What is Vermouth?
Whether you’re an avid cocktail connoisseur or your knowledge of vermouth begins and ends with the bottle of Cinzano gathering dust at the back of your spirits cabinet, this article will take you on a deep dive into the history of vermouth, how it’s made, and why it’s stood the test of time.
07 Nov 2022
by The Blackhearts Crew
Wind the clocks back a couple of decades, and vermouth was seen by most outside France and Italy as an afterthought. Its use in many popular cocktails ensured that it hadn’t fallen into complete obscurity, but it was hardly the centrepiece of the humble home bar.
Alongside the explosion of craft gin in the 2000s, the use of botanicals to flavour alcohol became the fixation of many bartenders and spirit drinkers the world over. It was only natural that vermouth would be the next domino to fall, as people began to flock towards this once daggy beverage with newfound enthusiasm. But what actually is vermouth, and how is it made?
So, what is Vermouth?
Vermouth falls into the broader category of aromatised wine. It’s essentially a wine that has been infused with a range of fruits, herbs, and spices in order to add flavour and complexity. Any combination of botanicals can be used, though the key ingredient required to classify it as vermouth, and not an aromatised wine, is a plant from the Artemisia genus. Artemisia is a large genus of around 400 plants, though the one most commonly used in vermouth is wormwood. An aromatic herb native to Europe, wormwood has been used for centuries for various culinary and medicinal purposes and is the key ingredient used to flavour Absinthe. The name ‘vermouth’ actually comes from the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood – ‘wermut’, which was coined by an Italian. Don’t worry, we’re scratching our heads with that one too.
There are two main ways that vermouth is made.
The first is through an infusion process, where the botanicals are either steeped in a spirit or distilled (similar to the way gin is made). Some producers infuse each botanical separately and blend them together to achieve a more consistent flavour, whereas others are more ad hoc and do it all in one go. The spirit is then added to the wine, which infuses it with the flavour of the botanicals as well as fortifying it, which helps to preserve it.
The second process involves macerating the botanicals directly into the wine, similar to how tea is brewed. This method can be harder to keep consistency with, and it usually results in a more subtle beverage with a lower percentage of alcohol that’s more prone to spoilage.
Sweet vs Dry Vermouth (and their Distant Cousins)
So, now that we’ve established how vermouth is made and the history of this beverage, you may have become inspired and decided to visit your local bottleshop to browse the vermouth shelf.
‘Why are there so many different types?! And what the hell do I do with it?!’
We know, it can be confusing! As with most beverages, once they become established in new regions, they tend to be modified or altered to suit local preferences or the availability of ingredients.
In terms of styles, you will most likely come across ‘dry’ and ‘sweet’ vermouth, but we’ve included a few vermouth-adjacent beverages that are often lumped into the same category (though they are technically not the same thing).
Dry vermouth goes by a few different names – you may also see it called white or French vermouth, the latter being a hint to its origins.
Dry vermouth is made from a white wine base that has been fermented until dry (there is often a small amount of residual sugar, though it’s generally not noticeable). The botanicals used are often different in order to reflect the more delicate and subtle nature of dry vermouth, but still feature the same core ingredients such as wormwood, citrus peel, and whole spices.
Its applications are, most famously, for use in a Martini, though it can also be drunk on the rocks with a wedge of lemon or used in a range of other cocktails (more on that later!)
Also called red/rouge/rosso/tinto vermouth, this is perhaps the most widely available and known style of vermouth. It’s one of the three pillars of the famous Negroni cocktail and is closest in style to one of the original vermouths produced in Italy.
Sweet vermouth historically was made from a red wine base, though these days it’s more common for it to be made from a white wine base. The colour of sweet vermouth is derived from an ingredient called ‘caramel colouring’, which sort of does what it says on the tin. It’s a more common ingredient than you might think – you know that expensive single malt Scotch you’ve got in your cupboard? Yep, it’s most likely in there too. Sorry to ruin the romanticism for you!
Sweet vermouth is much more popular in Italy, though it is commonly drunk in Spain too. Spanish sweet vermouths are often less sweet and more subtle than their Italian counterparts.
Applications for sweet vermouth are wide and varied. It’s an integral part of many classic cocktail, but can also be drunk with equal parts soda (known as a Vermuttino), or by itself on the rocks with a slice of citrus.
Okay, it’s important to get this one out of the way first: An amaro is not a type of vermouth, though they do share a few similarities.
Amaro literally translates to ‘bitter’ in Italian, which may give you a clue where we’re going here… Amaro is a bitter herbal liqueur that is aromatised with a selection of botanicals that are also commonly used in vermouth, and sometimes contains a component of wine as part of its base. What sets them apart, though, is that, unlike vermouth, wine is an optional ingredient for amaro, and when it is included it plays more of a supporting role than the lead act.
