Chances are, if you make cocktails, even once in awhile, you own at least one bottle of vermouth. Classified as a fortified, aromatized wine, vermouth can be divided into sweet (or red or Italian) and dry (or white or French). Though it is sometimes underappreciated (and very often stored incorrectly—it goes in the fridge!), vermouth is an integral part of cocktailing. The next time you enjoy a really great Manhattan or Martini, take the time to thank vermouth, the not-so-glamorous backbone holding up your drink.
The History of Vermouth
Vermouth has a rich history and lore closely tied to folk medicine. Starting as early as 1000 B.C. in China, people were steeping botanicals (roots, barks, flowers, herbs and spices) in wine and sipping the mixture as a medicinal tipple. It wasn’t until the mid-17th century, though, that these infusions were referred to as vermouth.
The word “vermouth” is taken from the German wermut meaning wormwood (an essential botanical in many vermouth recipes). It officially split into its two signature categories of red and white in 1786, when Antonio Benedetto Carpano created his signature sweet vermouth, which quickly garnered a following in the royal court of Turin. In the early 1800s, Joseph Noilly developed his proprietary dry vermouth in France.
As vermouth’s popularity grew, its identity as a medicinal drink faded away, and people began drinking it instead as an aperitif before dinner or using it in cocktails. In the late 1800s, America took to vermouth as an essential cocktail ingredient, using it in drinks like the Martini (first created in 1860) and the Manhattan (invented sometime around 1874). At that time, bartenders went heavy on the vermouth, but eventually the fad waned and people forgot about vermouth. Recently, though, craft vermouths have experienced a resurgence in America.
How Is Vermouth Made?
There are many types of vermouths, so the exact production method varies from brand to brand. The process always starts with wine. Though you can technically make a vermouth with any wine, it is typically made from grapes like Clairette blanche, Piquepoul, Trebbiano, Bianchetta and Trevigiana. Vermouth producers create a low-ABV wine from one or a mix of those grapes, then add a neutral spirit, making it a fortified wine. Alternatively, it can be made from mistelle, in which the spirit is mixed with grape juice before fermentation. In the case of sweet vermouths, sugar is also added at this point (up to 15 percent). Then the wine is mixed with botanicals, most importantly wormwood. Other frequent flavorings include chamomile, coriander, juniper, gentian and cinchona bark. Producers let the mixture rest for various amounts of time, before filtering and bottling the vermouth.
Styles of Vermouths
White Vermouth: Though Italy certainly dabbles in white vermouth every now and again, it is primarily made in France, typically with a bitter root known as gentian. There are two major categories of French white vermouth: blanc and dry.
Blanc or Bianco: A colorless, herbaceous, off-dry style of vermouth. Blanc (in French) or bianco (in Italian) vermouths weren’t well-known in the U.S. until fairly recently. Blanc vermouth is sweeter than its French peer, dry vermouth, but is not quite as sweet (or spiced) as red vermouth. While bianco vermouth tends to be vanilla-forward, blanc bottlings often feature floral flavors like elderflower along with light tastes of fruit. The style was originally developed by Dolin and has since inspired other producers, including Martini & Rossi, whose bianco is its best-selling product, buoyed by incredibly high European demand.
Dry: Ultra-light and almost briny in taste, dry vermouths were originally popularized in France, but truly took off in the United States during the “Mad Men” era Martini boom. Famous producers include Noilly Pratt and Dolin.
Red Vermouth: Sweet, spiced and just a little bit herbal, red vermouths are primarily produced throughout Italy. Think of vanilla chai lattes, clove cigarettes, heavy winter spices and aromatic flowers like violets. Typical sweet vermouths contain somewhere between 10 and 15 percent sugar (at most 15 percent by EU law). While originally red vermouths were made with a base of red wine, these days many producers use white wine and dye the final result with other ingredients or caramel coloring. Though for years Americans almost entirely used this style of vermouth for mixing cocktails like Negronis, Manhattans and Vieux Carrés, the U.S. is currently on the receiving end of some very good, very sippable sweet vermouth brands like Carpano Antica.
Quinquina: Pronounced kenKEEnah, quinquina is flavored with bitter chinchona bark. It was traditionally used in the Vesper before it disappeared off the market. Now, thanks to the current cocktail resurgence, it’s showing up again on shelves.
Americano: Instead of chinchona bark, americanos are made with Moscato di Asti wine and flavored with a combination of gentian root and wormwood. The “amer” in the root of the word refers to the Latin word for bitter, rather than America. Cocchi is responsible for popularizing this style of vermouth.
Rosé or Rosato: Quite new to the market, rosé vermouth is, as you might expect, somewhere between a red and a white vermouth in flavor and color. This hybrid flavor comes from using both red and white wines in the base.
American or Western: In recent years, America has not only begun consuming more vermouth but also making its own to rival the European producers. Ranging from dry to sweet, these vermouths incorporate all sorts of locally grown botanicals and flavorings.
How Do I Drink Vermouth Straight?
The Italians, Spanish and French often drink vermouth as an aperitif on the rocks with a lemon twist (if it’s white vermouth) or an orange twist (if it’s red vermouth). Sometimes a splash of soda or sparkling wine is added to make a lightly boozy spritz.
Notable Vermouth Cocktails
Manhattan: You know it. You love it. The Manhattan is one of those classic standbys that every bartender (amateur or professional) should master. Made with sweet vermouth, whiskey and bitters, it’s perfect before, after or during a meal.
Vieux Carre: A New Orleans take on the Manhattan in which the whiskey is replaced with Cognac and a touch of Benedictine. This one’s not for the faint of heart.
Negroni: The holy trinity of gin, Campari and sweet red vermouth is the aperitif cocktail to rule all others. Best consumed on the Italian Riviera with a dash of sunshine. If you prefer brown spirits to gin, try the Boulevardier, a twist on the Negroni made with rye.
Bamboo: From the famous Grand Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, this classic is a great afternoon sipper. The cocktail combines the elegance of Noilly Prat Dry vermouth with a funky Amontillado sherry.
Vesper: If you’re trying to stink the bar up with some class, the Vesper works magic. It’s made with both gin and vodka, so you can try all manner of gin and vodka pairings. You can thank James Bond for this one, since the drink first appeared in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale.
50/50 Martini: For true vermouth lover, this Martini variation calls for equal pours of gin and dry vermouth, really letting the aromatized wine shine. With 1.5 ounces of vermouth, be sure to choose a quality bottling.
Vermouth in Culture
- In Casino Royale, James Bond orders a Vesper like this: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel."
- Julia Child’s drink of choice was a Reverse Martini. She would mix a good slug of vermouth (her preference was Noilly Prat) with a dash of gin.
- President Lyndon B. Johnson preferred Martinis in a peculiar preparation, which he referred to as an “In-and-Out Martini.” To make one, fill a glass with vermouth, dump it out, and then fill the glass with chilled gin.
- “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my Martini.”—Winston Churchill