Vermouth: Your Liquor Cabinet's Neglected Child

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

Vermouth BarrelsVermouth has an image problem.

For many people, vermouth is the stuff you're supposed to be miserly with when mixing a martini--or, taking the Winston Churchill route, it's the liquid you merely glance at across the room before proceeding with mixing the drink. If you've gotten curious what it tastes like on its own and have taken a swig from a bottle that's been lying around ever since that party in 2004 when you thought it would be fun to mix martinis, you probably received a rude shock. "No wonder you're supposed to avoid it," would be the common reaction.

Pity, that. Along with sherry, port, and marsala, vermouth is one of the world's great fortified wines. Flavored with herbs and spices and lightly fortified with neutral spirits, vermouth has a wonderfully complex character when enjoyed fresh and chilled. Vermouth is commonly served as an aperitif in much of Europe, but it has mainly been relegated to use in cocktails in the United States ever since it was first imported in the late nineteenth century.

Not that early bartenders were stingy with it. The sweeter, Italian-style rosso vermouth is a staple in the Manhattan and the Negroni, and even played a starring role in the early ancestors of the martini. The drier, French-style white vermouth is now gin's foil in this cocktail (many mixers of vodka martinis skip the vermouth altogether), as well as a player in vintage cocktails such as the Bronx, the Brooklyn and the Algonquin. Just to complicate matters, there's also a sweet, white vermouth sold as Bianco, which has less of a history but is definitely worth getting to know.

Vermouth was first commercially produced in Turin in the late eighteenth century, and as home to Martini & Rossi and Cinzano, that city remains the heart of Italy's vermouth production. France's most renowned vermouth is made by Noilly Prat, located in the southwestern resort town of Marseillan. Last summer I had the chance to visit both of these vermouth capitals, and after witnessing the dedication with which the products are made--and after sampling several vermouth aperitifs at assorted cafes--I came home with a greater appreciation of the beauty of this neglected fortified wine.

One of the great things about vermouth is its price. Despite their ubiquity, the standard vermouths from Noilly Prat, Cinzano, and Martini & Rossi are all very respectable and can be had for less than $10 a bottle. A slightly bitter Italian vermouth sold as Carpano Antica Formula is absolutely wonderful when served alone or when paired with rye whiskey in a Manhattan, and typically sells for less than $30. In the United States, California-based Quady Winery produces the esteemed Vya vermouth in both sweet and dry styles; both are excellent and flavorful, and about the same price as the Carpano Antica.

To avoid unpleasant surprises, treat your vermouth as you would any other wine: Keep it sealed until ready to drink; keep it chilled and tightly closed (a vacuum seal helps); and use it soon after opening--within a month is a good idea. By respecting your vermouth as you would any other wine, you may find yourself cursing Churchill as a killjoy while you tip a stream of aromatic vermouth into your martini's mixing glass.

What's your experience--any vermouth fans out there?