Vermouth is a fortified wine that is flavored with a variety of herbs and spices. It is traditionally made in two major styles: dry (white) vermouth and sweet (red) vermouth. Dry vermouth, originating in France, is famously used to make martinis and is dry and floral. Sweet vermouth usually comes from Italy, is sweet, spiced, and herbal, and is used in cocktails like Manhattans and negronis. Dry and sweet vermouths are also enjoyed as an aperitif. Since vermouth is a fortified wine, it is slightly high in alcohol when compared to non-fortified wine.
- Regions: Italy, France, U.S.
- Origin: Italy
- Sweetness: Very sweet to very dry
- Color: Very pale gold to dark brown-red
Dry vs. Sweet Vermouth
Every vermouth recipe is slightly different, though there are two main styles: dry vermouth and sweet vermouth. The two are typically used for different applications.
Dry vermouth is also known as white vermouth or French vermouth. It is often clear or very pale yellow in color. The name "dry" signifies its flavor profile and it often contains just 5 percent sugar. Its blend of botanicals pairs well with gin to make classic martinis.
Sweet vermouth is also known as red vermouth or Italian vermouth thanks to its color and origin. It has a significantly sweeter profile than dry vermouth and can include up to 15 percent sugar. While it is sweet, it's not as intense as sweet liqueurs like amaretto. Sweet vermouth can also have a notable vanilla aroma mixed with notes of spice and herbs, making it a perfect pair with dark spirits like whiskey and brandy. Although it is most common to see red sweet vermouth, a white version—labeled as bianco or blanc—is also produced.
Taste and Flavor Profile
The aromas and flavors in vermouth can vary widely depending on the style and maker. Dry vermouths are light-bodied and low in tannins and can have a floral, herbal, and fruity nose and flavor profile with a bracingly dry finish. Sweet vermouths are often medium-bodied with some tannins and tend to exhibit dark fruits, spice, vanilla, caramel, cocoa, and herbs. Because the flavors and sweetness can range so widely, it's best to taste a number of quality vermouths to find your favorite.
Grapes and Wine Regions
Derived from ancient Roman recipes, Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin, Italy made the first sweet vermouth in 1786. 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. Vermouth was originally used as a medicinal tonic, but its intoxicating qualities quickly turned it into a favorite aperitif.
Vermouth is made using a wide variety of wine grapes from a long list of wine regions with a range of growing conditions and harvests. Wine is turned into vermouth by aromatizing wine with botanicals then fortifying it with a small amount of distilled spirit like brandy. The wines are usually aged and comprise at least 75 percent of the mix. Making vermouth is a closely guarded process. There are many producers and each uses its own recipe of herbs and botanicals, including chamomile, coriander, gentian, juniper, saffron, sage, and wormwood. Some vermouth is finished by aging it for a few weeks or months.
Dry and sweet vermouth are both excellent aperitifs. Serve with small tapas-style bites of salty ham, fragrant shrimp, or fried anchovies. Dry vermouths also pair well with funky cheeses while sweet vermouths compliment dry, salty cheeses like pecorino. Dry vermouth can also be used in place of white wine when cooking.
Straight vermouth should be poured in three-ounce servings. Serve chilled in a cocktail glass or tumbler over a cube of ice. A twist of lemon or orange helps bring out the flavors of vermouth.
Vermouth is best known as a key ingredient in a number of classic cocktails:
- Martini: Dry vermouth and gin or vodka are all that are required to make this iconic cocktail. The proportions can be adjusted based on the drinker's taste. A "dry martini" is made with less vermouth, and "bone dry" means only a small splash is added.
- Manhattan: Sweet vermouth gives this whiskey cocktail its signature blend of flavors.
- Negroni: A bitter and lightly sweet cocktail that is equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. A Boulevardier replaces the gin with whiskey.
- Vieux Carre: A New Orleans version of a Manhattan. The whiskey is supplemented with cognac and a little benedictine.
Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips
Vermouth is widely available in grocery stores and liquor stores in the mixers section. Look for high-quality brands in well-stocked shops or have them order you a bottle. The prices can range greatly depending on the producer and quality. If you can't find vermouth, a substitute can be used depending on the application. Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc can be swapped for dry vermouth and Dubonnet Rouge for sweet vermouth. Note that the results will not be the same as if vermouth were used.
Refrigerate vermouth after opening and use within three months. If you don't use vermouth regularly, you can find smaller 375-milliliter bottles from many brands. These producers consistently produce high-quality vermouth:
- Martini & Rossi
- Noilly Prat
- Punt e Mes