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The Revival of Sherry-Based Vermouth

In recent years, Spain’s rekindled love affair with vermouth has encouraged the return of sherry-based Vermut de Jerez. Here, the history of the style, plus three bottles that offer a look at this old-meets-new category.

Vermut de Jerez Sherry Vermouth

In the 1950s, a visitor strolling along the palm-lined streets of Spain’s Jerez de la Frontera would likely have ended up in a tabanco, one of the city’s traditional bars. Then, the go-to drink order—just as it is today in this corner of Andalusia—was sherry. But for something a little different, that visitor might’ve asked for a vermouth, specifically one built on a base of sherry and infused with a mix of botanicals, like Seville orange peel or wormwood.

Today, the thought of picking up a vermouth in sherry country sounds like something of an alien experience; sherry-based vermouths haven’t really existed for decades. A century ago, however, they were commonplace: vermouth production in Jerez ramped up in the late 1800s, playing off the success of Italian vermouths like Martini & Rossi, and traditional Spanish brands based in the Catalonian town of Reus.

Aged for years in the warm, salty air of coastal Andalusia, sherry (an Anglicization of “Jerez”) takes on a bracing, salty, mineral and sometimes nutty intensity. So “Vermut de Jerez”—basically, finished sherry macerated with a blend of herbs and spices—is a far cry from the fruity, easy-drinking vermouths more common in the north of Spain. Generally based on amontillado or oloroso, sweetened with PX and aged in the solera system, it exhibits many of the savory complexities of its base wines.

“Until the 1960s, Jerez was making a lot of vermut,” says Jan Pettersen of Rey Fernando de Castilla, a Norwegian who purchased and renovated the bodega in 1999. “All sherry houses would do a vermut based on good sherry. Then vermut slowly went out of fashion.”

The revival of Vermut de Jerez has been quite sudden; in the past year, three bodegas have not only developed sherry-based vermouths, they’ve brought them into the United States. Part of this is thanks to the influence of bartenders, who, in recent years, have reclaimed sherry as a popular ingredient in cocktails.

The other factor is the rekindled Spanish love affair with vermouth, which has seen something of a revival in recent years. For Pettersen, the timing couldn’t have been better: “We launched our vermouth in June [of] last year,” he says, “and it is currently our number-one-selling product in Spain.”

Three Sherry-Based Vermouths to Try

González Byass La Copa Vermouth

To formulate a vermouth for the modern era, cellar master Antonio Flores and his team didn’t have to make much of an effort; they simply reverted to a formula they found in the bodega’s archives (La Copa was originally produced from 1896 to 1926). Today, it’s made just as it was then, using a combination of rich oloroso and sweet PX sherries with an average age of nine years in solera, then macerated with wormwood, clove, orange, cinnamon and nutmeg. It’s a noticeably sweet yet spicy vermouth, with a warm, clove-studded orange flavor. It’s likely the first of a number of iterations: González Byass is currently delving further into the company archives, working on a white vermouth and a richer, barrel-aged reserva.

  • Price: $27
  • ABV: 15.5 percent

Lustau Vermut

While guided by historical recipes, Lustau’s vermouth is a modern creation, the result of a year of trial and error undertaken by Fernando Pérez, the master distiller for Lustau’s parent company, and Lustau cellar master Sergio Martinez. They settled on a base of amontillado and PX sherries, individually aged for almost ten years, then macerated with ten botanicals, including cinnamon, ginger, orange peel, gentian, sage and nutmeg. The result is more herbal and bramble-y than the La Copa, with an amaro-like gentian bitterness that makes it a bracing aperitif, best served on ice.

  • Price: $20
  • ABV: 15 percent

Fernando de Castilla Vermut

With 27 botanicals in the mix, the Fernando de Castilla combines root-y bitterness and warm Christmas spice with a layered, garam masala-like savoriness. Like La Copa, it’s a blend of PX and oloroso sherries, aged an average of eight years. It’s the sort of vermouth you might chill and then serve neat—though, like the other two, it has plenty of cocktail applications.

  • Price: $20
  • ABV: 17 percent

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Luke Sykora is a senior editor and wine critic at Wine & Spirits Magazine, focusing on California wine from his home base of San Francisco. His writing has also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, DRAFT, Tasting Table and Rain Taxi Review of Books.