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Guide to vermouth

Vermouth is the one alcoholic beverage you’ve probably known the least about even, though it’s been in a whole lot of cocktails you already love.

If you ever get seriously into mixology — or the fine art of mixing cocktails — you will very soon come to learn just how indispensable vermouth can be. Far beyond its use in the classic Vodka Martini, you may well be surprised that you’ve tasted it as an essential flavoring in the recipes of your favorite professionally crafted concoctions.

Believe it or not, if you enjoy a good Manhattan, Negroni, Rob Roy or Gibson, you definitely have some kind of vermouth to thank for it. And if you haven’t enjoyed some straight-up as an aperitif, you are missing out. But most people don’t even know what it is they are drinking: What is vermouth, anyway?

Most folks probably assume it’s some kind of liquor, but they’d be wrong. Far from being a distilled spirit, vermouth is in fact a fortified white wine. Fermented for a short time using grapes such as Piquepoul and Trebbiano, neutral-flavored alcohol (usually clear grape brandy) is used to boost the ABV.

It’s also an aromatized wine, infused with various herbs and spices like coriander, ginger, cloves and (historically) the wormwood root — which is where the elixir derives its very name (or “wermut” in the original German). But to really understand this often-misunderstood drink, we must explore it some more.

Sweet sips, dry lips

While Martinis are very popular for their dryness, incorporating dry vermouth in perhaps its single most famous use (especially in America), there are in fact three types: Dry vermouth, red vermouth (also known as rouge vermouth) and blanco vermouth. In order, they go from dry to sweet and bitter (red), to the middle of the road sweet (blanco).

Sugars are added to the sweeter varieties — up to 15% for the reds, which also infuse botanicals in order to attain their distinctive color. These are easier on the palate, with a subdued bitterness taking a back seat to fruit. Dry vermouth adds no sugar, hence its more herb-like finish. This has a delightful cutting bite, bringing forth a fully herbal flavor coveted by connoisseurs.

As you may have already guessed, the sweeter vermouths end up in sweeter cocktails. Reds end up in Manhattans and Negronis. We already know that dry vermouth is a favorite not only in Vodka Martinis but is also splashed in gin variants of the drink as well as a pairing for tequila.

As for blanco vermouth, it’s a favorite for sipping on the rocks, although some bartenders will use it in place of red vermouth to make the same style of drinks with a less saccharine signature. And then there is one that is in a class all by itself: Vermouth di Torino. Hailing strictly from Piedmont, using only Italian wine as its base (typically Moscato) and employing only choice Piedmont herbs for the coveted “superior” category of the variety.

Try for yourself

Classic Negroni

  • 1 oz gin
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • Ice
  • Garnish: orange peel (optional)
  • Preparation: Mix gin, Campari and sweet vermouth in an ice-filled mixing glass stirring until it is properly chilled. Strain mixture into a tumbler filled with ice cubes. Add orange peel or wedge for garnish (optional).

    Classic Vodka Martini

  • 2 1/2 oz vodka
  • 1/2 oz dry vermouth
  • Green olive (optional)
  • Garnish: lemon peel (optional)
  • Ice
  • Preparation: Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Mix vodka and vermouth, shaking vigorously until chilled throughout. Strain out ice, pouring the mix into a martini glass, garnish lemon peel (optional). Spear olive with toothpick and drop into the glass (optional).

    Lots to love

    Whether you’re drinking vermouth straight to enjoy its full taste or adding it to enhance your favorite cocktail, the surprising range and use for this unique wine is worthy of many tastings. Not only that — vermouth is a great ingredient for cooking, too.

    Any recipe that calls for white wine could find a vermouth substitute for a stunning flavor enhancement. This wonderful, underrated beverage is having a moment — it’s time for you to partake in it!
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