Ever wondered what makes a Negroni or Martini seem like more than the sum of its parts? The secret may lie in a key ingredient: vermouth. You thought I was going to say bitters didn’t you? Bitters are also key, but they are more of a supporting character working hard in the background. Vermouth is an often overlooked co-star. Join me for a quick primer on this versatile and sometimes illusive spirit. I promise your summer cocktails will never be the same.
Let’s start with what vermouth is. Vermouth is a low-alcohol, fortified wine, flavored with a blend of herbs, spices, and bitter botanicals. It’s bolstered with a distilled base spirit and typically sweetened with sugar. It is both bitter and sweet, but how bitter and how sweet depends on the producer and style. Vermouth can range from lightly sweet and citrusy with hints of elderflower or jasmine to richly herbaceous with flavors of dried fruit, vanilla, and baking spices.
Some vermouths are crafted with the intention of being sipped alone either chilled or on ice, while others are crafted to be a cocktail ingredient. It doesn’t mean the latter are any less than those meant for sipping, but they are made with the intention of blending and not overwhelming. That said, I encourage you to try any vermouth that peaks your curiosity served cold and neat.
Blanc vs Dry vs Sweet
There are three main styles of vermouth, so let's break them down.
Blanc, bianco, or white vermouth is generally both the lightest in color and the brightest in flavor, however it sits in the middle on the sweetness scale. Most blanc vermouths display notes of citrus or stone fruit and light floral or herbaceous flavors. Blanc vermouth makes a great cocktail ingredient as it can either be used to bring a subtle, balanced sweetness to a drink or play up the herbal notes already present in other ingredients. Dolin Blanc is a classic to try, but Lustau Vermut Blanco and Quintinye Vermouth Royal are both worthy of seeking out.
Dry vermouth or French Vermouth is the least sweet of the three styles and often has a light golden hue. While dry vermouth was the French answer to Italy’s sweet vermouth, most producers these days make both dry and sweet as well as other expressions. Dry vermouth is the go to for a gin martini and brings a rich, herbal quality to the cocktail. Dolin Dry is a great place to start, but Lo-Fi Dry is a great American made option and Mancino Secco is a great Italian version.
Sweet vermouth is unsurprisingly the sweetest of the three styles. Flavors can range from rich honey and figs to dried cherry, vanilla, and even cocoa. Sweet vermouth ranges in color from caramel to deep garnet red, so be sure to read the label as some sweet vermouths are deceptively light in color. Known best for it’s use in both Manhattans and Negronis, sweet vermouth is a back bar essential. Carpano Antica is a classic to start with and Cocchi is also a bar favorite, however for afternoon sipping Bordiga Rosso is a favorite.
Vermouth has been slowly gaining popularity in the US over the last decade or so and with that has come an expansion of imports and locally made versions. While many are sticking to the tradition of vermouth, some modern producers are pushing boundaries and widening what the category can be. Honestly, I’m all for it as a glass of chilled vermouth is hands down my favorite thing to sip on a hot summer day.