What Is Vermouth?
Vermouth is a particularly fascinating Italian beverage with a German-inspired French name. Indeed, it is named after the French pronunciation of wormwood in German, which is “Wermut”.
Historically, vermouth was predominantly made in the Italian Piedmont region. Given that this neighbours with France, it also has an intriguing French heritage too.
The most famous vermouth is unquestionably Martini, which shares its name with a celebrated gin-based cocktail. However, there is some doubt as to whether it was named after the brand or its founder.
Instead, “Martini” may be a corruption of the California town Martinez where the cocktail was supposedly invented in the 1860s. Furthermore, evidence supports this particularly theory in that it was named the “Martinez Cocktail” as early as 1887 in an early mixology book, which is still on sale today!
Finally, vermouth isn’t actually an alcoholic spirit but a wine. Technically speaking, it is a fortified wine that has been strengthened by adding a neutral spirit usually been distilled from grapes.
The History Of Vermouth
Casa Martini & Rossi
Like akvavit and gin or jenever, vermouth first started as a medicinal remedy. Indeed, the fortifying of wine and adding herbs has been practised by both the Ancient Chinese and Indians since 1,000 BC. Additionally, Hippocrates would produce his own wormwood iteration as early as 400 BC!
In this particular instance, the name plays a fundamental role as Germany had been using wormwood as an ingredient in fortified wine since the 16th Century. Additionally, wormwood is one of the principle ingredients of absinthe. However, this wasn’t produced until the late 18th Century.
Antonio Benedetto Carpano
At some point during the 16th Century, an Italian merchant called Jeronimo Ruscelli had started producing his own “Wermut Wein” with additional botanicals. This caught the interest of other producers in South-Eastern France, which began creating their own varieties.
During this period, the Duchy of Savoy transferred the capital from Chambéry, France, to Torino in the Piedmont region. Upon his arrival, the court sampled the local delicacies and discovered the fortified wine.
Consequently, it quickly spread to other courts such as Bavaria where Wermut Wein was already popular as described above.
In 1786, another Italian merchant by the name of Antonio Benedetto Carpano introduced a sweet vermouth to Torino. By this time, wormwood wine was being enjoyed in England and was being commonly referred to as “Vermouth” since it arrived via the French.
After the turn of the 19th Century, French herbalist Joseph Noilly started producing a pale and dry vermouth. Beginning in his hometown of Lyon, he soon moved to the coastal town of Marseillan when he realised during shipping that the salty air improved the flavour in the barrels.
The Advent Of The Cocktail
Towards the end of the 18th Century, vermouth was rarely used medicinally and was instead often enjoyed as an aperitif. However, it was during the mid-19th Century that it’s popularity boomed with the increasing popularity of cocktails.
Until the dawn of the 20th Century, vermouth was frequently being used as a mixer for a variety of new and exciting cocktails. For instance, the aforementioned martini was being mixed since the 1860s. Meanwhile, the Manhattan was invented at some point during the 1880s.
By the mid-20th Century, martini consumed neat as an aperitif was rare. Instead, it was almost only consumed in cocktails. It was during this time that Martini & Rosso drove aggressive marketing campaigns and sought to align themselves with the stars of the era.
While Hemingway and Bogart with both excellent influencers of period, it was James Bond that proved to be the most successful marketing personality. Furthermore, the brand was heavily involved in motor sports and continues to sponsor automobile racing to this day.
Gin Boom’s Influence On Vermouth
Bava Brothers, Cocchi Owners
Thanks to the recent gin boom of the early 21st Century, there has been growing interest in vermouth with new artisanal brands being developed all over the world.
In response, Piedmont’s vermouth producers have vigorously campaigned for certification that their fortified wines are officially recognised. One of the most notable campaigners was Robert Brava, owner of Cocchi.
Consequently, producers succeeded in obtaining a “Vermouth di Torino” Indicazione Geografica in 2017 from the Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture. Meanwhile, Chambéry in France has been recognised thanks to an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée for its own vermouth.
How Vermouth Is Made
Noilly Prat Cellar
Vermouth usually begins as a low-alcohol white wine produced from grapes such as Clairette blanche, Catarratto, Trebbiano, Blanchetta Trevigiana, and Piquepoul. The base wine is then briefly aged before being a specific amount of sugar syrup is added.
