Vermouth on the rocks and nibbles

What is Vermouth?

By Timo Torner / Last updated on April 14, 2022 
Vermouth is a fortified wine aromatized with various botanicals. It is available as sweet and dry Vermouth and is an essential ingredient in many of our favorite cocktails.

Vermouth is indispensable when making favorite classic drinks like Negroni or Martini. But if you're not into those classics, Vermouth is the typical ingredient you once bought to make a cocktail, and now it's sitting tightly next to the crème de menthe, collecting dust. But that's not what you should do with your Vermouth.

So, what is Vermouth?

Even though many think Vermouth is a spirit, it actually is a fortified wine that gets aromatized with different herbs and botanicals. Fortified means that producers add liquor to the wine to raise the level of alcohol.

And as such, it has a moderate ABV of 15 - 18%. There are dry Vermouths, sweet Vermouths. And they can be either red, white, or even rosé. 

Initially, wormwood was made to produce Vermouth. That's the ingredient used in Absinthe, which, for a long time, was said to be hallucinogenic. -It isn't. Anyway, Vermouth now contains extracts from the Artemisia genus instead. Those extracts are now so essential that you cannot call something Vermouth when they aren't part of the ingredient list.

Different kinds of Vermouth

There are four different types of Vermouth: Dry, Sweet, Blanc, and Rosé. But particularly Dry Vermouth and Sweet Vermouth play a big role in mixology.

Noilly Pea Dry Vermouth

Dry

Dry Vermouths are crucial for various cocktails like the Martini or the Brooklyn Cocktail. Being made from white wine and without adding any sugar, it is very, very dry. And because additional sugar is not allowed in a dry Vermouth, only the sweetness levels of the grapes define how dry the final product will be. 

Usually, an unaged spirit is used for fortifying the wine. And by adding botanicals and spices to a dry Vermouth, it gets some citrusy and herbaceous notes. Great choices for a dry Vermouth are Noilly Prat and Dolin Dry.

Carpano Antica Formula bottle

Sweet

Sweet Vermouth is a main ingredient in many classic cocktails like the Negroni or Manhattan. This type is also often referred to as Rosso, Rojo, or red. It is rich in taste, bolder, and also sweeter than its white counterparts. Historically, red wine was the base for his Vermouth, but today, white wine builds the ground, as it does for the other types.

In a Sweet Vermouth, the amount of sugar can be up to 15%. That's fairly sweet, actually, but also vital for making it bold and rich enough. Some fine bottles of this type are Carpano Antica Formula, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Carpano Punt e Mes.

Cocchi Americano Bianco

Blanc / Blanco / Bianco

This type is somewhere in between the first two. It's white in color and neither as dry as a Dry Vermouth nor as sweet as a Sweet Vermouth. The same is valid in regards to the flavor. It's like a blend of the two other types. Floral and herbal notes mix with notes of vanilla and cinnamon.

As this type is somewhat of a combination of both types, it works as a substitute for Dry Vermouth as well as Sweet Vermouth. Bianco can be very versatile and is an excellent choice for your home bar. Some great bottles to buy are Cocchi Americano, Mauro Vergano Bianco, and Mancino Bianco Ambrato.

Belsazar Rosé Vermouth

Rosé

Rosé Vermouth is often made from a split base of red and white wine. However, it is not internationally recognized as a category of its own, as the other three types are. Nonetheless, are still plenty of Rosé Vermouths available.

If you can get your hands on one of the following bottles, take one to experience the difference to the more established types. Most Rosé Vermouths are bittersweet and citrusy, perfect for summer drinks. My recommendation would be the Belsazar Rosé Vermouth.

History of Vermouth

The history of Vermouth dates back to the 15th century. Back then, it was produced for medical use only. -Nothing uncommon in the world of mixology, where often spirits & cocktails initially were intended to cure illnesses. Some other famous examples are, for instance, the Gin and Tonic or the Mojito cocktail.

The geographical origin of Vermouth lies in Europe. Italy and France are probably the most famous places to produce Vermouth. But also Spain and Germany were among the large-scale producers of this fortified wine.

And, after being flavored and aromatized with various herbs and botanicals, it gets fortified with higher-proof spirits. If all this sounds all Greek to you, don't worry and read on.

