A key ingredient in classic cocktails like the Martini and Manhattan, vermouth starts as wine. That wine is aromatized—meaning herbs, barks, citrus, or other ingredients are added for aroma and flavor—and fortified with additional alcohol, which helps stop fermentation and give the vermouth a longer shelf life.
In the European Union, vermouth and other aromatized wines must include at least 75% wine in the finished product and have an ABV of 14.5–22%. To be labeled vermouth, they must be made with at least one herb from the artemisia family. For most producers, this herb is bitter wormwood—the word “vermouth” comes from “vermut,” the German translation of the plant. Beyond these requirements, formulas will vary from producer to producer. Herbs, barks, and spices like chinchona, gentian root, baking spices, and thyme are often part of the mix. A small amount of sugar or another sweetener is typically added as well.
Regulations are much looser in the U.S., where vermouth is simply defined as a type of aperitif wine, which must be made with a base of wine that is fortified with a stronger spirit, and bottled at a minimum of 15% ABV. As such, U.S. producers may experiment with bittering agents that aren’t wormwood.
In general, most people select a vermouth based on perceived sweetness level, which ranges from dry or extra dry to sweet. Some also refer to dry vermouth as “white” and sweet vermouth as “red.” However, most vermouth is made from a white wine base, notes Jake Parrott, portfolio manager for importer Haus Alpenz, who explains that the slightly red tinge of sweet vermouths usually comes from caramelized sugar or caramel coloring. “It’s relatively rare to see red wine vermouths, because tannins can interfere with the expression of the herbs,” says Parrott.
Here are the most common styles of vermouth, and what to expect from each.
Dry vermouth can technically have a maximum sugar content of 50 grams per liter in the European Union. However, it often has “very little or absolutely no sugar added,” says Will Wyatt, owner of New York City bar Mister Paradise, who describes the general profile as “baking spice and floral botanicals.” Those who can’t bear even a hint of sweetness may opt for extra dry vermouth, which can contain a maximum of 30 grams of sugar per liter in the E.U. and may read as particularly crisp and citrusy.
Bottles to try: Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Dry, Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth, Bordiga Vermouth di Torino Extra Dry
Dry Vermouth Fast Facts
• Crisp and dry, common notes of baking spices and floral botanicals
• Often contains little to no sugar, but can have a maximum sugar content of 50 grams per liter in the E.U.
• Extra dry vermouth is limited to a maximum sugar content of 30 grams per liter in the E.U.
This pale, semi-sweet version of dry vermouth has become the preferred style for mixing into Martinis for many bartenders. It is often, but not always, classified as a semi-dry vermouth, which in the E.U. means a sugar content of 50–90 grams per liter. However, many modern blanc styles skew sweeter, and will have a sugar content in excess of 90 grams per liter.
Tempered with vanilla or honey-like notes, blanc vermouths can be “more rounded out” and show “less intensity” than super-dry styles, says Wyatt, with pleasing baking spice and citrus tones. In addition to Martinis, Wyatt recommends trying a blanc vermouth and soda with bitters. Amber or ambrato vermouth, named for its tawny hue, also falls under this category.
Bottles to try: Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Ambrato, Lustau Vermut Blanco, Comoz Blanc Vermouth de Chambéry
Blanc Vermouth Fast Facts
• Rounder profile than dry vermouth
• May offer vanilla or honey-like notes
• Often classified as a semi-dry style of vermouth in the E.U., meaning a sugar content of 50–90 grams per liter
Known for its inclusion in the Manhattan and Negroni, sweet vermouth is richer and often has a rosy or ruddy hue, as well as a flavor profile that can vary from earthy to fruity to herbaceous or spiced.
Although it is sometimes referred to as red or rosso vermouth, sweet vermouth is typically made with a white wine base and receives its color from caramelized sugar or caramel coloring. And although sweet vermouth has a sugar content of at least 130 grams per liter in the E.U., “sweet” doesn’t necessarily mean the vermouth will taste sugary. “Several sweet vermouths have much less sugar than some blancos I use,” says Wyatt.
Wyatt favors Cocchi di Torino for mixing into Negronis, and the earthy richness of Carpano Antica for Manhattans. Some bartenders turn to sweet vermouth to stand up to bolder ingredients. At The Bower Bar in New Orleans, for example, beverage director Mickey Mullins mixes sweet vermouth with tonic water and cold brew coffee.
Bottles to try: Carpano Antica Formula, Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino, Rockwell Vermouth Co. Classic Sweet, Lo-Fi Aperitifs Sweet Vermouth
Sweet Vermouth Fast Facts
• Rich profile that may vary from earthy to fruity, herbaceous, or spiced
• Rosy or ruddy hue comes typically comes from caramelized sugar or caramel coloring
• Minimum sugar content of 130 grams per liter in the E.U.
Vermouth Styles, by Region
You may notice some regional names mixed into the suggested bottles above.
Traditionally, vermouth styles fell along regional lines in Europe, Parrott explains. In some older drink manuals, “French vermouth” refers to dry vermouth and “Italian vermouth” denotes sweet vermouth—though of course, both countries make both dry and sweet vermouths, as do a wide range of other countries, including the U.S. That said, a number of vermouth styles still are associated with specific regions.
Robust, relatively sweet Vermouth di Torino pays homage to the grapes of Italy’s Piedmont region, notably moscato. Today, this expression is protected by a geographical indication (GI). Bottles with the label Vermouth di Torino must be made with a base of one or more Italian wines in the Piedmont region. They can vary in color and sweetness, although they are often red.
Across the Alps in France, Chambéry’s relatively light wines translate into delicate, floral blanc vermouths, and are often relatively low in sugar. This style was developed by Dolin in the early 1800s in southern France. Vermouth de Chambéry had its own appellation beginning in the 1930s, but the designation has since lapsed. Today, bottles with the Chambéry label are most often associated with Dolin and may come in blanc, dry, and rouge styles.
Originally developed as a workaround during the Phylloxera epidemic, which decimated Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s, this style of vermouth originated in Catalonia, Spain, where it is once again experiencing a renaissance. It comes in blanco or seco (dry) styles, but the sweet rojo is the most common.
The birthplace of Noilly Prat, Marseille, France, yielded a dry style of vermouth that’s lightly aged and slightly more oxidized, the result of wine barrels that sat out in the sun at least part of the year. While Noilly Prat originally became known for its dry vermouth, the producer now makes rouge and ambré expressions, too.
Vermut de Jerez comes from the sherry-producing town of Jerez in the Andalucia region of Spain and is often made with a base of amontillado or oloroso sherry. Although vermouth production dates to the 1800s in Jerez, the style has returned to popularity in recent years, with sherry producer Lustau releasing vermouth expressions.
What’s Not Vermouth
While these aren’t the only styles of vermouth, they represent most of the bottlings you’ll find on liquor store shelves and backbars. It’s also important to recognize that a wide variety of other aromatized wines exist that are not technically considered vermouth. These include Americanos (like Cocchi Americano), quinquinas (like Dubonnet) and vino amaros (“wine amaros,” such as Cardamaro).