By Bruce Collier
You’ve seen it in bars. It generally travels in pairs, Red (Manhattans) and White (Martinis). Sometimes the labels are yellowed and the bottles dusty. You might never see the bartender use either. It’s vermouth.
Vermouth is fortified, aromatized wine, meaning wine that’s been spiked with a little alcohol and flavored with assorted herbs, roots, peels, barks, spices and whatever. It’s relatively low in proof—between 14.5 and 22 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). It can be sweet, bitter, fruity, spicy, or peppery. Our ancestors loved it, and thought it was good for them—debatable.
The name “vermouth” was bestowed in the 18th century, from the German word for “wormwood,” once a required ingredient, now most commonly associated with that Gothic tipple Absinthe.
Most vermouth comes from Europe, though the U.S. and Australia are making a start. The Continentals enjoy it chilled straight or on ice, with seltzer, and as an ingredient in a variety of both simple and fancy cocktails.
Vermouth is generally inexpensive. Once opened, it doesn’t have a long shelf life. Even refrigerated—which it should be—experts say to drink it up in a month or two. The good news is that many vermouths are available in half-size (375 ml) bottles.
The other good news is you don’t have to drink it by itself, there are plenty of drinks beyond the Manhattan/Martini Universe that incorporate vermouth.
Here’s my take on six vermouths, some available locally, one I had to travel to Atlanta to find.
32 Proof (16 Percent ABV)
$12.99 for 750 ml
Chilled, neat. Color is dark amber, sherry-like. “Probably one of the best in the world!” So says the modest website. Nose is cherry pie filling and candied orange, with a little herbal mint at the end. Taste is juicy—intense cherry and dark berry, prune, a hint of root beer, but light-bodied. Peppery finish. Less sweet than you think it’s going to be, more balanced. Like sniffing a Christmas candle or tasting really high-class preserves.
36 Proof (18 Percent ABV)
$9.49 for 750 ml
Reportedly an 1813 recipe from the south of France. The vermouth of choice for serious Martini drinkers. Made from white wines blended with “Roman chamomile and gentian from France, bitter orange peels from Tunisia and nutmeg from Indonesia.” Mild herbal scent, tea and bone-dry sherry. Fruity at first, then quickly dries and leaves that herbal/sherry finish, nutty and a little salty. Use enough in your Martini to taste it—gin is a hard act to accompany and this deserves a chance. The website recommends it on ice with a twist of lemon or topped up with soda or sparking white wine. Or a few drops on your opened oysters. Ooh la la.
30 Proof (15 Percent ABV)
$4.99 for 375 ml
More than 40 different herbs “from around the world.” Chilled, neat. Pale white wine color. Mild and faint scent of lemon, pineapple and herbs. Lemon-drop candy taste, touch of brine, a little pepper at the finish to add warmth.
32 Proof (16 Percent ABV)
$22.99 for 750 ml
If you like your Manhattans/Rob Roys on the not-so-sweet side with a touch of dried fruit, this is your vermouth. That said, it does not get lost, even against scotch in a Rob Roy. Made from “Hillside wine, sugar and mountain herbs.” Tawny port color, tawny port and menthol nose. Sweet, and—wait for it—bitter just when it needs to be. Like bittersweet chocolate on the finish, plus a little warmth, Christmas candy, strawberry preserves, fruitcake with raisins, dried cherries and powdered sugar, dark chocolate covered maraschino cherries.
33 Proof (16.5 Percent ABV)
$16.99-18.99 for 375 ml
“Rediscovered” recipe (from 1786) entered the market in 2001, brought vermouth out of the shadows. Cherry liqueur/ruby port color, fruity scent. Taste is dried apricots and cherries, plum jam, fruity sweet with a vanilla, nectarine and black pepper finish. Smooths a Manhattan, but don’t overdo the proportions or it could dominate the drink.
34 Proof (17 Percent ABV)
$24.99 for 750 ml
Poe Vineyards uses a Pinot Noir rose base for this grapefruit-flavored vermouth. Pale rose color, bright and fruity scent of grapefruit peel and bitter pith. Taste is sweet, with butter and—believe it or not—Cinnamon Toast Crunch, strawberry jam, full-body mouthfeel, almost like liqueur.
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