Again, here comes the disclaimer: Americano is not a type of vermouth. We’re also not talking about the cocktail, or what the Europeans call a Long Black (if you spent any time in London as a twenty-something churning out coffees for pint money, you’ll know what we’re talking about).
Americano looks and tastes very similar to vermouth – both are wine-based, and both are fortified or macerated with a selection of botanicals. The key difference is that whilst vermouth requires the inclusion of wormwood to be classified as such, Americano champions gentian root as its key botanical. Gentian root is another bitter ingredient native to the alpine regions of Europe, which is commonly used in vermouth. The name, Americano, actually has nothing to do with America – instead, it refers to the Italian word ‘amaricato’, which is a term that means ‘to make (something) bitter’.
How Long Does Vermouth Last?
Earlier in this article, we made a reference to the common practice of storing a dusty old bottle of vermouth at the back of your spirits cabinet.
The thing is…that’s not such a great idea.
Vermouth is a wine-based product after all, and, as such, is vulnerable to the same spoilage issues. The main one is oxidation, which will quickly begin to dull the complex aromas and flavours that make that vermouth so delicious to sip on.
Before you begin anxiously pouring yourself a tall glass of vermouth, lest it go to waste: RELAX. There is a simple solution.
Throw it in the fridge. That’s right, go and place that half-drunk bottle you bought in the fridge. It’ll stay fresh there for about one month - beyond that, it’ll be usable for up to three months, though you’ll likely start to notice a drop off in freshness.
But wait, that’s not all you can do! If you do find yourself struggling to get through a bottle of vermouth (which admittedly is a problem we rarely have), there are plenty of ways to put it to use in the kitchen! Try poaching some pears in sweet vermouth for a decadent dessert, or sub in some dry vermouth in place of white wine in a sauce for mussels. If you’re feeling particularly daring, maybe even put a splash of dry vermouth in your next risotto!
Vermouth Cocktails to Try
Alright, we’ve gone through the basics of vermouth, and learned what not to do with it, so now it’s time to explore what TO do with it.
Below are some of our favourite cocktails which showcase the diversity and adaptability of this magnificent beverage.
Okay, this one is not a surprise, but we couldn’t talk about vermouth cocktails without mentioning the inimitable Negroni. You’ve probably mixed a few of these yourself, as they are one of the more accessible cocktails to make at home. Equal parts of gin*, Campari and sweet vermouth are stirred down to make a Negroni and served over a large ice cube with an orange peel garnish. Twist and rub the orange peel around the rim of the glass for best results.
*If you feel like riffing on the classics, sub out the gin for bourbon or rye whisky and you’ve got yourself a Boulevardier. It’s kind of like a loving embrace between a Negroni and a Manhattan, and it’s delicious.
Here’s another iconic cocktail that you probably saw coming. Vermouth can play a very minor role in a Martini, depending on the preferences of the drinker, but it’s an undeniable component of this classy drink. There are many variations to a Martini – gin or vodka, shaken or stirred, dry or wet, or perhaps with a splash of olive brine. The Martini is simple in theory, yet provides the drinker with endless options to customise.
This drink has rightfully earned itself a spot* on this list, although it has been somewhat usurped by the drink it inspired: the Negroni.
It’s a simple drink that, when put together, creates a delightful aperitivo that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Equal measures of Campari and sweet vermouth are topped up with soda water and served in a highball glass with an orange peel.
*Fun fact: In Ian Fleming’s ‘Casino Royale’, which kickstarted the James Bond series, the Americano was Bond’s initial drink of choice.
Who could ever leave this classy cocktail off this list?! The origins of Manhattan are shrouded in mystery, but its ingredients are less so. American whiskey* (rye is preferred, but bourbon also works) is mixed down with sweet vermouth and bitters, then double strained and served in a chilled coupette with a maraschino cherry garnish.
*Sub in some Scotch single malt (preferably something peated) in place of the rye, and you’ve got yourselves a Rob Roy. The smoky undertones add a lovely savoury element to compliment the herbal notes of the vermouth.
This frisky-sounding cocktail gets its kick from Fernet Branca, which is a type of amaro that’s often consumed at the end of a meal in Italy. It’s used sparingly (a couple of dashes) and stirred down with equal measures of gin and sweet vermouth, then doubled strained and served in a chilled coupette with an orange peel garnish.
Our wildcard entry to round things off is this seldom-known cocktail, created as a homage to the 1884 Broadway musical of the same name. To make it, mix two parts fino or oloroso sherry with one part sweet vermouth and a couple of dashes of orange bitters. There’s a lovely balance between the sweet herbal notes of the vermouth and the dry nuttiness of the sherry.