Wednesday 17 July 2013

The Wide World of Vermouth

There are more vermouths currently available domestically than there have been in decades, partially because new American wine and spirit companies are trying their hands at making new brands. This gives bartenders a range of options in making drinks as each of these products have different aromas, flavours, and applications.
Most vermouth producers were at one time wineries. As described in my previous post, aromatizing wine came about as a method of preserving wine and also to make bad wine more palatable. Most wine producers had an excess of wine and some bad batches, so for this reason most vermouth producers were at one point wineries. The most typical grapes used as a base are Clairette Blanche, Piquepoul, Catarratto, Trebbiano, and Muscato. Note that these are all white wine grapes, so the colour of sweet vermouth is almost always achieved by the addition of sugar or caramel, usually before fortification. Other common ingredients after the traditional wormwood include clove, ginger, coriander, chamomile, juniper, hyssop, marjoram, cardamom, quinine, cinnamon, and citrus peel.

Below is a description of the major styles of vermouth in today's market along with some popular brands and their application in cocktails.

Sweet / Rosso / Rouge / Italian
In 1786 the first branded Italian vermouth was invented in Turin by Antonio Benedetto Carpano (also the first widely produced outside of Germany). It was darker, sweeter, and fuller-bodied than most others at the time. It became popular in northwest Italy, particularly in the Turin royal court - so much so that this style is still called "Torino." Carpano became a staple in the country's drinking and many other producers developed their own similar recipes, several of which are still around today.

Common Brands:
Carpano Classico: There is no confirmation that this recipe is the same as the original, but it is at least similar. Carpano also makes a Bianco, and the Punt e Mes and Antica Formula.

Cinzano Rosso: one of the earliest vermouth producers in Italy after Carpano, originally a liqueur manufacturer formed in 1757. Cinzano also makes a Bianco, Extra Dry, and Rosé.

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: originally a muscato wine producer, Cocchi created this vermouth in 2011, being the first protected designation of origin Torino vermouth available in North America in decades.

Martini & Rossi Rosso: originating in 1863 in Torino, this brand achieved American success very quickly and hasn't lost it since. Unfortunately, ingredients and production methods vary greatly in different markets, so product quality is often called into question. Martini & Rossi offer a very wide range of products.

Common Uses:
Sweet vermouth is used in many classic cocktails, though didn't enter the mix (pun intended) until the late 19th century. The Manhattan is the best and possibly earliest example, though other similar variations may have come before. These cocktails marked a new generation in mixed drinks. The most accurate sweet vermouth to use for a classic cocktail is a Torino-style, such as those found above. When mixing, try to balance the sweetness of the vermouth to the strength of the spirit, not just the flavours. For example, Carpano is sweeter than Cocchi or Cinzano, so pairs better with drier or higher-proof whiskeys. Try this 1938 New Orleans classic:

Vieux Carre (recipe updated by Pourhouse in Vancouver)

Stir all ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, garnish with the lemon twist.

Similar Products:
Punt e Mes: a type of vermouth also called "vermouth amaro" or "vermouth con bitter," meaning it is further flavoured with bitter components and sugar to balance, making it both more bitter and more sweet than other Italian vermouths. Adding vanilla and bitters to vermouth is a very old custom, so this is essentially a bottled cocktail. It is produced by Carpano and dates back to 1867.

Carpano Antica Formula: First introduced in the 1990's, this vermouth is a Carpano recipe with added vanilla and sugar, called "vermouth alla vaniglia." The recipe is old, but not the original Carpano recipe as is often claimed.

Dry / Bianco / Blanc / French
Shortly after the Torino vermouth popularity, the French began making their own version, which was less sweet, uncoloured, and more subtle in flavour. Originally, Chambéry in southeast France (logically quite close to Turin) was the main producer of French vermouth, and it was this style that became most popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century. It was very light in body, dry in taste, straw-coloured, and featured herbal, citrus, and floral botanicals. Due to its popularity other vermouth producers even made their own Chambéry-style products to remain competitive. In the Provençe region on the south coast, Marseilles also made a successful style of vermouth, used as often in cooking as for drinking. The botanicals are regional, and the wine is barrel-aged, making it smoother and a little more sweet in taste than those from Chambéry. 

Common Brands:
Dolin Dry: the most successful of all Chambéry producers, and still has Appellation d'Origine. Formed in 1821, Dolin's "Dry" green label product is still a great representative of the original style. They also offer a rouge Torino-style, and a blanc, which is similar but uncoloured, more herbaceous, but less spicy. (While the blanc is not red, it should be treated like a sweet vermouth).
Noilly Prat Original French Dry: The only remaining Marseilles producer from the popular heyday of the 19th century. This is probably the most commonly used dry vermouth today, being both cheap and a good representation of a classic style. They also offer a rouge, and a Chambéry-style “Extra Dry.”
Common Uses:
Dry vermouth also shows up in many classic cocktail recipes, such as the Brooklyn, Metropole, and Martini. Chambéry vermouth was the most popular at the time and so is the most accurate. For a classic, try the Old Pal ("ABC of Mixing Cocktails," 1922):

  • 1oz rye whiskey
  • 1oz dry vermouth
  • 1oz Campari
Stir ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.

New World
Over the last five to ten years, vermouth producers have been popping up around North America and even Australia. There is actually a history of American wineries producing vermouth, but they were usually lower in quality and considered cheap substitutes for the traditional imports. These new producers are for the most part creating new styles rather than copying European ones, focusing on regional botanicals and experimenting with new interpretations of what aromatized wine can be. These can be used in classic cocktails to fairly different results.

Common Brands:
Vya: a brand made by Quady Winery in Madera, California, previously known for their muscat aperitif and dessert wines. They are considered pioneers in the vermouth market, creating their first in the 1990's, before the interest in classic cocktails and ingredients had really caught on. They offer a "Sweet," "Extra Dry," and "Whisper Dry," all unique and different from traditional European ones.
Imbue Bittersweet: taking the non-imitation idea even further, Imbue in Portland makes an aperitif wine from pinot gris that tastes like a fresh forest.

Common Uses:
These New World vermouths should not be used as replacements for their European predecessors if trying to recreate classic cocktails. Their flavours are unique and in some cases (like Imbue) dramatically different, and so should be treated accordingly. They can be used as replacements for a modern twist and will hopefully encourage some creativity. For example, try this modern Negroni variation called "Harmony" from Veneto in Victoria, B.C.:

Stir ingredients with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.

[[ originally published on by Rhett Williams ]]

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