to be floral, vanilla-forward, and lightly flavored with baking spices like clove or nutmeg.

There are also niche vermouth styles like amber (similar to sweet vermouth with the addition of vanilla and cinnamon for deeper flavors), rosé (made from a mix of white and red wines), vermouth di Torino (made with Moscato grapes and enriched with notes of tobacco, cola, rhubarb and leather) and western dry style (American-made vermouth featuring local, vastly different botanicals).

How much alcohol is in vermouth?

Vermouth clocks in from 13 to 24 percent ABV, somewhere between wine (10-14 percent ABV) and spirits (40-50 percent ABV).

How do I store vermouth?

Like wine, vermouth doesn’t have a high enough alcohol percentage to preserve it on your bar cart, so you should keep it in the fridge.

How long does vermouth last?

You have about four to six weeks to drink an open bottle of vermouth, but with the many, many vermouth cocktails you can make with a decent bottle, that shouldn’t be a problem.

How do I know if vermouth has gone bad?

It seems simple enough to think that if your vermouth smells and tastes like vinegar, it has gone bad. But it’s not always so simple. There may be a lot of other flavors competing with and covering up any vinegar-like off notes, and the entire bottle won’t go from good to bad in an instant. Try tasting a bottle that’s gone a little off next to a fresh one, and you’ll get the idea. A slightly vinegary bottle may not be totally unusable (it may bring a shrub-like note to cocktails, for instance), so just follow your sense of taste when testing for freshness.

Can I drink vermouth straight?

Take a note from the French, Italians and Spaniards—aka, the vermouth masters of the world—who all drink vermouth on the rocks with just a twist of orange or lemon. Just be sure to pick a quality bottling, as you would for anything else you intend to drink straight. Likewise, you could try pouring sparkling water over good vermouth, with olives and/or and orange slice.

Which drinks use the most vermouth?

Vermouth is usually a supporting player in most classic cocktails, but for those drinkers who have fallen in love with the low-ABV ingredient, there are a few drinks that feature a heavy pour of the stuff. The Reverse Martini swaps the proportions of gin and vermouth in the typical Martini to give the fortified wine the starring role. You can do the same with a Reverse Manhattan. Lesser known drinks like the Chrysanthemum and the Queen Elizabeth also use vermouth as the primary ingredient.