Everything You Need to Know About Vermouth
Wondercade's house bartender Jonathan Lind talks about the bar cart staple.
Howdy! Jonathan Lind here, Wondercade’s house bartender, back again to talk cocktails. Well, less cocktails and more specifically a key and underappreciated cocktail ingredient. Vermouth. (Which I strongly recommend drinking alone — not by yourself, but by itself — on the rocks, but more on that later.)
Most of us have a bottle of vermouth somewhere in the house. It might be in a liquor cabinet. Could be in the back of the fridge. Nobody knows where it came from, and most of us don’t know what to do with it, so follow me on a journey of truth…the truth that is vermouth!
While most people know vermouth as “that thing that goes in my martini,” this essential and delicious ingredient is arguably one of the more important bottles you can have in your home bar. In its current form, vermouth originated in the 1700s in Turin, Italy. (Allegedly. Remember, booze history is written by people who were drinking, so…discrepancies may occur.) Though its name tells us that it is a continuation of multiple drinking traditions. Vermouth is an English evolution of a French pronunciation of a German word for wormwood, “vermut.” Try and wrap your head around that etymological family tree! I, for one, would rather wrap my hand around a glass of vermouth.
But what is vermouth? Easy. It’s a fortified wine that has been flavored with bitter herbs and spices. There are quite a few types of vermouth, but the majority of home cocktails are made with two, so we’ll stick to those today.
Sweet vermouth is, you guessed it…sweet! This is the vermouth you’re looking for if you’re making a Manhattan, Negroni or Boulevardier. A dark reddish-brown liquid, it has notes of spice, cola and caramel, though the intensity and nuance of flavors varies from producer to producer. Dry vermouth is produced in a similar style to sweet, but without the sugar, caramel and color. Think of it as an extremely flavorful, borderline bitter, white wine.
A housekeeping note: If you have an open bottle of vermouth at home, and you can’t remember when you first opened it, throw it away. I don’t condone waste, but an oxidized bottle from 2004 is not going to do you any favors. A related note: Keep your vermouth in the fridge. I’ll let smarter folks explain why, but trust me here.
Now, a brief word about words. “Dry” in the cocktail world is a deeply complex descriptor. When it comes to vermouth, “dry” is a delineation of category. With martinis, it is used to communicate how much vermouth you want, not the type. A “dry” martini is one in which the amount of vermouth is reduced (but not removed, contrary to popular belief). However, if you were to order a “dry” Manhattan, you would get a Manhattan made with dry vermouth instead of sweet, but you would not reduce the amount of actual vermouth used. Isn’t language fun?!
So you’ve taken my advice and you’ve got some newly purchased vermouth at home. What do you do with it? My first recommendation is to pour three ounces (either sweet or dry) over ice and sip on it. That’s it. There’s no better way to experience it. It is, in a word, delicious. Some favorite brands for drinking vermouth on the rocks include Carpano Antica, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth. The first two are sweet vermouths from Italy, while the Lo-Fi is a dry from Napa.
But I’m assuming you didn’t read this article only to be told to “buy a bottle, then drink it!” You want a delicious — and perhaps new — cocktail. Setting up a DIY martini bar at home is a great way to utilize your spoils. It’s also a good way to wake up on your kitchen floor. So allow me to suggest a cocktail that might better allow you to enjoy your vermouth and actually remember doing so. Cheers!
Servings: 1 serving
- 1 ½ oz. Lustau Manzanilla sherry
- 1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes of orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a stirring vessel (most home bartenders will have a pint glass for this purpose). Fill with ice. Stir until properly diluted.
Strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with an orange twist.
NOTE: Some bartenders will suggest a specific number of rotations/stirs to achieve the perfect dilution, but I don’t believe this works. Differences in ice quality, humidity and ambient temperature can all affect dilution. This means you’re just going to have to practice and taste as you go. Aren’t you glad we picked a lower-proof cocktail?!
Suggested for you