Vermouth has been around for millennia, and yet the different types of vermouth are often neglected, only to be dusted off when needed to make a popular cocktail. This versatile and ancient drink offers much more than an ingredient for cocktails. The fortified wine comes in a range of well-rounded flavors that can elevate classics like Martinis and Manhattans or be enjoyed on its own. For those seeking to learn more about this secondary spirit, this guide to vermouth is the perfect place to start.
First things first, refrigerate your vermouth. That ten-year bottle of vermouth that’s been sitting on the shelf? Throw it out. Vermouth lasts longer than wine, but not as long as spirits. Opened bottles of vermouth should be stored in the fridge and best used within a few months.
What is Vermouth?
Vermouth is a wine aromatized with absinthe wormwood and a blend of herbs, spices, and bitters and fortified with a distilled base spirit sweetened with sugar.
Since vermouth must contain at least 75% wine, the wine’s quality is important. Neutral-tasting wines with low tannins are the most popular choice for this purpose. However, what truly sets vermouth apart is the addition of various leaves, flowers, fruits, roots, seeds, and barks, which impart unique and distinctive flavors to different vermouth brands. A vast array of botanicals are used in vermouth production, including chamomile, cardamom, cinnamon, sage, coriander, ginger, hops, juniper, lemon peel, marjoram, mace, orris, raspberry, rose, sage, St. John’s Wort, thyme, and vanilla. Blends of these botanicals are carefully chosen and added to the wine base, resulting in a vermouth with complex and delightful flavors.
All vermouth must also contain artemisia (or wormwood), the theoretic “hallucinogenic” element of absinthe. While there’s a minute amount used in vermouth, studies have shown, however, that the ingredient does not have the psychoactive effects that lore otherwise suggests.
A spirit, often brandy, gets added to vermouth, which preserves the wine for longer and extracts the flavors of the botanicals. It’s often a neutral spirit made from grapes or beets. Lastly, sugar is added to both sweet and dry vermouth to balance the flavor.
The History of Vermouth
The name “vermouth” is derived from the mid-1600s when Germans spiked their wine with wormwood and called it wermut.
The history of adding wormwood to wine dates much further back, though, with records showing that Hippocrates added crushed wormwood and flowers into sweet wine, creating a medicinal beverage for rheumatism, anemia, and period pain. The Romans continued the tradition, but it wasn’t until the Savoy region (now a part of modern-day France and Italy) knew they needed to somehow improve their mediocre wine that vermouth became widely available. They mixed the newly available herbs and spices and created the fortified wine in the 1500s.
Italian Antonio Benetto Carpano was the first to commercialize vermouth in 1786. Unlike the Savoy region’s vermouth, he used high-quality Moscato wine mixed with an herbal blend from local monks and fortified with a particular spirit to preserve it.
Vermouth is most commonly used in cocktails. Martinis, Manhattans, and Negronis wouldn’t exist without this ingredient. One of the simplest ways to experiment with vermouth is to swap a dry for a sweet the next time you make one of the classics. Or become more adventurous and experiment with craft variations.
To understand how to use vermouth, you must try it neat. Pour it chilled with a twist of citrus or a splash of seltzer. You’ll soon learn the varying levels of sweetness and different blends of herbs and botanicals each vermouth has.
Types of Vermouth
Historically speaking, vermouth has come in two types: French vermouth (dry and pale) and Italian vermouth (dark and sweet). There are variations within those two families and the modern cocktail renaissance has fueled innovation and expansion beyond the Franco-Italian borders in the category. Let’s, however, focus on the basics for now.
Dry vermouth is made from white wine and is traditionally French. It has little to no sugar added and lends its savory botanical taste in cocktails. Most commonly used in a classic Martini or mixed with sweet vermouth in cocktails. There are both dry and extra-dry vermouth, each made with a different mix of wines.
Sweet vermouth is often labeled red/rosso/riojo. It can be made with red or white wine, though it is dark in color. Sweet vermouth, historically of Italian origin, is most commonly associated with Manhattans and Negronis.
Blanc/Bianco vermouths are in between dry and sweet vermouths in flavor, with balanced sweetness and botanical notes and pale in color. What distinguishes a blanc from a bianco is their origin. Blanc being from France and bianco from Italy, they are typically used interchangeably. They’re great for experimenting with in classic cocktails or enjoyed on their own.
Punt e Mes: This brand is an Italian-style vermouth that is dark in color and bittersweet. Its distinctive flavor tastes similar to a combination of sweet vermouth and Campari. Using the two in a 2:1 ratio will make a suitable substitute for Punt e Mes vermouth in recipes.
When purchasing vermouth, quality should be the top priority. Although it’s possible to find inexpensive bottles, they typically have an inferior taste that can skew or deflate the flavors in your cocktail. Plus, low-quality vermouth may not be enjoyable when consumed neat. It’s worth investing in high-quality vermouth to elevate your cocktail experience and enjoy the unique flavors that vermouth has to offer.
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