Dolin Distillery Alembic
Afterwards, the wine is then fortified with a neutral grape-based alcoholic spirit. Botanicals are then added to large barrels, which are then filled with the fortified wine. These botanicals consist of various herbs and spices including cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and juniper.
Although wormwood was historically a main ingredient, its heavily regulated today so its overall use its limited. Nevertheless, it is required that at least one herb from the same Artemisia family is used in the production.
The ingredients are then left to steep or macerate. During this, the barrels may be stirred or agitated over several weeks. Afterwards, the vermouth may be extracted via pressing or distillation. That said, the latter can be particularly rare.
Once completed, the wine must account for at least 75% of the resulting product.
Typical Alcohol Volume Percentage
As a fortified beverage, the alcohol percentage is usually higher than typical wine. Therefore, you can expect concentrations that range from 16 to 18% ABV. In the EU, the absolutely minimum can actually be 14.5% whereas it cannot be stronger than 22%.
Does Vermouth Go Bad?
Thanks to the fortification process, vermouth doesn’t sour as quickly as typical white wine. However, vermouth may last between one and three months after being opened. Vermouth’s expiration can actually be slowed down somewhat by storing it in the fridge.
Indeed, this results in quite a number of cocktails over a few weeks. Nevertheless, vermouth is excellent for cooking and goes remarkably well in a risotto.
Different Vermouth Types & How They Taste
Above describes the general process of producing a dry white vermouth. However, there are a number of sweet or red varieties too that have been developed. Consequently, their production can vary depending on the desired result.
What Are Sweet & Dry Vermouth?
Dolin Dry Vermouth
Firstly, the main difference between most vermouths is whether it is considered sweet or dry. Much like Champagne, this depends on the amount of sugar syrup added, which takes place just being being fortified with the neutral spirit.
However, this also has an effect on the resulting alcohol percentage as you’ll see below:
- Extra Dry: <30 grams / litre and 15< % ABV
- Dry: 30 – 50 grams / litre and 16< % ABV
- Semi-Dry: 50 – 90 grams / litre
- Semi-Sweet: 90 – 130 grams / litre
- Sweet: 130+ grams / litre
Needless to say, the amount of sugar added has a profound effect on the resulting flavour and how it’s best consumed in a cocktail or otherwise.
What Is The Difference Between White & Red Vermouth?
You may have noticed that there are a variety of different vermouth colours available to buy. While the overall process to produce these are similar, they may have experienced some slight variations in their production. Generally, most vermouth is still quite vinous but their differences can be striking.
For instance, one of the most common types of vermouth is red or Rosso. This colour is often the result of adding red wine but can also be caused by certain botanicals as well as caramel colouring. Compared to other varieties, it’s usually quite unctuous with a sweet, spicy, and herbal flavour profile.
Conversely, a white, blanc or Bianco vermouth will only use white wine as the base. It tends to be much lighter and sweeter than its red counterpart with more floral and vanilla notes on the palate.
Although slightly similar in appearance, a Bianco shouldn’t be confused with a “dry” vermouth, which as the name suggests, is tart and lacking in sugar as described above.
Meanwhile, Rosé or Rosato vermouth is rarer but will usually use a combination of red and white wine for the initial base. Although a relatively newer variety, it’s growing in popularity as it tends to offer a combination of both flavours.
How To Serve & Drink Vermouth
As described in detail above, vermouth is most commonly consumed as a cocktail mixer. However, we also explained that it was originally straight. In some parts of France and Italy, this is still the case even if it isn’t as common as it used to be.
When taking vermouth neat, it’s served chilled and usually with ice or a chilled glass at the very least. Often, a citrus twist can be added to improve the flavour. If this is desired, lemon is best suited to white blends while orange will complement darker vermouths.
Nevertheless, many vermouths made today are primarily produced for cocktails. Therefore, bottom-shelf blends destined for cocktails may not be particularly pleasant. Instead, opt for premium vermouth if you’re looking to enjoy it neat.
Popular Vermouth Cocktail Recipes
As you probably already know, vermouth is about as popular as gin or vodka when it comes to cocktails. Yet, each variety of vermouth has its own characteristics that are better suited to certain cocktails.
Below, we’ll briefly look at a few celebrated vermouth cocktails and how the fortified wine plays a role.
Named after French general Pascal Olivier Count de Negroni, this historically cocktail was supposedly invented in a Florence café in 1919. Typically, it consists of equal parts gin, sweet red vermouth, and Campari.
