Vermouth, for many, means the spiced, syrupy stuff that comes in green glass bottles, and takes up too much real estate in bad negronis, Manhattans, and martinis. On his secret recipe for a stellar gin martini, Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “Glance at the vermouth bottle briefly while pouring the juniper distillate freely.”
The perception that vermouth is headache-inducingly sweet—or just plain bad—isn’t totally unfounded or wrong. Historically, vermouth was made with sweetened not-up-to-snuff white wine, infused with botanicals (sometimes as many as 50) and fortified with brandy to disguise its aforementioned not-up-to-snuffness. That heady aroma and sweetness unique to a vermouth distinctly “adds dimension, accentuates the flavors of the base liquor, and lowers alcohol content for stronger-spirit-spirit drinks,” food writer Meaghen Hale explains.
The word vermouth comes from the German “wermut,” which translates to “wormwood,” the traditional bittering agent in vermouth. That’s right—wormwood, as in artemisia absinthium, as in the hallucinogenic botanical that Stephen consumes in Ulysses (making the text even more unreadable).
Fear over this hallucinogenic substance led absinthe to be banned in the U.S. until 2007, when absinthe-maker Ted Breaux proved that thujone—the chemical compound responsible for inciting seizures—was present in less than 10 milligrams per liter. Though thujone is only present in absinthe (let alone in vermouth) in trace quantities, wormwood has nonetheless been swept up in the scare.
skirting lawfully abiding by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Long Island–based winemaker Christopher Tracey infuses his vermouths with non-wormwood bitterants—most notably, calendula and sage (which is, ahem, 50% thujone ... but I digress). Also based in N.Y.C., Will Clark, of Little City Vermouth also omits wormwood from his vermouth altogether, and “increases the quantity of other bittering agents.”
Between sips of a premixed Manhattan we shared from his backpack, Clark posed: “So the question is, what makes it vermouth? Is it the taste or the ingredients?” A good point. Vermouth without wormwood is not really ... “vermouth,” but is instead, technically, a fortified wine; but the glasses in front of us—rich with spice and pleasantly, you guessed it, bitter—tasted, undoubtedly, of vermouth. “Little City Fortified Wine” doesn’t quite conjure up the right expectations—and might confuse those sherry- and port-averse—nor does it really roll off the tongue.
“I was already using a dozen other botanicals that released very similar flavors [to wormwood] in maceration,” Clark explains. “I was able to achieve the same product but without jumping through the legal hoops that using wormwood would have required. It is entirely possible to make a traditional-tasting vermouth without using wormwood.”
Neat or over rocks
I enjoy dry and sweet vermouths neat or over the rocks, respectively. I find sweet vermouth to be a bit too intense to enjoy as is, so I rely on ice chonks for dilution.
With soda and a twist
I like topping off sweeter vermouths with a bit of seltzer, a twist or wedge of orange, and sometimes an olive. The soda water helps bloom the spices, and dilutes a syrupy vermouth into something more drinkable.
In a cocktail
When mixing with already aromatic spirits like Campari, gin, and whiskey—vermouths with a simpler, more focused flavor profile are best.
Vermouth brands Cinzano and Martini Rosso both offer sweet vermouths that are widely accessible and perform the roles of sweetener and diluter just fine. But, if you’re trying to sip a vermouth with a bit more character, these two small-batch, locally-minded producers—Channing Daughters and Little City—are upending our vermouth expectations, and doing so deliciously.
Channing Daughters’ VerVinos vary seasonally and from batch to batch. With botanicals and honey all hailing from within a three-mile radius from Channing Daughters’s farm in Bridgehampton, the VerVinos are nothing like the musty, stale bottles you might expect. Here are three I've enjoyed recently:
An infusion of their Petit Verdot and Sculpture Garden, this VerVino had a dark, syrupy body reminiscent of a Martini Rosso or Cinzano, but the resemblance ended there. I topped glasses off with a splash of seltz and orange twist, so the suggestions of pine (sage) and caramel (butternut squash) could breathe, yawn, and stretch out.
This rosé, infused with spicy arugula and beets, had a body that suggested guzzle-ability, but a flavor that demanded hm-induced sipping—slowly, and over ice.
An infused Sauvignon Blanc, this VerVino—aromatic with menthol (basil) and citrus (lemon balm)—poured straight from the bottle tasted absolutely crispy fresh.
Dry upon first whiff, and smells like—no joke—Sprite. The citrusy aroma stems from Clark’s infusion of dried tangerine peel.
Clark’s sweet vermouth, perfumed with vanilla, has snaked its way into my dreams. If you’re already a fan of vanilla and whisky, you’ll get why bartenders across N.Y.C. are reaching for this vermouth in building their Manhattans.