Packed with botanicals and historically rooted in medicine, cocktail staple vermouth has plenty in common with everyone’s favourite junipery tipple. But does the bittersweet, herbal aperitif have what it takes to knock gin from its perch? To find out, we set about demystifying the category.
It’s the pillar of the world’s greatest cocktails, and a must-have for any serious home bar – but what exactly is vermouth? In its most basic form, it’s a wine that has been aromatised (infused with botanicals) and fortified (livened up with distilled alcohol, usually grape brandy, to increase the abv).
Now, EU laws dictate that vermouth must be at least 75% grapevine-based, have alcohol added to it, use artemisia as the main bittering agent, and be bottled at between 14.5% and 22% ABV. Outside of the EU, the definition is a little hazy, and it’s here that non-traditional vermouth styles flourish.
In the US, for example, legislation simply dictates the wine must be “flavoured with herbs and other natural aromatic flavouring materials”, although it does imply that it should have the “taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to vermouth”. No artemesia specifically mentioned, but since vermouth takes its name from the German word wermut (‘wormwood’, a species of artemisia), purists question whether vermouth without wormwood is really vermouth at all.
Historically, there were two key styles of vermouth: sweet, red vermouth*, which originated in Italy; and dry, white vermouth, from France. These days, however, there are a number of styles – spanning bianco, amber, rosé, extra-dry and beyond – hailing from the likes of Spain, New Zealand, the UK, Germany, Australia and the US, that bring diverse flavours to the category and subsequently to our cocktails.
Keen to protect the style and quality of its historic national booze, the Istituto Vermouth di Torino recently secured an appellation of origin for vermouth produced in Turin, which works much like the rules and regulations surrounding the Scotch whisky industry. To call a product Vermouth di Torino, it must include white wines from Piedmont, as well as artemisia cultivated or harvested in the region.
“It’s a sign that the category’s really maturing and finally becoming really relevant,” says Ignacio Vazquez, global brand director for Martini, who cites the trend for ‘modern aperitivo’ as a major catalyst. “In the past you’d have a traditional meal – first course, second course, dessert and then maybe a drink accompanying it – but now there’s a much more fluid way of eating and drinking, with longer, more sessionable drinks. It’s about sharing that moment and spending time together. This is really shaping how vermouth is being consumed.”
How is vermouth made?
Vermouth isn’t distilled, it’s blended,” says Mark Ward, founder of Australian vermouth brand, Regal Rogue. “When you talk about where you make vermouth, realistically it’s a blending house.” The process begins with finished wine, he says. “Some brands own the vineyard, other brands might partner with vineyards, or they might source from specific regions. For us, it’s all about Australia’s celebrated wine regions.”
The wine is run through a carbon filter to clarify it. Ward uses a light filter for Regal Rogue, to retain “all the body and characteristic of the wine”. It’s then fortified, “essentially using an aromatic extract that has been distilled” – typically grape spirit, but sometimes other fruit spirits, grain spirit or even molasses-based distillates are used. Ward then rests the wine in a stainless steel vat for 45 days. These processes “stress the liquid”, he explains. “You want the wine to be in a relaxed state so it’s true to its characteristics.”
The relationship between vineyard and vermouth producer has not always been plain sailing, since historically there’s been little focus on the quality and character of the base wine. “In the past, brands would buy leftover wine from the wineries, increase the ABV to make it last longer, add some sugar to make it taste better, and then add some spices and herbs to create the aroma profile,” explains Max Wagner, co-founder of German vermouth brand Belsazar.
The next step in the process is to tackle botanicals, which in terms of vermouth span herbs, spices, roots, barks, flowers, grasses and beyond. “Each of them requires a different way of extracting the flavour,” says Roberta Mariani, global ambassador for Martini.
“When you have something hard, like roots or bark, you need the alcohol to break down all the molecules to extract the flavour,” she explains. “When you have flowers or grass, for example, you need to extract the flavour really gently – so probably through distillation or vapourisation – because you don’t want to break down any of the texture, otherwise you will get a really bitter flavour. You just want the top note.” Spices, she adds, are often infused in water.
