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Guide to Vermouth

Welcome to The Little Fine Wine Company’s guide to vermouth! An unknown gem beyond the cocktail world, this distinctive, artisanally-made wine is a great addition to your drinks collection. Plus, it makes a delicious aperitif or mixer with soda. And it’s an essential ingredient for a variety of cocktails, most famously the Martini and, even more fashionably, the Negroni (now the most popular cocktail in the world*).

Definition

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine (the name is related to the Wormwood family of herbs, rather than our infamous prison Wormwood Scrubs, whose name comes from the old English for snake, ‘wyrm’!). It begins life as wine grapes which the winemaker ferments into a base wine and fortifies by adding a spirit. So far, so like Port or Sherry. However, like gin, the spirit is flavoured (aromatized) by infusing it with botanicals: herbs, spices, peels and occasionally nuts from the leaves, seeds, fruit, stems, roots, flowers or bark of plants or trees. The essential botanical is Wormwood, which legally must be part of the infusion for the final wine to be called vermouth, and which provides a flavourful, herby character. Vermouth is found worldwide but it was Italy and France who first developed the styles of vermouth that we know today.

There has also been a surge in English and Welsh vermouths as wine grapes are more widely grown in the U.K. The Little Fine Wine Company have added Knightor’s delicious vermouths to our website recently. They are made from grapes grown in Cornwall, mostly around Knightor’s base at St Austell. All three vermouths are available as wines in half bottle size (375ml) which is perfect for trying out the style. After numerous questions from friends and family such as ‘what actually is vermouth???’ we were compelled to write this guide to vermouth.

Styles of vermouth

The styles we see on the shelf tend to be bianco (white), and rosso (red). although the rose vermouth is becoming more popular, and makes a great spritz. Red and Rose vermouths tend to be sweet, while the white vermouth is either dry or sweet. The grams of sugar per litre are included below, for a more technical definition).

The result of all this is a fairly full-bodied, smooth, dry or sweet wine with alcohol that is commonly around 15% to 17%, i.e more than most still wines and lighter than Port. Importantly, there are an abundance of aromas and flavours from not just Wormwood but many other botanicals. The exact mix of ingredients for any vermouth are a closely guarded secret, although cloves, ginger, juniper, lemon peel, cinnamon, cardamom commonly feature. This gives a heady mix of aromas and flavours that might transport you to a cool, damp English herb garden one moment or to the intense heat of a Mediterranean spice market the next. That’s the beauty of vermouths!

Read on for more detail about the history, the practical bit (including serving, storing vermouth and what it tastes like) and last, but not least, the cocktails!

Guide to vermouth: the history

Pain vs pleasure

These days drinking gin, vermouth or other aromatized drinks is purely for pleasure. However, the tradition of adding botanicals to fermented liquids to cure aches and pains dates back to China around 1100 BC. Partly to make disgusting medicines palatable so people would actually drink them, and partly due to the healing properties of the herbs themselves. Wormwood was found across Europe and was believed to prevent certain intestinal problems before the advent of modern prescriptions. And many botanicals were said to aid digestion, likely why they were popular during the most hedonistic of Greek and Roman times.

The origin of the name

In the mid 16th Century, trade for aromatized wines kicked off in earnest in Piedmont, Northwest Italy where the distinctive herb family Artemisia Absinthium, aka Absinthe Wormwood, or just plain Wormwood, was found widely (it also grew across the border in Switzerland which is where ‘the Green Fairy’, Absinthe was first commercialized). When flavoured with Wormwood, these aromatized wines were particularly popular with the ruling classes across Europe. At the court of Bavaria the term ‘Wermut Wein’ was coined, referencing the German word for Wormwood (Wermut). ‘Wermut’ became ‘Vermouth’ as the drink was drunk increasingly in France.

Italy, the spiritual heartland vs France

The drink’s success in the area around Turin, Piedmont means it’s seen as the spiritual heartland of Vermouth. In 1786, the first commercially branded ‘Wermut’ was produced by Antonio Benetto Carpano using local Moscato grapes and a high-quality neutral spirit that allowed the character of the botanicals to shine through. Other Italian names now gracing our bars followed Carpano’s lead: Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Cocchi and others. They mostly made a style of vermouth that was dark in colour (either from the addition of local red wines or caramel) and sweet to the taste.

