The cocktail renaissance has returned many once-neglected products to prominence. And lately, it’s been vermouth’s turn to shine.
That shouldn’t be a surprise, really; Manhattans, Martinis, Martinezes, Negronis, among a host of old and new concoctions that require quality vermouth, have become essential drinks once again. Many bartenders are turning to the broader variety of brands now available when crafting new drinks as well.
For example, the French vermouth Dolin and Italian brand Carpano―virtually unknown here 10 years ago―are practically de rigeur at cocktail-focused bars. And the broader the choice of vermouths, the more interested drinkmakers become.
With trendy bars turning guests onto vermouth, it’s only a matter of time before mixology-minded customers come shopping for their own bottles. So here’s the lowdown on the category, plus some insight into how businesses are educing their customers on these fortified wines.
5 Facts About Vermouth
What exactly is vermouth? And why do flavors of bottles vary so greatly? Here are 5 fast facts to better understand this category:
1. Vermouth is a broad category, traditionally a fortified wine blended with herbs and spices in an endless combination. It’s typically made with white wine, but red is also used as a base.
2. When creating a vermouth, the end result is as much down to the style of wine used as it is the combination, proportion and process used to steep or infuse the other ingredients―roots, berries, herbs, spices, leaves and flowers, ranging from wild oregano and hyssop to juniper, coriander, rose petals and verbena.
3. The name vermouth comes from the French pronunciation of “wermut,” the German word for wormwood. That’s because wormwood was usually a part of vermouth’s ingredient mix until its ban in many countries in the early 20th century.
4. Sweet (and red) vermouth is traditionally known as Italian, while dry (and white) vermouth is considered French, based on their origins, although both have long been made from dry white wine.
5. The first commercially successful sweet vermouth was made in Turin, Italy, by Antonio Carpano in the late 18th century. Joseph Noilly of Lyons, France produced a drier version not many years later.
Most vermouth fans point to the explosion of brands available today―domestic and imported, and with particular selling points―as a spur to their enthusiasm. For example, Ransom’s Sweet and Dry Vermouths from Oregon are said to be the only American vermouth made with wormwood. They include estate-grown botanicals such as sarsparilla, sassafras, wild cherry bark, cinchona, dandelion root, hibiscus, cardamom and verbena.
Another recent introduction, La Quintinye Royal, is claimed by producers to be the only Pineau des Charentes-based vermouth, a fortified wine made by mixing fresh grape juice and Cognac. The line includes three vermouths―Rouge, Blanc and Extra-Dry.
Martini & Rossi has taken notice, earlier this year releasing Martini Riserva Speciale. The style of Vermouth di Torino with two expressions, Rubino and Ambrato, pays tribute to the original methods used by the first Martini master herbalist more than 150 years ago.
And E. & J. Gallo Winery and Quaker City Mercantile, the Philadelphia-based creator of Hendrick’s Gin and other popular modern spirits, collaborated a new line called Lo-Fi Aperitifs. Introduced in November, the two Lo-Fi vermouths are a blend of California wine and botanicals.
The flood of new products is unlikely to abate any time soon. “Every week, a winemaker will tell me about their new vermouth project,” says Einbund. The experimental techniques in vermouth, the loose definition of what can be called vermouth, and the fact that nearly every major wine region in the world seems to produce a vermouth-like beverage means the selection is only going to grow, he notes.
Like sherry, vermouth overall is in a transition from mass-produced value brands to smaller and higher-priced products. No major domestic brand grew last year, according to the Beverage Information Group data, although smaller brands almost made up for the leaders lost ground.
Among imports, Martini & Rossi and Noilly Pratt grew modestly, while Lillet shot up by 30%, albeit from a small base.
Variety and Flavor
It’s the broad variety of modern and classic styles that attracts Erin Lindle, owner of Washington, D.C.’s Nido, to vermouth. Nido features vermouth highballs during its happy hour or “vermoutherie.” Nido also carries a locally made rosé vermouth, Capitoline, on tap and a wide variety by the bottle, with a cocktail program composed of vermouth-based twists on classic cocktails.
“There is so much variation and depth of flavor in vermouth, and it’s a lot of fun to play with,” says Lindle. “They can be sweet, dry, bitter, herbal, aromatic, spicy, all of the above or anywhere in between. Plus, you can drink it all day.”
The restaurant’s bar program was ultimately inspired by visiting vermouth houses in Madrid, where the house vermouth is served simply with an olive, cherry and orange, Lindle says, “and from drinking them as aperitifs throughout Italy.” The vermouths also fit with Nido’s Spanish- and Italian-focused shared-plates menu.
Education is Key
San Francisco restaurant Octavia supports its vermouth list with brief notes, since few consumers know how the different brands can taste.
For example, it describes Hammer & Tongs Sac’Resine from Oregon as “light sweet citrus & spice,” while Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso is “dark dusty chocolate cherry,” and Kina L’Avion d’Or is “bittersweet lemon lilac.”
Descriptors are key to driving interest in a largely misunderstood category. At Chicago’s Nico Osteria, head bartender Matty Eggleston keeps the descriptions brief and accessible for the dozen or so vermouths he lists. He’s found that it opens customers eyes to the category’s possibilities.
The description for Imbue Bittersweet from Oregon is simply “sage, clove;” for California’s Vya Sweet, “cinnamon, galangal;” and for the Piedmontese Cocchi Torino, which is also the house vermouth for Nico’s Manhattans, it’s “green grapes, cola.”
Why these type of descriptors? “You can only say sweetened fortified wines so many times, but if you say it tastes like cola or grapes, that’s a conversation starter,” Eggleston explains.
Eggleston introduced a “vermouth of the day” program this past spring as a way to showcase different varieties served with club soda and garnish. “There’s a wonderful and richly flavored range of bottles that get pushed to the back of the cooler if not in regular use, which is one reason we started featuring it this way,” he notes.
The vermouth-of-the-day idea worked well in the summer months, “and we’re going to expand it during colder weather as aperitif of the day, when darker and sweeter may do well,” Eggleston says.
Nico Osteria vermouth also features vermouth in cocktails, such as the Squadra (Tequila Cabeza, Pelotón de la Muerte mezcal, Punt e Mes, Drambuie and Benedictine). But as a bar that services a restaurant and the connecting Thompson Hotel, as well as one frequented by neighborhood folks, offering drinks lower in alcohol made sense.
With the wide range of domestic and imported options today, Eggleston finds he can add flavor to a drink without relying on bitters, syrups or tinctures. The vermouths enable him to offer “delicious drinks that are not super boozy that tend to blow people’s doors off before a meal.”
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer based in Brooklyn, NY.