Back to the Basics: What Vermouth Is (and Isn't)
It’s bitter and sweet, acidic and botanical all at the same time — that’s the calling card for traditional vermouth. But how much do you know about it aside from its necessity in some classic cocktails? It’s actually a lot more complex (and historical) than you might think.
“Vermouth [is] a liquid journey of discovery that welcomes everyone to join,” Mark Ward, founder of Regal Rogue Vermouth, says.
With that in mind, here’s a quick primer to the drink to get you started on the path.
Just what is vermouth, exactly?
Strictly speaking, vermouth is a fortified aromatic wine. According to regulation in the European Union, it must contain wormwood, be 75 percent wine and have an ABV of 15 to 24 percent. Wormwood is the main characteristic of vermouth — when the botanical is infused into the wine, true vermouth results, hence the “aromatic.” “Fortified” means that adding a spirit, like neutral grape brandy, has deliberately raised the alcohol percentage in the original wine base.
Consumers of American vermouth should be aware: regulations on the drink aren’t as strict on this side of the pond. American vermouths don’t even need to have wormwood in them; the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau only requires the taste and smell to be similar to traditional vermouth.
The traditional vermouth aperitif comes in three basic styles styles: sweet/red, dry and white. Each is made with a variety of botanicals unique to the producer, but it’s pretty reliable to say that red vermouth will be a reddish color and sweeter with a slight spice, dry is a golden yellow and herbaceous, and white is clear and also on the sweeter side of the spectrum with a kick of citrus. Other variations exist — everything from vanilla vermouth to those with added bitters.
Where did it come from?
Linguistically, “vermouth” is a German creation, stemming from the language’s word for wormwood — vermut — and the country’s historical wormwood-infused wines. Geographically, vermouth as we know it today is decidedly an Italian and French invention, from the 18th century Kingdom of Sardinia. This region was the first to take the ancient concept of mixing wine with herbs and market it to the commercial population. They wanted both to give the local wine a different flavor profile and also to infuse medicinal herbs into a tonic. It popped over to the Americas in the 1870s and has since enjoyed several periods of wild popularity: the '30s, the '70s and the '80s. Ward says we’re currently in a vermouth renaissance, witnessing a new evolution in the category and how we consume the drink.
What can I make with it?
Many Europeans prefer to drink vermouth straight out of the bottle as a chilled after-dinner digestif. In the U.S., it’s more common to pour it into a cocktail — think Manhattans, martinis and Negronis. But with the current diversity in the drink itself, the possibilities are endless.
“There are so many different styles, wine bases, aromatics, aging processes and sugar levels,” Ward says. “You literally have contrasting styles from the same region with one suiting a classic cocktail, the other over ice or long with tonic, or another as a reverse classic cocktail with vermouth led over the spirit. Work out what is most suited to your taste buds. The way you interpret taste is as unique as your fingerprint.”
And remember, just like wine, every brand is different. Don’t expect it all to taste the same just by virtue of it being vermouth.
How should I store my vermouth?
Keep unopened vermouth away from the sun and out of bright light to ensure it won’t get heated. Once a bottle is opened, it should be stored in the fridge. Because vermouth is a type of wine, it actually begins to oxidize and change flavor the moment the bottle is opened. Try it right away, and then in 15 minutes, try it again to see how the palate has changed. Make sure to use it within two months — otherwise the drink will change a bit too much.
“If you do forget it and find it has evolved and oxidized, don’t throw it out,” Ward says. “You can use it in food for some extra flavoring, or as the base to a lovely stock.”
To make it last a little bit longer, you can use a wine pump or Cruvinet system to eliminate some of the oxygen in the bottle and extend its shelf life — if that’s not an option, try to buy small bottles.