The use of Wormwood and other botanicals to flavour spirits was just as popular in France as in Italy. They were both natural homes for vermouth production given the plethora of their vineyards. Plus, they have proximity to Alpine mountain herbs and to spices traded via Mediterranean ports. In 1813, the first recipe for French vermouth was recorded in the south of France by Joseph Noilly, of Noilly Prat fame. The combination of ageing the wines in oak casks and in the open air by the coast created a deep yellow colour. This added to a distinctly herbal taste from the number of botanicals used. It was made in a ‘dry’ style and therefore contrasted with the sweet, rich, reddish Italian character. The dry style took hold in France, with Dolin (at Chambery, Savoie, close to the Swiss border) being another famous name that you may recognise today.

Cocktails a gogo!

Vermouth had became a drink to enjoy rather than one to tolerate for its medicinal benefits. But, it appeared to be defined by what it was not: not exactly a wine, not exactly a spirit with 40% alcohol (meaning more longevity on the shelf), nor having the efficiencies of a modern-day medicine. Its identity was reinvented by bartenders across Europe and America who used vermouth as an ingredient in cocktails.

A classic was the Milano Torino cocktail, a blend of Punt e Mes sweet vermouth from Torino and Campari (a bitter liqueur) from Milan. This was watered down with soda water by American soldiers stationed in Italy. Thus the cocktail became known as the Americano. The Italians by contrast wanted something with more oomph; in 1919, a bartender in Florence added gin to a Milano Torino. This was at the request of a guest named Count Camillo Negroni**, and thus the Negroni was born.

Meanwhile in America, the Manhattan (using the native Bourbon alongside a sweet vermouth) and Boulevardier (substituting the Gin in a Negroni for Bourbon) were also becoming fashionable. You can find the recipes for some of these classics below.

Guide to vermouth: the practical bit

How do the different vermouths taste?

Colour

The white vermouths tend to be a light to medium yellow colour and the Roses are unashamedly pink. The Rossos or reds are actually more amber or brown than red in colour, as it’s usually caramel that adds colour and body to this style.

Aroma

Tens of different botanicals, whether herbs, spices or fruit peels, mean the aromas on a vermouth are endlessly fascinating. A cool, herbal note from wormwood, oregano or sage for example, plus cleansing citrus or warmer, spicier notes from cinnamon, cardamom or vanilla as in the case of Carpano’s Antica Formula Rosso. Vermouth is never ever dull! The Knightor Dry White Vermouth is packed with scents and smells from 31 different botanicals, many of which are grown on their own estate in Cornwall. They include wormwood, cardamom, cinchona (quinine), liquorice and orange peel, all of which make an inviting aperitif over ice, or an aromatic addition to a cocktail.

Palate: the wine & spirit

75% of aromatized wines, including vermouths, has to be original base wine itself, fermented from wine grapes. There is, therefore, a ‘wine-y’ quality to all styles of vermouth, although acidity and tannin are moderate compared to many wines. The addition of a spirit means extra alcohol in the vermouth (they are legally between 14.5% and 22% abv, although 15-17% is more common). The added alcohol gives more body and a tiny warmth at the back of the throat, but at 15% this is barely noticeable.

Palate: guide to dry v sweet styles of vermouth

Choose a dry (or extra dry such as Noilly Prat) vermouth if you like a more intense, crisp, dry style, which is usually lighter in body. Or, a (semi-)sweet vermouth for a mellow, fruitier, sweet and rounded style. The Knightor Sweet White Vermouth (simply labelled White Vermouth) is full and sweet on the finish. In common with most vermouths, it avoids being cloying or heavy due to the abundance of herb and spice botanicals used, which provide balance, structure and a slightly bitter, refreshing feel to counter the sweetness. It’s extremely moreish either on its own over ice or with soda and ice as a spritz.

Technically, the driest style of vermouth is Extra-dry (under 30 grams of sugar per litre), followed by Dry (under 50 grams of sugar per litre), Semi-dry, Semi-sweet or Sweet. Sweet vermouths (whatever the colour) are over 130 grams per litre, roughly the same as a Sauternes or other rich, dessert-style wine. Again, you will not notice the sweetness as much as a Sauternes, given the balancing effect of the herbs.

Palate: rosso a.k.a. red vermouth

Red vermouths make a great digestif wine, and not just because of the medicinal properties of the botanicals used….The rosso style is sweet so it suits the end of a meal, particularly when served over a large ice cube. They also tend to be slightly mellower than the white vermouths, with notes of caramel and spice.