One of the oldest vermouth cocktails, the Manhattan was first recorded in the 1880s but may even predate this by several decades. Five parts of rye whisky are combined with two parts of sweet rosso vermouth and a dash of bitters. This is then stirred over ice and strained into a chilled glass before adding garnish.
As mentioned above, the martini is another heritage vermouth cocktail. Today, the proportions tend to be six parts gin and one part vermouth. However, it started as a 2:1 ratio before dropping to 4:1 by the 1940s.
Martinis today are typically dry but they can be made with sweet vermouth. Similarly, bitters can be added or even a dash of olive brine, which is called a Dirty Martini.
Interestingly, most martini variants that use the name or “tini” suffix don’t always feature vermouth. For instance, an appletini substitutes the vermouth for apple sour.
Lastly, we would be remiss to overlook the iconic 007 drink. Although his was traditionally a combination of gin, vodka, and Lillet, the films popularised the simple marriage of vodka and vermouth.
Bear in mind that purists claim that a martini should never be stirred to ensure that the molecules are properly aligned in the glass. Traditionally, a shaken martini is actually called a “Bradford”. Remember this to score extra points with your bartender if you must absolutely have it that way!
Vermouth Substitutes & Similar Drinks
Interestingly, there are a number of similar fortified wines that can be used instead of vermouth to produce different effects. For instance, we already noted Kina Lillet that was originally used in James Bond’s Vesper cocktail.
In fact, Lillet comes from a family of fortified wines known as quinquina, which are traditionally made using cinchona bark to produce quinine. Historically, this was produced as a treatment for malaria and was often added to drinks as an alternative to medication for soldiers stationed abroad.
In fact, quinine is one of the main ingredients of tonic water and the gin and tonic was actually the British solution to mask its bitterness.
Anyway, quinquina is a family of fortified wines that includes both Lillet and Dubonnet. Both of these are lesser-known but appreciated drinks that are often compared and even mistaken with vermouth on occasion.
Are There Health Benefits To Drinking Vermouth?
Originally, vermouth was produced as a medicinal remedy as described earlier in this guide. When Hippocrates made his own, he claimed that it aided with jaundice and soothed menstrual pains.
Similarly, it has been claimed that vermouth can aid in digestion, reduce stress, reduce inflammations, and protect the immune system.
While there is some truth in some of this, its benefits were largely due to the botanicals. One of the main ingredients that was beneficial was actually the wormwood, which is known to help with infections, Crohn’s dises, and dyspepsia.
However, wormwood is heavily regulated even if it actually contains very little Thujone compared to other herbs such as sage. Nevertheless, the reduced quantity in vermouth means that it probably offers few health benefits when consumed.
Gluten, Carbs, & Calories In Vermouth
Given that wine is gluten-free, vermouth is absolutely fine for people with a sensitivity to it or people with celiac disease.
However, vermouth can be very high in sugar depending on the variety. Typically, 88 ml (3 Oz) of dry vermouth will contain well over 130 calories. Therefore, sweeter vermouth may be significantly more.
Furthermore, 3% of vermouth’s composition is carbohydrates, which comes to over 10g in the quantity listed above.
Finally, also bear in mind that vermouth is often accompanied by other ingredients in a cocktail too!
Where To Buy Vermouth
Thanks to Martini’s fame, vermouth is relatively easy to find in just about every convenience store or supermarket. However, if you’re looking for a specific style or variety of vermouth, you may struggle in most stores.
We’ve also found that a lot of online retailers don’t actually stock much vermouth. For instance, we regularly use Reserve Bar but they don’t appear to have any on their site, sadly.
Meanwhile, Drizly actually sells quite a number of different brands thanks to their partnerships with local merchants. Therefore, you’ll find all the vermouth brands listed below through their website if you’re looking to acquire some.
Top 10 Best Vermouth Brands
As mentioned above, we will now cover the top 10 best vermouth brands that you can buy online:
- Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
- Dolin Dry Vermouth
- Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth
- Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Ambrato Vermouth
- Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino
- Martini & Rossi Extra Dry Vermouth
- Carpano Punt E Mes
- Ransom Dry Vermouth
- Cinzano Rosso Sweet Vermouth
- Martini & Rossi Rosso Sweet Vermouth
Scroll down to see them all or jump ahead using the links above.