Vermouth was once considered the backing singer of the booze world – we knew it only for its role in cocktails such as the martini and negroni – but that’s all over. For the past few years bartenders have been giving this underrated wine a leading role in drinks, and now its fame is starting to spread.
Like the sound of this classic aperitif? Try our easy vermouth cocktails here.
What is vermouth?
Wine? Yep, vermouth is wine, but, more accurately, it’s a wine that’s been aromatised (infused with botanicals) and fortified (spiked with brandy, which helps it keep longer – you’ll get about six weeks before it oxidises if you keep it in the fridge). The word itself comes from the German ‘wermut’ meaning wormwood, vermouth’s backbone botanical. While the word may be German, vermouth is most commonly associated with France, Spain and Italy but it’s now made across the world, from the UK to Australia. Vermouth can be broadly divided into three different styles.
Also known as rosso or red vermouth, this style is usually the most robust and rich you’ll come across. Although it used to be made with red wine, many brands today use a white wine base and colour it with caramel. Fortified to around 15% ABV and sweetened, these vermouths tend to be lushly fruity and spicy. The best ones are delicious sipped neat over ice with a slice of citrus, or pair them with dark spirits such as bourbon and rum. Sweet vermouth is an essential ingredient in cocktails like the negroni and manhattan.
Sweet vermouth to buy
A revival of a recipe from Turin that dates from 1891, this is rich with smoky spice, dried fruits and citrus peel. Gorgeous in a negroni, it’s also great sipped by itself or with a chocolaty pud.
Created by famed French liqueur maker Gabriel Boudier, Azaline is made with pinot noir grapes and Persian saffron, as well as other botanicals such as orange peel, blackcurrant, cardamom, coriander, tarragon, juniper and gentian. With a silky texture, balanced bitterness and delicate black cherry, floral and spice notes, it’s pleasingly elegant.
Lina Stores, the beloved Italian deli in London, has launched its own vermouth. It’s a cola-hued, traditional Torino-style affair, with a robust bittersweet character, dried fruit notes and a lively orange zest acidity that makes it delicious sipped chilled over ice.
Dry vermouths are usually pale in colour, and tend to be lighter and more delicate than sweet vermouths, with a crisp, bone-dry character and herbaceous, floral and citrussy notes. Like sweet vermouths they’re almost always made with white wine grapes.
Dry vermouth pairs well with light spirits such as gin, vodka and tequila. The classic use for it is in a martini and if you invest in a quality dry vermouth we suggest playing around with the proportions of this cocktail to let the vermouth shine through. Try a 1:1 proportion of gin/vodka to vermouth for a wet martini, or make a reverse martini, with 60ml vermouth and 30ml spirit for a lower-ABV drink.
We also like using dry vermouth to make cocktails less saccharine. For example, use dry in place of sweet vermouth in a negroni and you get a cardinale, a lighter, less intense drink.
Bottles to buy
Elegantly dry and herbal, if you’re going to buy just one dry vermouth for martinis then let it be this classic French aperitif.
A dainty yet complex British vermouth, this has beguiling notes of coriander, gooseberries and honey. Do try the other vermouths in LVC’s range – we also like their smoky, earthy sweet vermouth, Camille’s Red.
This Australian brand’s vermouths are all worth trying (the Bold Red and Lively White are particular favourites) but we picked this ultra-dry vermouth for its saline, herbaceous qualities. Try with tonic water and savoury garnishes such as woody herbs, capers and olives.
While sweet and dry vermouth are the most common styles you’re likely to come across, they’re by no means the only ones available. Also widespread is blanc or bianco vermouth. Pale in colour, it falls in between sweet and dry vermouth both in sweetness and flavour. A blanc vermouth could be herbaceous and floral, but might also have richer spicy notes. They’re delicious in martinis, in highballs or sipped neat.
Bottles to buy
This boutique Sussex winery uses 40 botanicals in its award-winning vermouth. Cardamom and saffron notes shine through, along with a very pleasing herbaceous astringency. Enjoy it on its own or with anything cheesy.
Iconic vermouth brand Martini launched its premium range in 2015, and this should be a staple in your fridge. Fruity and floral with a delicate sweetness, try it over ice with tonic and some salted almonds alongside. It also makes a cracking cardinale.
This fabulously packaged Spanish vermouth is made from rosé grenache macerated with red fruits, thyme and rosemary. It’s beautifully delicate and fruity, with a thread of gentle herbal bitterness.