The Knightor Rosso Vermouth has a mellow, rich, bittersweet finish. 15 different herbs and botanicals are added as part of the infusion, including wormwood, sage and aniseed, and there are also notes of bitter orange, juniper and caramel. It’s not as full or dense as a Vermouth di Torino (the official designation of sweet red vermouths produced in the heartland of Turin, Piedmont, Italy) and for us that is the advantage. It’s just a little less intense than Cocchi’s Vermouth di Torino, for example, and gives a little lightness to the otherwise dense texture of a Negroni. 15% ABV.

How to store vermouth?

Unopened, your vermouths will lasta year or two with ease. You can keep them for longer but there will be a gradual deterioration in quality. Keep them as with other wines at 10-13 degrees C if possible, or otherwise as close to this as possible and away from direct light.

Opened, pop your vermouth in the fridge and it will last 4 weeks.  

How to serve vermouth?

Straight, over ice

Serve vermouth as the traditional aperitif in a whisky tumbler over one large ice cube. The Italians would frequently use dry vermouth for this purpose.

The red works well served over ice as a post-meal digestif. At c. 15%, it’s lighter than whisky or brandy, with a touch of sweetness and plenty of flavour and depth. Great to sip into the small hours.

The perfect spritz

No guide to vermouth would be complete without a mention of a spritz! Pour any style of vermouth over a highball full of ice. Add soda, lemon and a sprig of Rosemary or similar. We prefer the red or sweet white vermouth in our spritz but if you like a particularly dry drink, use dry vermouth and soda. If you can find a rose vermouth, this makes a delicious, and eye-catchingly pink spritz in summer!

Guide to vermouth: cocktail ideas!

There are many cocktails you can use vermouth for, both classic and contemporary. With this guide to vermouth, we hope we’ve given you some inspiration to pull out a bottle, enjoy some over ice or explore some of the superb cocktail recipes it can be used in, below…

Dry Martini (and Sweet Martini, Perfect Martini and Gibson)

1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir five parts (60ml) gin to one part (12ml) dry vermouth (or extra dry vermouth for a particularly dry drink) with ice. 3. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled glass. 4. Add a green olive or few on a stick, or a twist of lemon peel.

To make a Sweet Martini, replace the dry vermouth with sweet red vermouth and garnish with a maraschino cherry. For a Perfect Martini, use half gin, half vermouth: 45ml gin, 22.5ml dry or extra dry vermouth and 22.5ml rosso vermouth with a olives or lemon peel. To prepare a Gibson, replace the olive garnish with cocktail onions on the cocktail stick.

Manhattan (and Perfect Manhattan)

1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir two parts (usually 60ml) bourbon or rye whiskey to one part (30ml) Rosso vermouth with ice. 3. Add two dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, with another stir. 4. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled glass. 5. Add a maraschino cherry to garnish.

To make a Perfect Manhattan, replace half of the Rosso vermouth (ie 15ml if using the quantities above) with extra dry vermouth

Negroni

1. Fill an Old-Fashioned glass or whisky tumbler with ice. 2. Pour one part (usually 25ml) gin with one part rosso vermouth and one part Campari over the ice. 3. Stir. 4. Garnish with a twist of orange peel

Americano

1. Fill either a Collins or hi-ball glass with 40ml Campari, 40ml rosso vermouth and anywhere between 60 and 80ml of soda water to taste. 2. Add ice. 3. Garnish with a slice of orange

Corpse Reviver No. 1

(adapted from Diffords Guide quoting The Savoy Cocktail Book)

1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir one part (22.5ml) rosso vermouth, one part (22.5ml) Calvados, two parts (45ml) brandy with ice. 3. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled martini glass. 4. Garnish with a twist of orange peel

And a slightly messier affair:

Knightor’s Clover Club cocktail

1. Chill a coupe glass. 2. Put 10ml Knightor White Vermouth, 50ml gin, 5ml Grenadine, 1 egg white into a cocktail shaker. 3. Dry shake the mixture (without ice) in the shaker to emulsify. 4. Then add ice and shake again. 5. Strain into the glass. 5. Garnish with a raspberry

Guide to vermouth: Sources

*Drinks International, The World’s Best-Selling Classic Cocktails 2022

**diffordsguide.com/g/1078/negroni-cocktail