Bar Guru Training: Ciao Vermouth
Our eyes have been opened to the wonders and nuances of whiskey. But, we’d be lying if we said we understood the landscape of apéritif that are often listed on the trendy drink menus. What is a lady or a gent to do to decode these mysterious beverages? Google searches? Trial and error ordering? Well, in our case, we copy what our Men’s Editor, Jon Rich is ordering...
In our last encounter, I tried my very best to clear up some of the alarmingly widespread confusion surrounding whiskey. Hopefully, you’ve learned something and are at least considered picking up something other than Jack or Jamison at your local bottle shop. That alone will significantly improve your life and will make you a better overall person. As I was writing about whiskeys, I realized that another trouble spot for most folks I know is vermouth. Unsurprisingly, many of the finest people that walk the planet have no clue what vermouth is. And for those who do, they usually only know of the one or two sad, half-empty bottles that hide in the dark crevices of his/her local watering hole and cannot figure out what their purpose is. To me, that’s a darn shame. Does this bother me? Yes. Have I lost sleep over this? Maybe. Anyway, you may have heard rumors that vermouth can be used to sweeten martinis and provide moral support to whiskey in a Manhattan, but that’s far from doing it justice. Vermouth is actually a pretty awesome thing on its own or when it’s used to round out your favorite cocktail, which is why I’m here to spread the gospel.
First, what is vermouth? Simply, it’s an apéritif, which is an alcoholic drink traditionally consumed before a meal in order to stimulate the appetite. Specifically, vermouth is in a class of apéritifs, known as fortified, aromatized wines. Yep, it’s a fortified wine, made in the same way as its more popular cousins, Port and Sherry. Basically, fortified wines are made by adding alcohol, usually brandy, to the juice of crushed grapes. No, that’s not the same thing as your favorite fraternity’s version of jungle juice. The result is a sweeter, nuttier, less-alcoholic version of cognac or brandy. However, unlike Port and Sherry, vermouth undergoes a process called aromatization, which is adding herbs and botanicals to the spiked grape juice to enhance its flavor and color. These botanicals are numerous and often combine things you’ve heard of, like chamomile, vanilla and black mission figs with potentially unfamiliar, funny sounding ingredients, like “Archangel Root,” “Red Cinchona Bark,” and “Blessed Thistle.” Huh? Don’t worry; it all somehow works.
Vermouth (from the German “wormwood”) has its true origins in 1800s northwestern Italy (Torino) and eastern France (Chambery, Lyon). Interestingly, even though these cities are geographically close, their styles of vermouth significantly differ. Italian vermouth is more traditionally sweet, sometimes simply called “sweet” or “rosso,” and is better-suited for mixing into cocktails like the Manhattan and Negroni, rounding out spirits with sweet-brininess. French vermouth is drier, called “dry” or “blanc,” and is slightly more pleasant to drink on its own, usually over ice. Because I appreciate French-style vermouth, but only use a tiny amount in a martini, for the purposes of this piece, I’m going to focus on the “rosso” style.
Now, let’s chat about some of my favorite brands. There are some you might know and some you might not be familiar with. Perhaps the most popular and competitive brands are Martini & Rossi from Italy and Noilly Prat from France. While this may sound like a World Cup final rematch, I wouldn’t give them that much credit. While those brands are fine, and cheap – small bottles cost under $10 – I don’t like them. All of Martini’s and Noilly’s vermouths are either too sweet or too salty. Simply put, I find them imbalanced. I haven’t bothered to really test the difference, but given that these are almost always the only vermouths found in your rinky-dink corner liquor store or happy hour haunt, try expanding your horizons.
For the beginner, there’s Dolin from Chambery. At roughly $5 more than Martini and Noilly, Dolin is way better, with a far smoother taste. If you’re just in the market for traditional, sweet or dry vermouth for your next dinner date, spend the extra cash if you can find it. Small bottles start around $14.99.
While Dolin is very good for the price, if you look hard enough, you can find far more interesting and complex affordable vermouths. There are a lot more out there than you think, but in an attempt at brevity, which is rare for me, I’m going to recommend just a few. As I mentioned earlier, I typically choose sweet vermouths because I think they’re more versatile than the dry or white versions.
Okay, once you’ve tried and enjoyed Dolin, which I guarantee you will, it might be time to make a move to some more interesting and complex vermouths. My next choice is one of my absolute favorites, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. With complex notes of cocoa, rhubarb, cola, and yes, maybe even undertones of bitter tobacco and leather, (just like making out with a farmer), and at only $18 for a 750ml, (size of a wine bottle), a bottle of Cocchi should be in everyone’s collection. This old school gem is my pick for mixing the perfect negroni. Bottles come in at a smart $17.99 at astorwines.com.
Next, let’s try something a little more tame, but still very rich and smooth: Carpano “Antica Formula” Sweet Vermouth. Sweeter than Cocchi, but more complex and “dense” than Dolin, Carpano is a great choice for those who want something high-quality, but safe and not flashy… kind of like a Volvo. But don’t drink this while operating a Volvo or use it to fill up the gas tank. Instead, pour some straight over ice or use it to make a drink in the comfort of your own home. Slightly more expensive than the other brands, it’s still a great pick… plus, it has slick packaging. Priced at the budget friendly $15.99 for 375 ml or $31.99 for 1L at astorwines.com.
For my final pick, I couldn’t prepare a list of things to drink and not include something domestic. I give you Ransom Sweet Vermouth from Oregon. Happily, the US makes a lot more craft vermouth than you’d think. In fact, within the past few years, our nation has respectfully borrowed from and sometimes improved upon recipes for many Old World delights, including wine, beer, spirits, and of course, Robot Wars [a show on your telly]. Flavor-wise, Ransom, which also makes other spirits and wine, is smack in the middle of the herbaceous Cocchi and the sweeter, boozy Antica, which might make it just right. With dominant notes of bitter, medicinal wormwood and sarsaparilla (think: root beer), Ransom will be a solid addition to your liquor family, nicely priced at $18.99 at thewinecountry.com.
Up next, we’ll be applying what we’ve learned about whiskey, gin and vermouth to make a few of my favorite mixed cocktails. Until then, I raise a glass to you.
Jon Rich is In the Midfield's Men's Lifestyle Editor. He is also a practicing attorney in NYC.