Vermouth is the all-too-often unsung hero of the cocktail world, having been relegated to “best supporting actor” status for years. Despite beloved classic drinks, from the Martini to the Negroni, being nowhere without vermouth’s herbal well-rounded depth, only recently has the aperitif started to see a resurgence in individualized popularity. It’s time for vermouth to step off the dusty back bar and into the spotlight.
An aromatized, fortified wine made with a host of various botanicals (herbs, roots, bark, etc.), vermouth has a surprisingly complex family tree. Typically originating from France or Italy and originally used for medicinal purposes (it settles the stomach, many claim), vermouth rose to popularity primarily as an apéritif, eventually finding its way into the rotation of bartenders as a building block ingredient around the turn of the century.
Infusing wine with a variety of herbs is nothing new and has been standard practice for centuries and spanning continents. But vermouth’s lineage solidly begins in the mid-1600s, when a subset of Germans began spiking their wine with wormwood, hence creating wermut. The modern iteration as we know it today was born around 1786 in Italy and rocketed to low-proof ubiquity shortly thereafter in both England and France. Prior to Prohibition in the U.S., vermouth was so popular for a spell that its sales outnumbered table wine.
In essence, vermouth can be broken down into two major categories: dry (mostly French, mostly white) and sweet (mostly red, mostly Italian). Within that, you have your biancos (pale and sweet), rossos (spicy and bold), punt e mes (brown and bitter) and beyond. It’s a brave new Old World.
There are dozens of different vermouth styles out there today, and their ranks are steadily climbing. As interest in aromatized wine and apéritifs continues to grow, so do the number of fledgling producers committed to adding another slightly different style of the drink. Companies like Uncouth Vermouth, for example, are even leading the charge into somewhat unexpected territory when it comes to flavor profiles, making heady, sustainable all-new vermouths like mint-apple. If you’re curious, look for the ever-growing number of American producers. The diversity is astounding.
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Vermouth is a shape-shifting jack-of-all-trades and can be as compelling in a dry Martini as it is in a Rob Roy or Manhattan. There are literally hundreds of drinks that couldn’t do without it, and it’s a primo way to experiment with shaking up classics, whether that’s swapping a sweet for a dry or playing with ratios.
If you really want to understand vermouth, though, you have to sip it solo. Thankfully, bars like Dante and Amor y Amargo in New York City, alongside Balthazar in London, are making tumbling down this rabbit hole of apéritif fun and accessible. At Dante, order the vermouth service, then continue your education with a flight of Negronis.
How to Drink It: Sunday Vermut
An easy way to begin a regular vermouth practice at home is by taking up the weekly Catalonian tradition of la hora del vermut (“the hour of vermouth”). In the early afternoon each Sunday, during the time between mass and dinner, friends and family across Spain gather for a glass of vermouth (typically red, sweet and locally made) peppered with a spray of seltzer and an olive or two. Simple tapas accompany the low-key, low-alcohol drinks as a way to ease that perilous time between meals.
Once considered to be a somewhat antiquated activity, vermouth has seen an extraordinary uptick in interest recently across cities like Barcelona, with the fer vermut (“doing vermouth”) ritual leading the charge. Barcelona is, without a doubt, the finest city for vermouth drinking today and worth the pilgrimage if you find yourself really getting into your at-home practice. Madrid ain’t so bad, either.
How to Store It
There’s a high likelihood you have an old-as-the-hills bottle of vermouth sitting around. Advice? Throw it out. While vermouth keeps significantly longer than regular wine (viva, fortification!), you’re not going to want to keep a bottle that’s been opened around more than a couple of months. Oh, and refrigerate that bad boy.
Check out Adam Ford’s “Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture” (Countryman Press, $24.95), Jared Brown’s “The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs” ($12.95) and Francois Monti’s “El Gran Libro de Vermut” ($16).