Vermouth

Vermouth, Explained—Plus 5 We’re Really, Really Into

There’s more out there than just Cinzano and Martini Rosso.

by:
February 26, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

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.


But what is "vermouth"?

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.

On 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.”

So the question is, what makes it vermouth? Is it the taste or the ingredients?
Will Clark

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.

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Top Comment:
“They're a great player for low abv drinks -- you can flip the ratios to have more vermouth instead of gin, etc, to great results, and they also can make killer cocktails with sherries and little to no actual liquor. If you like it on the rocks, it's a flavour that continues to taste good even when the ice is completely melted, which makes it a great sipper. And it's a great substitute for wine if you want something with a little flavour without having to drink a bottle in a sitting. Seriously undervalued.”
— M
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“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.”


How to Drink Vermouth

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.


Vermouths For Sipping, Seltz-ing, & Spritz-ing

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:

1. Channing Daughters’ Variation 6

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.

2. Channing Daughters’ Variation 3 Batch 2

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.

3. Channing Daughters’ Variation 1 Batch 2

An infused Sauvignon Blanc, this VerVino—aromatic with menthol (basil) and citrus (lemon balm)—poured straight from the bottle tasted absolutely crispy fresh.

While wholly delicious and interesting on their own, Little City vermouths—infused and bottled in New York—beg to be played with. Clark keeps it simple with just two offerings: dry or sweet.


Vermouths That Play Well With Others

Styling. Photo by Will Clark | Little City Vermouth

1. Little City Dry Vermouth

Dry upon first whiff, and smells like—no joke—Sprite. The citrusy aroma stems from Clark’s infusion of dried tangerine peel.

Groovy. Photo by Will Clark | Little City Vermouth

2. Little City Sweet Vermouth

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.

What's your favorite way to enjoy vermouth? Over ice, in a cocktail, or poured down the drain? Brag about it in the comments.

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Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga. When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.

9 Comments

WJW May 10, 2020
So curious to read of your fascination with Vermouth. Just returned from Spain where Spanish vermouth is unto itself with no competition, in my opinion, from any of its namesakes. It is not a dry vermouth or with the shallow sweetness of Italian vermouth. Most bodegas make their own. Have been trying to replicate this immensely satisfying taste since returning, mining the internet and more and now in my fourth batch feel I am closing in. But, one has to settle with the chaos of a kind that no two batches are entirely the same. And therein lies the intrigue and discovery. The botanicals hold the mystery and I don’t want to arrive at the motherstone. Whit W, father of Zach.
 
WJW May 10, 2020
So curious to read of your
 
arlusk April 9, 2020
Suggestions for which of these would pair best in a gin martini?
 
Author Comment
Coral L. April 9, 2020
Little City Dry!
 
donabrams February 27, 2020
I'm surprised that there was no mention of the Spanish tradition of Vermut, as an afternoon aperfit, served on the rocks with a spritz of soda and a green olive on the toothpick and slice of orange. Many cafes and bodagas (more of an informal wine bar in Spain) make their own. There are many delightful, complex Spanish vermuts available here in the US.
 
Author Comment
Coral L. February 28, 2020
Hi donabrams, yes, you are *so* right to bring this up! The Spanish culture and tradition of la hora de vermut was 100% my inspiration/motivation for writing this exploration. I only left Spanish producers out because I wanted to spotlight the lesser-known, more experimental producers.
 
emmasvt February 27, 2020
cool article! i will be sure to share this with the residents of Treasure At Tampines and JadeScape !
 
M February 26, 2020
Vermouth should be played with as liquor is. Some are great warmer, or colder. They can be great with an onion or olive. They're a great player for low abv drinks -- you can flip the ratios to have more vermouth instead of gin, etc, to great results, and they also can make killer cocktails with sherries and little to no actual liquor.

If you like it on the rocks, it's a flavour that continues to taste good even when the ice is completely melted, which makes it a great sipper. And it's a great substitute for wine if you want something with a little flavour without having to drink a bottle in a sitting. Seriously undervalued.
 
Author Comment
Coral L. February 28, 2020
Agreed!