Like aromatic cocktail bitters and amaro, vermouth has undergone a transformation in recent years, climbing from the recesses of the back bar to being anointed as an obsessed-over ingredient.
This style, with a sugar content of 10 to 15 percent travels under the names sweet, red (rosso) or Italian. It has a garnet color and is sweet, spicy and lightly herbaceous.
Vermouth con Bitter
This regional expression of Italian sweet vermouth is spiked with extra bittering agents like gentian, resulting in a more amaro-like experience. Punt e Mes, the best known example of this category, translates to “a point and a half,” referring to the ratio of sweet to bitter.
This hybrid style dials up the bitterness with a double dose cinchona bark, resulting to a style similar to quinquina. Examples include Mancino Chinato and Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro.
This style of vermouth, first produced by Joseph Noilly in the early 1800s in Marseille, France, is a contrast to sweet vermouth and more aggressive with floral and herbal notes.
France and Italy both produce this style of clear, rich, sweet vermouth, but it’s Dolin de Chambéry, from Chambéry, France, that has led the charge in building awareness for it. While it’s not called for in classic cocktails, its popularity among bartenders has increased in recent years.
Naren Young, the creative director of Dante, the aperitivo-inspired bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, has been on the front-line of this transition. “The fact that there are so many brands flooding into the market only shows that people are starting to appreciate it again,” he says. “It was probably on the brink of fading away completely if it weren’t for the Martini, Manhattan and Negroni cocktails keeping sales afloat.”
Vermouth is a low-ABV, fortified wine that is lightly sweetened and aromatized with herbs, spices and bitter botanicals. While there are distinctive styles of vermouth, the select, proprietary blends—which include ingredients like orange peel, wormwood, angelica root, coriander, clove, cinnamon, vanilla and juniper—are what give producers a unique thumbprint with each expression. Add to that a diversity in fortified wine bases and methods of production, and you have an astonishing array of expressions within the category. That’s only expanded with the boom of new brands and styles beyond the big three: sweet (rosso), dry and blanc (bianco).
“The recent cottage industry boom for vermouth has led to people awakening to the idea of it,” says Will Elliott, bar director of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere and Sauvage. “For years and years, it was seen as an accouterment to the Martini and Manhattan. It was stored and cared for improperly [and] people were drinking turned, spoiled vermouth and didn’t know it.”
In addition to being put to use in spiritous classic cocktails, vermouth has played pivotal role in the resurgence of low-ABV drinks. “Vermouth is a great tool in the bartender arsenal to use as a base for low-proof cocktails,” says Ezra Star, general manager of Drink in Boston. “Having more brands available gives us more options.”
So where to begin with all of the vermouth options out there? I reached out to a number of bartenders to gather their insights to help navigate the vermouth section of your local bottle shop, and to spotlight some of the essential brands in each category (plus ways to put them to use them cocktails).
Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino
Nearly every bartender I checked in with considers this a standard bearer in the sweet vermouth category. Based on a historic recipe from 1891 and re-introduced in 2011, it’s a mellow yet never cloying blend of botanicals with rich notes of tobacco, leather and dried fruit. “This is my one go-to for most all cocktails,” says Brady Sprouse, bar manager for Seattle’s Barnacle and The Walrus and the Carpenter. “There’s enough body to really bring life to a Manhattan, but it’s still light enough to not overpower a Negroni. Elliott is also a fan: “It is rich, broad shouldered, nutty and has strong notes of candied fruit [and] tends to play well with more bitter, herbal elements.”
- Price: $20
Carpano Antica Formula
Based on a vintage recipe from 1786, Carpano Antica Formula hails from the house that invented sweet vermouth and stands out as one of the bolder expressions of the style, noted for its strong vanilla notes. “I prefer the body and dark complexity of Carpano Antica anywhere sweet vermouth is called for,” admits Lauren Corriveau, head bartender of New York’s Nitecap. “The flavor profile—cacao nib, orange peel, dried cherry—is assertive enough to balance a bonded whiskey or a citrus-forward London dry gin. While it’s a favorite among bartenders, the assertiveness of the Antica Formula is something to consider when deciding which sweet vermouth is right for a mixed drink. Charlotte Mirzoeff, bar manager of Marta in New York, is cautionary in her respect of the historically inspired vermouth. “While I think it’s a little too aggressive for most cocktails, its super delicious on its own.”