The processes of making Vermouth

Italy and France are the leading producers of Vermouth. But the fortified wine is also produced in the United States lately. But I want to say straight away, the process of making American Vermouth hasn't much in common with the traditional ones. So I quickly want to explain the differences between them first.

Traditional Vermouth production

In Italy, Vermouth production starts with pressing a mild low-proof white wine. For this, Bianchetta Trevigian, Cataratto, or Trebbiano grapes are commonly used. The wine made of these grapes needs to age for a while. By Italian law, that is at least for one year. And, if you want to make a sweet Vermouth, a syrup is added to the wine.

In the next step, the aged wine is fortified with grape spirits to increase the alcohol levels. A maceration process then brings all those amazing aromas and flavors to the wine.

French Vermouth production is quite similar. Apart from the grape species used, the main differences are the aging time for the wine base and the spirit used to fortify it. The base wine is usually aged two to three years and then gets fortified with brandy instead of grape spirit.

American Vermouth production

In the United States, it is illegal to add Brandy during Vermouth production. Therefore, the whole process of making Vermouth is getting reversed. That means, instead of making fortified wine, the base wine is diluted to achieve the desired 16 - 18% ABV.

The base of American Vermouth is typically a neutral dessert wine or White Port. The wine is then sweetened with grape concentrate and blended with another wine that contains a lower amount of alcohol until the desired ABV is reached.

Fortification

Fortification is the process of increasing the amount of alcohol in a drink by blending it with high-proof spirits. Italian Vermouth usually uses grape spirit. In France, brandy is the regular choice for increasing the level of alcohol.

By the way, besides Vermouth, there are many other famous fortified wines like Port, Madeira, Lillet, and Sherry.

Maceration

The Maceration process allows absorbing all those beautiful flavors of herbs, spices, and botanicals. This step requires a lot of attention. The composition of those herbs and botanicals is significantly different between products. And they're of great importance for the quality and taste of the final product.

To give you an idea: between 10 and 30 herbs or botanicals are needed for this process. And as every recipe is different, each brand keeps its recipe secret.

Finally, to fully infuse with aroma and flavor, the mix needs to mature for up to 45 days.

The taste of Vermouth

Every brand and every type of Vermouth has individual notes. But trying to give you a general answer, Vermouth tastes much like aromatized wine. And some aromas are more common than others. So, you will most likely be able to taste notes of lavender, rose, cinnamon, cardamom, citrus fruits, licorice, angelica, and sometimes wormwood.

The level of sweetness you can taste depends on the type of Vermouth you are using. 

How to store Vermouth

Because Vermouth is something between a spirit and a wine, it oxidizes over time. Therefore once a bottle is open, it won't last forever. Oxidation of the product will make the flavor turn. The reason is that oxygen reacts with the esters and terpenes responsible for the light, fresh, and fruity flavors of your Vermouth.

The good news is that it lasts a bit longer. Where a regular wine will lose its aroma within a week, Vermouth can last for up to three months when stored correctly. Keeping an opened bottle of Vermouth in the fridge will help to prevent a quick loss of aroma. The reason is simple: colder environments always significantly slow down chemical and physical processes.

So the next time you open a bottle of Vermouth, make sure to store it in your fridge and not on a shelf. That will increase its lifetime, and you can enjoy your cocktails for a few weeks longer.

Different ways to drink Vermouth

You can enjoy Vermouth in many different ways. Traditional, but these days uncommon, is serving it neat on the rocks with a slice of citrus fruit. To get a more refreshing drink, you can mix it with soda or tonic water and garnish it with a wedge of orange.

My favorite way to have it is in cocktails, though. I love a good Negroni made with Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, a dry Martini made with Noilly Prat, or an Americano cocktail. Vermouth is just a splendid cocktail ingredient that gets overlooked way too often.

Final Verdict

Vermouth is a very versatile and delicious cocktail ingredient. This fortified wine is a key to many classic and modern drinks. And you don't have to use it in a cocktail. Serve it on the rocks with some citrus fruits to get an aromatic drink to sip. What is your favorite Vermouth? Let me know in the comments.

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