Serious Eats: Drinks

DIY vs. Buy: Should I Make My Own Sweet Vermouth?

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[Photograph: Liam Boylan]

Sweet vermouth plays a supporting role in so many cocktails that it's easy to take for granted. It brings out the nuanced flavors of a bold spirit, so it pairs well with both whiskey and gin, supporting the star player in a wide variety of cocktails. But a simple glass of sweet vermouth has a delicate balance of rich, spicy, sweet, and bitter flavors that can also be delicious on its own.

What's Available to Buy?

The biggest names in vermouth have been around for centuries. Cinzano, Noilly Prat, and Martini & Rossi are all affordable and easy to find. These standbys blend well with other flavors in a cocktail but don't have the zing of a great sipping vermouth.

Dolin, one of our favorite French vermouth companies, makes a lovely (slightly lighter) version that is nice for drinking on ice (with a twist of orange—think of it as a simplified red sangria.) Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes offer fuller flavor with a bitter edge and more pronounced botanicals. They're fantastic straight-up, on the rocks, or mixed in cocktails, but they run $20 to $30 a bottle, and don't keep forever. Vya is a relative newcomer to the vermouth scene, but it's already popping up on lots of upscale cocktail lists because of its intense herbal flavor. Any of these can be found in better liquor stores—but probably not every corner booze shop.

Why DIY?

Vermouth is a fortified aromatized wine, which is a fancy way of saying that you make it by adding hard liquor and herbs to wine. The process isn't complicated, and finding the right mix of botanicals is a fun project. With a little experimentation, you can design a sweet vermouth that pairs perfectly with your favorite spirit or suits your taste better than the store-bought kind.

The signature bitter bite in vermouth comes from wormwood, which is also the key ingredient in absinthe. But other than that, the rest of the components are common grocery store items.

The base is a dry white wine—since it gets boiled and flavored, cheap wine will do. I went for a spiced flavor profile in honor of the holidays, accented by a little sherry. However, everything from apples to wood chips can add a unique touch to your vermouth. You can try other herbs like rosemary or sage or sweeten the mixture up a bit more, if you like.

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Use It!

There's no need to get complicated: drop an olive or slice of citrus into a glass of chilled vermouth for a satisfying pre-dinner drink. But of course, there are dozens of classics cocktails to mix with your DIY sweet vermouth.

For the cocktail lover on your Christmas list, pair a bottle of your homemade vermouth with a nice whiskey and some cocktail cherries as a DIY Manhattan kit or with gin and Campari for a DIY Negroni kit.

Branch out a little, and try the French Kiss or the Martinez, the Derby, or the Maddow.

You can even cook with your vermouth—it comes in handy for deglazing a pan.

More DIY

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About the Author: Marcia Simmons is the co-author of DIY Cocktails: A Simple Guide to Creating Your Own Signature Drinks. She also shares cocktail recipes and tips on the DIY Cocktails blog and on Twitter @DIYCocktails.

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