- Price: $29
The "House Blend"
One commonly practiced method among bartenders is making a house sweet vermouth blend by combining equal parts Carpano Antica with another sweet vermouth. Nicholas Bennett, head bartender at Porchlight in New York does just that with Carpano Antica and Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino: “We found that our cocktails were better with the added vanilla from the Antica Formula, but the cocoa and citrus from the Cocchi were still very necessary for many classic cocktails.” At Toby Cecchini’s Long Island Bar, in Brooklyn, the house Boulevardier (considered by many to be among the best in New York), splits the rye component (Rittenhouse and Old Overholt) as well as the vermouth (Carpano Antica Formula and Cinzano). Bartender Tim Miner told me, “the Carpano Antica can be a bit of a bully—by cutting it with the Cinzano it softens its iron grip on the flavor of a cocktail.”
Miner also added that cutting with the Cinzano Rosso was cost effective, as the stalwart brand rings at roughly a quarter of the cost of Carpano Antica Formula. Star is also a fan, and Mirzoeff admits that she reaches for the Cinzano on its own, at least when it’s a question of volume. “If you’re bottling cocktails, barrel-aging or entertaining a lot of people (like a hundred), this vermouth is cheap and versatile,” she says. Meanwhile, Cinzano 1757 Rosso, a limited-run production first released in 2015 as a tribute to the anniversary year of Cinzano’s founding in Turin, Italy, is a go-to for Young.
- Price: $8
Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Dry
The proper proportion of vermouth to gin in a Martini can be a deeply personal matter, but more often than not, bartenders are reaching for Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Dry when they want a classic French vermouth. “It represents a style of dry French vermouth,” says Elliott, “and is more suited to clean, mean Martinis and Martini variations where people don’t want something chewy. It offers a razor-thin, sharp drinking experience.” Corriveau is firm where she stands on the topic: “I would not make a Martini with any other dry vermouth.
- Price: $17
Bianco / Blanc Vermouth
Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry
The clear to straw-colored category of vermouth may look like their dry cousins, but they come onto you with a sweet and aromatic French kiss, especially Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry whose number seems to be in the little black books of most bartenders. It plays both sides of the sweet/dry equation, and Elliott praises it for its “great balance of sweet and bitter that translates very well into cocktails, or can be enjoyed on the rocks with a lemon twist.”
- Price: $15
An equally compelling expression of this style is the Contratto Bianco from Piedmont, Italy. “I love the Contratto line, but their Bianco, especially, is really fun to play with,” says Mirzoeff. “It carries more of a stone fruit character that’s perfect in the fall with fresh herbs. Serving it on the rocks with a sprig of rosemary is tight.”
- Price: $28
Flavored with ginger, cloves and hyssop, Carpano Bianco is a favorite of Amor y Amargo head bartender Max Green, who describes it as “lush and floral, with a very rich mouthfeel.” Corriveau admires it for its “minty, pleasantly floral, bright citrus notes,” adding, “it’s a little more intense than other blanc vermouths. I like it in a spritz where the bubbles help to lift the aromatics up and out of the glass.”
- Price: $17
Of the many new releases from established brands and small-batch vermouth makers, Brooklyn’s Uncouth Vermouth is consistently singled out among bartenders as the one to seek out. Founder Bianca Miraglia creates limited-edition releases using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients to produce a diverse range of flavors such as Beet Eucalyptus, Apple Mint, Wild Raspberry and Butternut Squash. Elliott admires that Miraglia’s compositions “are really off the beaten path. She is making vermouth in an intentional style, and is not following the rules.”
Vermouth del Professore Classico
Inspired by the house vermouth served at the Jerry Thomas Speakeasy in Rome, the Vermouth del Professore line is produced at Antica Distilleria Quaglia, outside of Turin, Italy. Sprouse is particularly fond of the Vermouth del Professore Classico, calling it a “dry-bianco hybrid with a faint wave of sweet vermouth.” He recommends trying it in an Old Pal cocktail. “It’s super complex with a strong wormwood nose, lots of gentian and aromatic spice like cinnamon and clove.”
- Price: $31
Atsby was created in New York by Adam Ford, also the author of Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit that Created America’s Cocktail Culture. The small-batch Armadillo Cake Vermouth in particular expertly bridges a sweet and bitter finish.
Channing Daughters VerVino Vermouth
Hailing from Channing Daughters Winery in Bridgehampton, New York, the line of VerVino Vermouth is produced in select, seasonal, limited-run batches.
One of the original New American vermouth brands out of Portland, Oregon, Imbue offers Bittersweet, Classic Dry and Petal & Thorn, each a complex blend of botanicals with competing personalities.