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Vermouth’s role in the U.S. cocktail universe has expanded and significantly contracted over the last century. Where once vermouth was celebrated, it’s now waved lightly over the cocktail shaker so as not to step on the vodka or gin’s toes. And the North American approach to vermouth is far different from the European relationship to vermouth—we’re forgetting to refrigerate it here, while they serve it on tap in Spain.
As vermouth makes a comeback in the U.S., Jen Massolo points out that there’s a distinct ebb and flow in our interest in vermouth. Massolo is the general manager and curator of Bar Journe, a rare spirits bar nestled within Kimpton EPIC29 Miami, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts partner and high-end watch shop Maison F.P. Journe. She’s also an American Distilling Institute judge, and her company, The Liquid Projects, designs hotel spirit programs and bar concepts. Needless to say, vermouth is a language she speaks fluently—in a way most outside Europe do not.
“Vermouth is one of the first fortified wines that really began as such but then took on another life,” she says. But in the ‘70s, vermouth took a back seat on the American cocktail scene.
Rather than sipping it on the rocks and caring for it like a fine wine, we left the vermouth to collect dust on the bar cart, only bringing it out for delicate martini and Negroni embellishment. As quality control and care for the aromatized wine started to slip, so did our interest in it. To ensure vermouth’s place as a bar staple rather than a forgotten accessory, Massolo walks us through what vermouth is, how to properly store it, which brands to buy, and how to leverage vermouth to create innovative cocktails at home.
What Is Vermouth?
As Massolo says, vermouth is a subcategory of fortified wine; technically, an “aromatized wine.” First off, fortified means the wine is always blended with a spirit—typically, in Spain, France, and Italy, the top producers of vermouth, that spirit is brandy. Contrary to popular belief, vermouth is always white wine-based. For sweet vermouth (what you’d typically find in a Negroni), the red color comes from the addition of caramelized sugar and sometimes barrel aging. On the other hand, dry vermouth (what you’d typically find in a martini) remains white because it’s devoid of caramelized sugar and sweetener of any kind.
Finally, there’s a medium, semi-sweet vermouth. Massolo’s favorite of the vermouth family, she describes medium-sweet vermouth—often called blanc or bianco vermouth—as more golden in color. It has some sugar content, but typically the sugar hasn’t been caramelized.
In the what is vermouth? conversation, discussing the aromatics is just as important. Vermouth is aromatized wine, which implies the flavor comes just as much from herbs and spices as the wine, spirit, and sugar elements. As Massolo explains, those herb combinations are proprietary and unique to the various vermouth houses around the world—it’s part of what makes each blend so unique.
The Best Vermouths to Buy
The vermouth market has expanded significantly as quality control and appreciation for vermouth increases in North America. As Massolo puts it, the options currently on the market give you a choice between “old world and new world [aperitifs].” Here, some of her recommendations for the best vermouths to buy, especially for those looking to drink it straight over ice or harness the power of fortified wine to up their cocktail game. To ensure quality, treat your vermouth right; put it in the fridge immediately after opening, and remember, the shelf life even in the fridge is just a few weeks.
Carpano produces vermouths in Milan, Italy, and they make a dry, semi-sweet, and a few other vermouth variations. Their sweet vermouth is the Carpano Antica, one of Massolo’s top picks for a full-sweet Vermouth.
A classic French Vermouth house dating back to 1821, Dolin produces a dry, semi-sweet, and red vermouth. The blanc and dry (sec) vermouths both complement a martini nicely, but the blanc also does well on ice with some tonic water.
Cocchi is a Italian vermouth made in Torino—the recipe of aromatic herbs that flavor their vermouth has been a house secret since 1891. Of their seven aromatized, fortified wines, one is Americano, a Campari-like aperitif easily integrated into cocktails or sipped over ice.
Vya, Quady Winery
As new world vermouth goes, there are some excellent purveyors from all over North America. Start with California’s Quady Winery, known for their signature line of Vya vermouths. Made from grapes sourced from the San Joaquin Valley, Quady makes Vya Whisper Dry, Extra Dry, and Sweet Vermouth.
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How to Integrate Vermouth into Your Cocktail Game
Low ABV Cocktails
Massolo says that low-alcohol cocktails are one of the best reasons to keep high-quality vermouth on hand. There are plenty of reasons to mix a fortified wine-based cocktail, beyond the ability to further indulge and still stand up straight—restaurants with wine and beer licenses can’t use hard alcohol to mix cocktails, but often use vermouth to supplement.
For semi-sweet vermouth, Massolo recommends drinkers “serve it on the rocks with a slice of orange or rind.” To make tall, refreshing mixed drinks, Massolo says to experiment with vermouth, a slightly sweet effervescence (like tonic water), and fruit juice, a bitter, or a shrub. For example, a semi-sweet vermouth with bitters, a sprig of rosemary, and tonic makes for a nice summer cocktail. Or to experiment with fruit flavors, perhaps a red vermouth with upscale tonic brand Fever-Tree’s new sparkling pink grapefruit and a shot of Campari.
To create low ABV vermouth-based cocktails, “buy a sweet and a medium vermouth, some tonic water, and start there,” says Massolo.
To really allow your vermouth to shine in a martini, Massolo recommends a more vintage take: a two-to-one vodka or gin-to-vermouth ratio. The higher vermouth content in a martini fell out of vogue because “vermouth lost its quality control,” says Massolo. But if you’re buying quality vermouth and storing it properly, heavying your vermouth pour adds character and dimension to your martini. The two-to-one approach makes it “much more of a cocktail,” than just waving the vermouth over ice cold gin with a twist, Massolo concludes.
For whiskey experimentation, it’s pretty straightforward: a sweet or medium-sweet vermouth is the aperitif to blend with ryes, bourbons, and the like. Trying your hand at a boulevardier (bourbon, sweet vermouth, and Campari) or a Manhattan (rye, sweet vermouth, bitters) is a great place to start. A Massolo tip: you might even sub out the sweet vermouth for a semi-sweet to lower the sugar content of the drink.
Negronis & Co
Negronis are the perfect outlet for vermouth to shine, and the trick is to experiment with each of the three Negroni components. All a Negroni really is, as Massolo tells it, is “equal parts hard spirit, Campari or a bitter italian liqueur, and then vermouth.” But there’s no saying that the hard spirit must be gin, that the liqueur must be Campari, or that the vermouth must be sweet.
Try a mezcal Negroni with semi-sweet vermouth and Campari, or attempt a white Negroni with dry vermouth, gin, and white Americano as your bitter liqueur. The world is your Negroni oyster.