Where is your vermouth?
In my ten long years working in a liquor store, that question was asked three times a day, every day. Vermouth can be a confusing category and knowing where to look for it in the liquor store is just the beginning. The next most popular question was, "What's the difference between dry vermouth and sweet vermouth?" People know where to look for the tequila or campari, but Italian Vermouth or French Vermouth for your Americano can be a little harder to spot.
Vermouth is an herbaceous fortified wine which means a spirit (usually brandy) has been added to the base wine, making the ABV higher than the base liqueur. The wine is also flavored with all sort of delicious smelling botanicals like roots, bark flowers, herbs, seeds, and spices. Depending on the recipe, you'll get aromas and flavors of chamomile leaves, coriander, bitter orange, quinine, citrus zest, cinnamon, and licorice.
Flavored, or infused, fortified spirits were originally used medicinally in practically all the ancient civilizations. Wormwood was an especially popular ingredient in the ahem medicinal drink. Mostly used to treat stomach problems, wormwood is also the way we get the name vermouth. Vermouth is the French way to say the German word wermut (wormwood).
Vermouth as we know it today began in the mid 1700s in Turin, Italy. Antonio Benedetto Carpano is believed to be the first person to write down a vermouth recipe in 1786. He's credited as the inventor of modern vermouth. The Carpano Antica Formula vermouth can be found today at many liquor stores, and is one of the best sweet vermouths around. It's fruity, savory, bitter, and sweet all at the same time.
Vermouth began as an aperitif served over ice with lemon or orange peel, but then became popular around the clock at the coolest cafes. Bartenders started playing around with vermouth, creating now classic cocktails with garnishes, and those lucky Italians were soon drinking martinis, Manhattans, Rob Roys, and of course the Negroni. Chefs joined the vermouth craze and began using it as an alternative to simple white wine.
Sweet Vermouth vs. Dry Vermouth
There are two main types of Vermouth: Sweet Vermouth (aka red, rosso, rouge) and Dry Vermouth ( aka blanco, blanche, bianco). Sweet is what goes into Manhattans and Negronis. Dry is what you use in a martini.
Dry vermouth is clear in color. Sweet vermouth gets that amber color from the carmelized sugar that is used to sweeten it. Surprisingly, dry and sweet vermouth are both made from white grapes. Popular grape varietals are Italian Trebbiano and French Picpoul. Wine laws don't regulate which grapes are used but there is one wine law that must be followed: at least 75% of the finished product must be wine to be labeled Vermouth.
The Vermouth Shelf
So lets's say you want to enter the wonderful world of dry and sweet vermouth. On the shelf, you will see some major brands like Cinzano, Dolin, Noilly Prat, and Martini & Rossi. Dolin Dry Vermouth is a nice deviation for the Sauvignon Blanc drinker. It's dry and light but with those mysterious herbaceous flavors. Dolin Sweet Vermouth is also a good introductory sweet red vermouth. It's a lighter style and doesn't overwhelm you if you're a sweet vermouth virgin.
If you're not a vermouth virgin or you just like that bitter bite of the Italian aperitif Amaro, reach for something called Punt e Mes. Punt e Mes means "point-and-a-half," and that interesting name comes from it being the same as the original Carpano recipe but with one and a half times more bitterness. The maker of Punt e Mes is owned by Carpano as well.
Sweet Vermouth for Dessert
Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino is extra dark and sweet and uses an unusual grape varietal as its base. Sweet moscato grapes are fortified with ginger, grapefruit, orange, and rhubarb among others. There are also notes of chocolate and vanilla. This comes from Piedmont region of Italy where dessert wines are done right.
Although Italy and France are the traditional countries for vermouth production, it really can be made anywhere using the herbs native to the area. This screams for those artisanal spirit producers to get in on the action. Uncouth Vermouth is made in upstate New York using local wine and fruits, vegetables, and herbs from its home farm. Rhubarb, beets, apples, and even squash have made it into winemaker Bianca Miraglia's small batches of sweet vermouth. She uses something called mugwort, which grows locally, instead of traditional wormwood.
You'll most likely see a pretty bottle called Lillet in the vermouth section. Lillet is a French fortified wine that tastes like oranges and honey but with an herby undertone. Lillet Rouge has more of a berry flavor with sweet vanilla.
Lillet is very similar to dry or sweet vermouth but there is no wormwood or bittering agent used so it falls short of technically being a vermouth. Throw it in your shopping cart anyway. It's delicious. Play around with this fortified wine as well as all the vermouths you see on the shelf, and if you can't find the vermouth section, don't hesitate to ask.