When you consider the breadth of grape varieties and botanical combinations, the scope for creativity, as a vermouth producer, is almost limitless. “It’s so versatile,” says Wagner. “Combining these two fields gives you a huge potential for recipes.”
Once you’ve fortified the wine and extracted flavour from the botanicals, it’s time to blend them, and, depending on the brand and the style, potentially add sugar, caramel, or a sweet wine or spirit. Some producers then rest the liquid in wood barrels for up to a year; others marry the flavours in a stainless steel vat for around a month. Either way, the vermouth is filtered, bottled, and sent on its merry way.
Essentially, “vermouth is like a wine-based gin,” summarises Ward. “Gin is a neutral spirit compounded or distilled with botanicals. We take a wine base and we blend it with botanical extract. Same thing, just different names.”
How should I use vermouth?
*Record scratch* *freeze frame* I see you there, with a shaker in one hand and a bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the other. Hold those proverbial horses. There are a huge variety of vermouth brands on the market, but because of their varied botanical make-up, they’re not necessarily interchangeable. “The styles are so, so different,” says Ward. “Each brand needs to be treated independently; you’ll end up with a very different experience if you try and match them all the way through.”
While initially an intimidating prospect, it’s incredibly thrilling. “Vermouth has a great ability to deliver a lot of aroma and a lot of taste to classic cocktails,” explains Wagner. “You can change your favourite Negroni, you can change your Manhattans, your Martini cocktails, but without changing the DNA of the cocktail.”
Perhaps you’re not into classic cocktails because you find them too strong, or too expensive. Maybe you’re watching your booze intake, or you’re fed up with drinking beer. You might just plain old fancy something light and refreshing. This is where the vermouth and tonic (or V&T) steps in.
Whatever your reason, many of us are “moving from high ABV, heavy drinks to long, sessionable low ABV drinks,” says Vazquez. “When you serve [Martini and tonic] metà-metà or ‘half and half’, you end up with a 7.5% abv drink, which is equivalent to [some] beers. It’s thirst-quenching, it’s delicious yet complex, and it’s very nice to combine with some sharing food.”
However you’re drinking vermouth, it’s absolutely imperative that you store the bottle properly, or risk being shouted at by everyone else who has read this article and heeded the following advice.
“Vermouth should be treated like a wine,” says Nick Williamson, Campari UK’s marketing director. Too many of us are still using that musty old bottle at the back of our drinks cabinet (“that has been open for months, if not years”) and tainting our entire experience, he says. “Once opened, vermouth should be stored in the fridge and it should be kept for a maximum of two weeks.”
How should I drink vermouth?
Good question. Here are a handful of simple, classic (and damn delicious!) vermouth serves you can wow your friends with right away. Otherwise, feel free to imbibe it Spanish style – that is, neat over ice.
The Negroni by Martini
Ingredients: 25ml Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino Vermouth Di Torino, 25ml Martini Riserva Speciale Bitter, 25ml Bombay Sapphire Gin
Method: Stir all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into an ice-filled glass and garnish with orange peel.
Vermouth & Tonic by Belsazar
Ingredients: 50ml Belsazar Rosé, 100ml good quality tonic water
Method: Build in a wine glass filled with ice and gently stir. Garnish with a slice of pink grapefruit.
Wet Martini by Regal Rogue
Method: Pour ingredients into chilled glass pitcher and stir for at least 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled Martini cocktail glass. Serve straight up and garnish with an olive or caper berry.
Americano by Cinzano
Method: Pour the ingredients directly into a glass filled with fresh ice and then add a splash of soda. Stir and complete with a slice of orange and lemon zest.
So, there we have it! Consider yourself an expert in vermouth. And as for whether the category could take the crown from gin? “I think aperitif as a category, with vermouth, fortifieds, bitters and amaros, will get to where gin is,” predicts Ward. “Aperitif as a style could challenge any of the big categories – but we’ll do it as a collective.”
*Interestingly, red vermouth is not generally made with red wine but white, since the tannins bring an unpleasant flavour to the mix. The dark colour comes from the addition of caramel, which sweetens the vermouth. Some modern brands – Belsazar, for example – use red, but still add sweet white wine (muscatella, in Belsazar’s case) to break it up a little.