Vermouth occupies a curious and unique place in the world of alcoholic beverages. If they think of it at all, most Americans likely consider vermouth only as an ingredient in certain extremely well-known mixed drinks. But — save for the occasional lonely bottom- or mid-shelf brand found in Western North Carolina ABC shops — one can’t find vermouth in local liquor stores.
That’s because vermouth is fortified wine, not a spirit. But a typical vermouth has an alcohol content of 16%-18%, higher than most wines. The fortification comes in the shape of added spirit, typically brandy (or, in cheaper vermouths, neutral grain spirits). And a host of herbs, barks and spices of a distinctly proprietary nature are added to give each vermouth its distinctive character. In fact, the word “vermouth” comes from wermut, the German word for wormwood, an ingredient common to many varieties of the drink.
As is so often the case in the world of spirituous drinks, the earliest vermouths were probably developed for medicinal purposes. As Amy Stewart explains in her lively and highly readable reference book The Drunken Botanist, vermouths “infused with wormwood, quinine, gentian or coca leaves would have represented an attempt to treat intestinal worms, malaria, indigestion or listlessness.” Today they’re more commonly used in cocktails.
For purposes of an introductory discussion, there are two types of vermouth: sweet (also known as red or Italian) and dry (also called white or French). The truth is that there are other varieties as well and that the country-of-origin appellation is far from an ironclad rule. “There’s not really that designation anymore,” says Rich Prochaska of Vaso de Vino in Arden. “There are red and white Italian vermouths; French and Spanish ones, too.”
The most common vermouth brands — found in many grocery stores — include Martini & Rossi and Cinzano (both from Italy) and Noilly Prat from France. Prochaska points out that those brands “are much lighter in flavor and spice” than more upmarket choices. At more upscale wine shops, expect to find a wide assortment of brands, primarily but not exclusively from Europe.
For most drinkers, dry vermouth is one of two ingredients in a classic martini, and sweet vermouth is part of a traditional Manhattan. “Vermouth is particularly used in some of the most classic cocktails that have been around for centuries,” says John Kerr of Metro Wines. “Most people in this country started off with something like Martini & Rossi or a couple of others that are a step up,” says Kerr. “But those brands don’t have a lot going for them, and people who tried those in their very first martini may have found them lacking, and they never went back.”
Better dry and sweet vermouths have a more complex character. As the label suggests, sweet vermouth contains added sugars. But that sugar does more than add sweetness. “Flavor is just one of the components that makes a wine or vermouth,” Kerr says. “Sugar adds texture, too.” He says that a primary goal of vermouth in a cocktail is “ to add flavor without overpowering the drink.”
Kerr says that he’s noticed two “secret ingredients” used in bars around town. For sweet, from Torino, Italy, there’s Cocchi, and for a drier choice, there’s Lillet, a French aromatized wine. “Both have just enough aromatics so that they’re going to stand out in a drink,” he says.
Prochaska makes another point, one of interest for intrepid drinks aficionados who may have heretofore limited their vermouth use to classic cocktails. “Vermouths are at a point now where they’re so flavorful that people realize they can drink them on their own,” he says. Lightly chilled (which is the best way to store a fortified wine if one wants it to last a while), a small glass of sweet vermouth makes an excellent aperitif (before a meal) or digestif (after dinner).
Because vermouth is such an expansive topic, we’re devoting not one but two features to exploring it. In our next installment, we’ll continue the discussion with a look at Spanish vermouths, newer varieties from the United States and the results of our own recent do-it-yourself adventure.
Kerr notes that interest in vermouth is a recent phenomenon in the U.S. “When we first opened, almost nobody asked for vermouth,” he says. It’s only been in the last 18-24 months that he has seen local demand increase; in response, Metro has expanded its selection, and Kerr even stocks a South African vermouth.
“I commend people on taking the time to look around and see what else is out there,” he says. “Beverages and food are the foundation of friends and family; it’s all about pleasure and friendship. And I’m happy to see people pulling in all these different flavors. I’m glad to see that trend.”