Confounded By Vermouth? Start With These 7

September 22, 2017

In pursuit of La Dolce Vita, food and drinks writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge sets out to demystify vermouth and Italian bitters. In her latest book, Aperitivo, she explores the world of pre-dinner drinking and writes about its history and producers. Below is an expanded excerpt on vermouth written exclusively for Food52.

Perhaps it’s our increasing receptiveness to bitter flavors that has seen the explosion in popularity of the aperitivo, the Italian inspired slightly (or very) bitter pre-dinner drink, but that bitterness really is the perfect prelude to a good meal. Apero, after all, means to open. And this means more and more of us are learning the special joys of vermouth, not just in cocktails but in its own right.

Vermouth’s name derives from the German word for wormwood, the key bittering agent used in its making. But the spirit traditionally comes from Savoie region of France and Italy’s Piedmont, which were part of the same country in the 18th century. Today’s vermouths are made in almost exactly the same way they were back then, by fortifying and aromatizing wines with bittering agents and botanicals to create a drink that’s between 16–18% alcohol. And they are no longer being made in just France and northern Italy.

With all these choices, it can be a challenge to navigate and appreciate all that vermouth has to offer. While your first encounter with it may be in a cocktail, when you drink it on its own, you have a myriad of choices: straight-up or on the rocks, garnished with a twist or not, with tonic or soda, and so on. I favor on the rocks in a tapered tumbler, all the better to release the aromatics, with an orange twist or slice for a sweet vermouth and a twist of lemon for a dry one. In each case, the twists enhance the citric qualities within.

If you want to dive further into the flavor profiles of vermouth, you’ll need to do a lot of tasting. But it’s smart to begin with some examples from the drink’s heritage in Italy and France before moving further afield. Here are some varieties to get you started:

Cocchi di Torino

I am quite the fan of Cocchi’s entire vermouth range, but the absolute standouts are the Cocchi Americano, a dry vermouth with a hint of quinine alongside the other bittering agents, and the Cocchi Storico Vermouth Di Torino, which is delightfully complex, savoury, and bitter-sweet.

Cinzano Rosso 1757

A handmade sweet vermouth pays homage to Cinzano’s founders Giovanni and Carlo, this is full, fruity (in fact, almost figgy), and not too sweet. Like a good argument, it has a delightfully bitter finish, which makes it my favorite if I’m making a Negroni.

Punt e Mes

Or “a point and a half.” Herbal and rich with undertones of orange, it’s made by Carpano, the company founded by vermouth’s alleged inventor, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, back in 1786. Legend has it that, in 1870, a stockbroker visited the Carpano shop in Turin. He wanted a drink to reflect that day’s increase in share prices—you’ve guessed it, one and a half points—and ordered his usual Carpano with an extra half measure of bitter. Serve chilled, straight up, with a twist of orange.

Riserva Carlo Alberto Extra Dry

Light and delicate, and perfect for the your dry martini’s rinse. Alternatively, drink it chilled as a pre-lunch aperitif, either straight or with soda water or tonic, per your preference, with a twist of lemon.

Dolin de Chambéry Dry

They’ve been making vermouth in Chambéry since 1821 but, despite its huge popularity in the early 20th century, Dolin is the only surviving example of the style. With its slight sweetness on the nose and its earthy, vaguely resinous flavours, it is both refreshing and ever so slightly sexy.

Noilly Prat Ambre

Noilly Prat already makes classic dry and sweet vermouths, but they decided to try something a little new when they created this in 1986. They still call it the “new boy.” Made similarly to their original Blanc Dry and their Rouge, this features even more herbs and spices, including extra cinnamon and vanilla. And it is like drinking liquid Mediterranean sunshine. It has a slight hint of sherry-esque oxidation with a honeyed opening and a herbal, citrus-y spine.

Belsazar Rosé

From the South Baden region of Germany, it’s uniquely zesty and bright, with intriguing hints of both fruit and blossom. Quite the balancing act, but one that lends itself to being served on the rocks with tonic water. Their extra dry white also makes for an excellent Reverse Martini.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Also my go-to vermouth for Negronis.”
— Sean C.

Are you exploring vermouth? Tell us your experiences—and favorite varieties—in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Written by: kay


jc October 7, 2017
i agree, spanish vermouth is great way to begin the night!
Sean C. September 24, 2017
No mention of Carpano Antica Formula?? One of my favorites over ice with just a twist of orange, and even an olive! Also my go-to vermouth for Negronis.
kay September 25, 2017
Not enough room to mention all vermouths! I love it too. Punt e Mes is made by Carpano. Give it a go.
Sean C. September 25, 2017
I know, I know...there are too many good ones. Just disappointed to not see my favorite, everyday vermouth on the list :P
Emily |. September 23, 2017
This is great! I'd be interested to know how Spain fits in the mix historically and varietally - some of the most fun I had living in Madrid was going to "Hora de Vermut" on Sundays at 1pm :)
kay September 23, 2017
Hi Emily! Aha! yes - vermut- a whole other world! I need to do another seems to have come along later- the first records show about 1890's in Catalonia. My favour to have - just on the rocks before a punchy Spanish meal - is Casa Mariol vert negre. Herbal, with lovely acidity and a spicy finish.
kay September 23, 2017
That would be Vermut Negre !
Emily |. September 24, 2017
Thank you! I'll have to try to find this stateside.
Sing S. September 24, 2017
I was just about to mention Spanish vermouth! I love it sooooo much--but my favorites are the house vermouths from bars in Catalunya--usually vermut negre with orange and lemon. Such an interesting flavor, and so delicious!
kay September 25, 2017
Amanda H. September 22, 2017
So nice to have this guide when vermouths are suddenly on menus everywhere!
kay September 23, 2017
Thank you! Its a wonderful world to discover!