Vermouth is a fortified wine that is aromatized with a variety of herbs and spices. It is traditionally made in France and Italy and dry (white) vermouth and sweet (red) vermouth are the most common. If you enjoy a martini or two, want to explore fancy or classic cocktails, or love sipping an aperitif before dinner, then vermouth is essential. Once you add it to your bar (and know how to properly store it to retain its flavor), you'll find numerous ways to enjoy it.
- Ingredients: Wine, botanicals, distilled spirit
- Proof: 15–18
- ABV: 30–36%
- Calories in a shot: 45–47
- Origin: Italy, France
- Taste: Dry or sweet, herbal
- Serve: Chilled, cocktails, shots
What Is Vermouth Made From?
The word vermouth is derived from the German word for wormwood, "wermut." Wormwood has long been the chief flavoring ingredient for vermouth, though it's better known as the provocateur that contributed to absinthe's once notorious reputation. It can still be found in some vermouth recipes, particularly dry vermouth, and all are perfectly safe.
Derived from ancient Roman recipes, in 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin, Italy made the first sweet vermouth. Dry vermouth came along in 1813 and was created by Joseph Noilly of France. Both of these names can still be found on two of the most popular brands of vermouth produced today. As is often the case with herbal alcohol, vermouth was originally used as a medicinal tonic. Its intoxicating qualities quickly turned it into a favorite aperitif.
Vermouth is made by aromatizing wine with botanicals, then fortifying it with a small amount of distilled spirit. The wines are usually aged and comprise at least 75 percent of the mix. The liquor is often brandy, though others are used as well. Making vermouth is a closely guarded process. There are many producers and each uses their own (often secret) recipe of herbs and botanicals, including chamomile, coriander, gentian, juniper, saffron, and wormwood. Some vermouth is finished by aging it for a few weeks or months, while others are not aged before bottling.
Most vermouth is 15 percent to 18 percent alcohol by volume, which is equivalent to 30 to 36 proof. Since it's technically a wine, "proof" is typically not used, though.
Every vermouth recipe is slightly different, though there are two main styles: dry vermouth and sweet vermouth.
Dry vermouth is also known as white vermouth or French vermouth (due to its origin). It is often clear or white in color, though it can have a yellow tint. The name "dry" signifies its flavor profile and it often contains just 5 percent sugar. This style is more notable for its blend of botanicals that pair so well with gin in the martinis that require it.
Sweet vermouth is also known as red vermouth or Italian vermouth because it is typically red in color and originated in Italy. While it is sweet, it's not a sweetness like syrup or that found in sweet liqueurs like amaretto. It has a significantly sweeter profile than dry vermouth and can include up to 15 percent sugar. Sweet vermouth can also have a notable vanilla aroma mixed with bright floral notes, which is why it's commonly paired with dark spirits like whiskey and brandy. Although it is most common to see red sweet vermouth, a white (or clear) version—labeled as bianco or blanc—is also produced.
How to Drink Vermouth
Vermouth is an excellent aperitif, both on its own and in cocktails. Quality vermouth can be enjoyed chilled and straight or with a hint of citrus. Express the oils of a lemon peel into a glass and enjoy it with dinner.
- Those drinks that use an equal amount of sweet and dry vermouth are referred to as "perfect" cocktails (e.g., perfect Manhattan and perfect Martini).
- Ordering a "dry martini" is asking the bartender to back off on the vermouth. Oddly enough, the less dry vermouth used in martinis, the "drier" it is: the "bone dry" martini uses a splash at most.
- Countless other cocktails play off the martini or Manhattan. In these recipes, vermouth is paired with vodka for a vodka martini, brandy for a Fabiola cocktail, rum for a Jean Harlow cocktail, or even tequila for a tequini.
Vermouth makes an appearance in simple cocktails in which the fortified wine takes center stage. Additionally, it's often paired with other aperitif ingredients to create the ultimate dinner cocktails.
Just like wine, an open bottle of vermouth can go bad after a period of time and the taste will take a significant turn for the worse. Since it's a hybrid of wine and distilled spirit, its shelf life falls in the middle.
There is a lot of advice as to exactly how long you can keep vermouth, though there are a few good rules to follow:
- Vermouth should be refrigerated after opening.
- Vermouth is best when used within three months after opening.
- Any longer or warmer and it should be tested for quality. If it tastes bad, it is bad.
The quality of your cocktails depends on fresh vermouth and it is easy to keep track of how long a bottle has been open. Make a habit of placing a small piece of masking tape on the bottle and write the open date on it.
If you find yourself regularly wasting vermouth, downsize the bottles you buy. You can find 375-milliliter bottles from many brands, though they're not quite as common as the standard 750-milliliter bottles.
When your vermouth does go bad, save it for cooking. Fortified wines are great cooking wines and the "off" flavors will not affect your food as drastically as it will cocktails.
As with all alcoholic ingredients, vermouth comes in a great range of prices and that often reflects the quality. The good news is that vermouth tends to be less expensive than liquor, but some of the bottom-shelf brands can leave a bit to be desired. These are some of the top-shelf brands to look for:
- Martini & Rossi
- Noilly Prat
- Punt e Mes (sweet)
All vermouth (particularly dry) can vary in taste, even within the same brand. An example is Noilly Prat, which is considered one of the best. For a number of years, the Noilly Prat French Dry Vermouth sold in the U.S. was not as robust as that sold everywhere else. Americans just didn't have the desire for such a profile (evident when gin martinis were poured with virtually no vermouth). This changed in 2013 and drinkers in the U.S. can now choose between "Original Dry" and "Extra-Dry." If you want a softer vermouth, Extra-Dry is the formula that was sold exclusively in the U.S. from 1979 through 2012. For a taste of really flavorful, European-style vermouth, opt for Original Dry.
Fortified wines are a complicated category and there are many options available that mimic vermouth. These brands can be used as substitutes for vermouth and vice versa, though each has unique characteristics. Choose wisely because cocktail recipes come with specific recommendations for a reason, so not every substitute will work.
- Cocchi: Americano is similar to Lillet Blanc and can be used as dry vermouth (use it in a twentieth century cocktail) while Vermouth di Torino is sweet vermouth.
- Dubonnet: Blanc is a fortified white wine that uses quinine. Rouge is more popular, sweeter, and richer with a red wine base (use it in a Napoleon cocktail).
- Lillet: Blanc has a slightly bitter and sweet orange profile (use it in a vesper martini). Rouge is less sweet and bitter with notes of berries and spice. Technically, these are aromatized wines that are similar to vermouth.