Bianco Vermouth Climbs Out of Obscurity

Just as historic, yet not as storied, bianco vermouth has remained a relative obscurity on cocktail lists. But as softer cocktail flavors have come into focus, so has this European relic.

Once the territory of grandparents and stale liquor cabinets, vermouth has garnered the interest of a new audience in the last few years. These fortified and aromatized wines—garnet-colored, richly spiced rossos, herbaceous dry vermouths and berry-forward rosatos—are all being sipped by anyone who knows anything about good drinking these days.

But there’s one style of vermouth that, despite the category’s new golden-child status, rarely finds its way onto cocktail lists: bianco. Pale as a dry vermouth, but sweet, it’s a style that confounds the senses. It doesn’t fit anywhere except, perhaps, in those Cinzano ads from the 1970s starring Joan Collins and a load of corny jokes.

Yet beyond the rarified world of mixology, bianco is massive; the world’s biggest vermouth producer, Martini & Rossi, sells more bianco than anything else. Most of these sales are centralized in Italy, France and Spain, where it’s either sipped neat, with ice and a slice of citrus, or mixed with lemonade or seltzer. Very little of it ever sees the inside of a cocktail coupe. 

But as the bartending world’s penchant for drinks of bone-dryness and shiver-inducing bitterness has begun to make way for a new style of cocktail—one altogether more subtle and soft—that’s starting to change.

There is no legal definition for bianco (also called “blanc” or “white”) vermouth, but it’s typically the sweetest style; almost all biancos contain more than 130 grams of sugar per liter, more than twice the amount found in dry vermouth. Like the others in its category, bianco’s base is made up of at least 75 percent wine, which is then fortified, sweetened and aromatized with a botanical recipe. Classic bianco botanicals include vanilla flowers (which impart sweet, rather than spicy, vanilla notes), lemon verbena, orange peels, orris (which has a violet character), bitter dittany root and anise-forward wormwood.

French house Dolin (from the protected AOC of Chambéry) claims to have pioneered bianco vermouth in the early 19th century, while Martini & Rossi global ambassador Giuseppe Gallo claims that it was actually Italian company Gancia that got there first (Gancia, however, wasn’t commercialized until 1850). Today, Dolin, Martini (who launched its bianco in 1910) and Cinzano (a company with roots in mid-18th-century Turin) provide good touchstones for classic bianco vermouth.

More recently, several new-wave vermouth makers have begun reinterpreting the style. Germany’s Belsazar uses a gewürztraminer wine base, which lends a luxuriant, honeyed sweetness and more unctuous texture. French company La Quintinye uses local Pineau des Charentes for its blanc base resulting in a big-hitting vermouth that balances bitter spice and tea notes with the rounded succulence of orchard fruit. (More contentious is Regal Rogue Bianco from Australia, which has a fresh, herbal flavor and a sugar content that places it much closer to a dry vermouth.)

Classically, there are few cocktails (if any) that specifically call for bianco. But it can be easily swapped in for the sweet vermouth in a Negroni (as in Toby Maloney’s Polka Dot Negroni) or add a soft-focus to a Perfect Martini or, in the case of Julie Reiner’s (of Brooklyn’s Clover Club) Gin Blossom, a riff on the Martini, it acts as a bonus aromatic element.

More unexpectedly, bianco mixed with whiskey tends to play nice thanks to the vanilla and clove notes found in both. At Balthazar London, which boasts one of the best lists of fortified wines in the UK, Brian Silva makes a twist on a perfect Rob Roy using bianco, dry vermouth and blended whisky.

And, of course, bianco remains perfectly poised for sipping chilled and neat, as originally intended. At London’s aperitivo-focused Chiltern Firehouse, they offer a selection of vermouths by the glass including the fantastic Vergano Bianco, which is garnished with basil and oregano. “Bianco vermouth works well with citrus, teas and fresh herbs—like mint, makrut lime leaves, dill and shiso,” says bar supervisor Davide Zanardo. “And, believe it or not, even coffee.”

I bet Joan Collins didn’t know that.

Alice Lascelles is the liquor columnist for The Times of London and Sunday Times, and a founding editor of Imbibe, the award-winning drinks magazine for bartenders and sommeliers in the UK. She lives in London.