Vermouth: A Wonky Primer on What It Is and How to Care for It

There’s an old trope about ordering a “dry” martini so devoid of vermouth that the bottle was merely opened in an adjoining room, or that the word “vermouth” was merely whispered nearby. People who think this is clever not only exhibit a huge misunderstanding of what “dry” means, but are also missing out on experiencing a vibrant cocktail the way it’s supposed to taste. Sure, go drink asi watered down, chilled glass of gin, or worse yet, vodka, if that’s your version of a good martini. Vermouth gets a bad rap from people who don’t understand it and why it’s a frequent player in both classic and modern cocktails. With several vermouth reviews coming up on the blog, it’s worth outlining the essentials to set a baseline to build on.

For the aspiring cocktail enthusiast, vermouth is a challenge to wrap your head around. It’s not like bourbon, or Grand Marnier, where you can pick up a bottle at your local liquor store and use it with abandon in any recipe calling for vermouth. Styles are all over the map, flavor-wise, and the terminology isn’t that helpful – red, white, sweet, dry, Italian, French – what does it all mean? How do you pick the right vermouth for a Martini/Negroni/Manhattan? And what’s this about refrigerating it?To start your understanding of vermouth, let’s first turn to wine. There isn’t one single type of wine on the market– rather, you’ll find both red and white wines, sweet and not-so-sweet (dry) wines, and all manner in between. A sweet white riesling is a very different experience than a red merlot, and no one would argue with you on that. Vermouth is commonly thought of as a wine, but as I’ll explain momentarily, it’s a bit more complex. However, much like you pick a wine to pair with food, you should select a vermouth to match what the cocktail recipe expects. For instance, classic Manhattans and Negronis call for a red, sweet vermouth, whereas the classic Martini and Vesper are made with dry, white vermouths.  Switching those around yields “interesting” results.

All vermouth starts out as either wine or as a blend of wine grape juice and alcohol known as mistelle.  Vermouth is much, much more than wine or boozy grape juice, though. It’s also “aromatized,” a fancy word for infused. Typical vermouths are infused with a dozen or more “botanicals” like wormwood, cardamom, cinnamon, and citrus peel. The one near-constant in traditional vermouth recipes is wormwood, the same plant used to flavor absinthe. In fact, “vermouth” is the Frenchified version of the German Wermut, i.e. wormwood. The exact set of ingredients in different vermouths obviously affect the flavor and are highly guarded secrets. In this light, you can see a close parallel between gin and vermouth; both have multiple producers competing via unique secret blends of botanicals.  Nearly all gins include juniper; with vermouth, the common ingredient is wormwood. Putting aside juniper and wormwood though, many common botanicals like citrus peel are used in both. And ponder this: The Gin Martini is a blend of gin and vermouth – so many botanical ingredients in one glass!

The alcoholic content of vermouth typically falls in the sixteen to eighteen percent range, a tad higher than most wines. The extra alcohol is what puts it into the fortified wine category, alongside port and sherry, although port and sherry are not aromatized like vermouth. With the relatively low alcohol content, you can easily sip vermouth straight – in fact, this is how it was originally consumed long before bartenders thought to mix it into cocktails.

While every producer’s vermouth is unique, most fall into three categories: Red, White, and Dry—or alternatively, Italian, Bianco and French. Wait, what? Just to keep you on your toes, vermouth terminology isn’t used consistently across cocktail recipes. Here’s the quick rundown:

Red / Italian / Sweet: This style is sweet, almost like a dessert wine, with a reddish coloring. Italian in this context actually means “Italian style.” To further confuse matters, Italian-style vermouth can be made anywhere, not just Italy. Surprisingly, the color of red vermouth typically doesn’t occur from red wine. Rather, it’s often the result of caramelized sugar.

French / Dry: This style is much less sweet and is pale or clear in color. French in this context means “French style” and can also be made anywhere, not just France.

White / Bianco: This style of vermouth is sweet, similar to Italian style, but pale or clear in color.

As I mentioned, cocktail recipes are maddeningly inconsistent in their terms. Frequently I’ve needed to study a recipe and figure out exactly what the author intended. Pro tip: Although a recipe may call for a red vermouth, you can often use a bianco vermouth of similar sweetness. Your drink’s color may be much lighter than normal, but this can be used to good effect, such as creating a Yellow Negroni by using a bianco vermouth and a light colored bitter like Suze, rather than vibrant red Campari.

Traditionally vermouth’s big players are from France and Italy, congregated in the region surrounding the French/Italian border. Most producers make several styles of vermouths from the above categories. Some of the big names:

  • Carpano
  • Cinzano
  • Martini & Rossi
  • Dolin
  • Noilly Prat

While France and Italy dominate the global vermouth market, any region that makes wine probably has at least one company making vermouth. A couple of U.S-based vermouths that have acquired a following are Vya and Imbue.

Caring for your vermouth

With its low alcohol content (remember, it’s not much higher than wine), vermouth won’t last forever on your shelf like a high-proof whiskey will. Once opened, it’s a perishable ingredient. Much like wine is subject oxidation after popping the cork, the same holds true here. However, with a little care you can extend the “best by” date of your newly opened bottle.

The first and easiest step is to always refrigerate your vermouth once you’ve exposed it to air. The more air in the bottle, the faster it oxidizes, so if there’s only an ounce left in your bottle, it’ll go off-tasting much faster than when the bottle is nearly full. Estimates of how long vermouths hold their flavor after opening are all over the map, but generally between several weeks and several months, depending on the type– sweeter vermouths last longer because of their higher sugar content, which acts as a natural preservative.

With just a little more effort you can slow the oxidation even more. Taking a cue from the wine world, there are inexpensive systems like the Vacu Vin which replace your bottle’s cork or screw top with a rubber stopper with a one-way air valve. A small hand pump lets you create a near-vacuum in the bottle. Alternatively, there are canisters of nitrogen which let you replace most of the oxygen in the bottle. But seriously, if you do nothing more than refrigerate your vermouth, you’re ahead of most players in this game.

Another way to ensure you have fresh vermouth on hand is to buy in smaller bottles. Traditionally vermouth comes in 750 ml or 1 liter bottles. Unless you own a bar, are hosting large parties at home, or are drinking vermouth daily, it can be challenging to go through a whole bottle in a reasonable amount of time. Thankfully, several producers including the much lauded Carpano sell it in smaller, 375 ml bottles. While you’ll pay a bit more per ounce, you stand a better chance of finishing the bottle before the contents turn into something less than pleasant.

The big takeaway is this: Don’t fear the vermouth. Buy a few bottles that cover the styles your recipes call for. Spend a few extra seconds and pop the vermouth in the refrigerator when you’re done. And seek out recipes beyond the Manhattan, Martini, and Negroni to help you learn new ways to make use of your fresh, newly opened bottle of botanical delight.

La Quintinye Vermouth Royal

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