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