When many people think of vermouth, martinis or dusty, neglected-looking bottles relegated to the back shelf are images that often come to mind. Happily, vermouth is experiencing a rebirth and there is much more to this versatile cocktail staple today than ever before. We at The Crafty Cask are super excited this classic is gaining popularity and getting the artisanal attention it deserves.
Let us briefly touch on the origins of vermouth before we get into how it’s made. Vermouth history goes back as far as the 15th century when it was, like so many of our favorite beverages, produced for medicinal use. It has historical ties to Italy, France, Spain and Germany and like sex, politics, and other great debates, discussing the origin of each style quickly spirals into a heated conversation. One that we will leave for another time entirely. Like many classics, vermouth has its own special requirements to use the name and lucky for craft enthusiasts everywhere, the criteria truly lends itself to craft production.
So, what is Vermouth made from?
Many people are surprised to learn that vermouth is not a spirit but a wine. A fortified wine, which means it has distillate added to it to raise the alcohol level (ABV). It is infused or ‘aromatized’ with herbs, spices, and roots, and depending on the style, sweetened.
Vermouth must contain extracts from the Artemisia genus of plants to be classified as such. Wormwood, which is also an ingredient in absinthe, wrongly blamed for its hallucinogenic effects, was originally used. However, Artemisia contains hundreds of plants. Many of these such as Mugwort or Sagebrush are used to add the characteristic bitter element to vermouth. Part of the daisy family, today wormwood is often excluded from the mix entirely.
High Quality Ingredients Make for the Best Vermouth Brands
It goes without saying that the quality of the end product is directly affected by the quality of its ingredients. With this in mind, producers select a base wine to use as the foundation for their product. The herbs, spices, and roots are then carefully chosen and macerated in the base wine or infused into the fortification spirit, usually a neutral grape alcohol. The exact recipes are fiercely guarded secrets, and ingredients are imported from all over the world. Some of our favorite craft vermouth brands? We’re glad you asked! We really love Hammer & Tongs, Matthiason, Imbue (the bittersweet white vermouth is great for straight sipping) and Ransom as some of the best vermouth brands in America using high quality ingredients and processes. Speaking of processes…
The process of maceration is similar to making a cup of loose leaf tea. The botanicals steep in the in the fortified wine and the alcohol extracts the flavors. Afterward, the bits of botanicals get filtered out. The exact time the botanicals spend in the wine is a matter of producer preference but can be as long as 45 days.
The second method is infusion and this takes place during the distillation of the fortification spirit. The spirit is distilled through a basket of botanicals suspended inside a still, above the liquid. It is heated and as the vapor passes through the botanicals the flavors are extracted. The spirit then gets blended into the wine. If you need a refresher on the distillation process you can read all about it in our Distilling 101 article. Finally, the base wine is fortified with the spirit. Fortification increases the wines ABV to between 18% and 22% and sugar or mistelle is added to get the desired sweetness.
What does Vermouth taste like?
The flavor profiles of vermouth are complex and you may never be able to identify the notes in each bottle. And if you can, the producer may have to find you and kill you! The best vermouth brands are very protective of their recipes. However, there are some common ingredients used in its production in addition to the required extracts from the Artemisia genus of plants. Some of these more commonly used ingredients include herbs such as lavender, rose, marjoram, and ginger; spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, and vanilla; citrus peels and roots such as licorice, angelica, and orris.
Vermouth Rosso (Sweet Red Vermouth) vs. Vermouth Blanco (Sweet White Vermouth) vs. Dry Vermouth
Now that you know how vermouth is produced and some of the common flavor profiles, let’s talk color. The colors are not indicative of different flavors specifically, but instead are an indication the style and sweetness level as well. Vermouth Rosso is Italian in style and is sweet. It is also often referred to as sweet red vermouth. The Spanish also make an increasingly popular sweet red vermouth that tend to be a bit lighter and less bitter than their Italian counterpart. Blanco, or White Vermouth is typically French in style, and is also sweet. Dry is also French in style with a white wine base, but…you guessed it…is dry!
Dry vermouth is your pick for all of those dry vermouth cocktails out there like a Martini, El Presidente or Bensonhurst. Whereas the sweet red vermouth and sweet white vermouth are great for other vermouth drinks like the Manhattan, Negroni, or Americano. More recently, gold and rosé have been added to the mix. Rosé vermouth is accented with rosé wine for color (and flavor!) and gold vermouth gets its golden hue from its fortification spirit such as an aged brandy. Both are classified as ‘new-age’ vermouth.
Because vermouth is a wine and not a spirit, it oxidizes over time just like wine does. This means the forgotten back bar shelf is not the best place for it to be stored. Experts recommend that you store it in the fridge and consume your open bottle within about 3 months. Since vermouth is often used in small quantities when making vermouth drinks, keep that in mind when deciding what size bottle to buy. Bigger is not always better. That being said, you could just increase your Manhattan and Martini habit or start drinking the best vermouth like a true European…straight!
How to Enjoy Vermouth
While most of us know vermouth in the context of Martinis or Manhattans, it’s much more versatile than those classics vermouth drinks alone. One of the simplest ways we like to enjoy it is with soda or tonic and an orange slice. However, truly great vermouth brands can be sipped on it’s own or over ice. In Spain, sweet red vermouth is often served straight with a slice of orange and an olive or two dropped in to offset the sweetness. It’s honestly one of my favorite aperitifs with a snack before dinner. So when it comes to vermouth, I always recommend taking a little sip straight before mixing it into a cocktail. You never know—you might forego the cocktail entirely! A great thing to keep in mind is that Vermouth is a great low ABV choice compared to many cocktails. When there are lots of weekend plans or parties ahead sticking to vermouth drinks can be a nice way to enjoy yourself while ensuring you still enjoy the morning after.
Are you ready to channel your inner European and get into the vermouth drinks game? We hope so! As you’re getting started, if you need a little mixology help, you can get some of our favorite craft spirits to mix with your vermouth delivered right to your door here. Or grab a membership to our craft spirits club so you have plenty of new craft spirits to play mixologist with each month…then check out one of our favorite cocktail books that has almost 20 vermouth drinks for inspiration. I mean you do have to use up that bottle in your fridge in 3 months, after all! Have a favorite way you enjoy vermouth? Please share with us in the comments below and help us drink through our bottles too…