The Vermouth Challenge

Paul Blow

Vermouth is the sole common denominator of three of the greatest cocktails ever invented—the Negroni, the Manhattan, and the martini—and yet it’s completely taken for granted. Churchill’s apocryphal martini recipe was to pour the gin while glancing in the general direction of the bottle of vermouth, and to this day people order a vodka martini, “hold the vermouth,” in the bar where I work. It’s a huge mistake: Vermouth rounds the edges of spirits, while encouraging the flavors to come through with perfect clarity. I like my Manhattan with a 2-to-1 rye-to-vermouth ratio, and even in that great a proportion you can’t directly taste the presence of the vermouth. Yet it makes the rye taste all the better.

However, for most people vermouth is just a dusty bottle standing at the back of their liquor cabinet. Vermouth is made from wine—usually not a fine one—fortified with some neutral spirit to boost its proof and then infused with a variety of herbs. The word vermouth is actually a derivative of the German word wermut, which means wormwood, thus revealing modern vermouth’s relation to absinthe and other medicinal spirits of the Middle Ages. In fact, the practice of adding herbs to wine dates at least as far back as the Greeks, so the vermouth you pretend to put in your dry martini actually has profound historical resonance.

Today’s vermouth comes in two types: sweet and dry. Sweet vermouth is typically based on red wine, and dry is based on white. In older cocktail recipe books these were referred to as Italian and French, respectively, but these days the major vermouth houses (Cinzano, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi) all make both styles irrespective of their nationality.

There are a couple of things to know about using vermouth. For one thing, it’s a wine and thus goes flat. Because it’s fortified, it can last a few weeks in the bottle, but you can’t use a bottle of dry vermouth that’s been sitting around for two years and expect your martini to sing. I store mine in the refrigerator, which helps it taste fresh for a couple of months. There is one American vermouth made today (50 years ago there were many more), and it is a favorite among top bartenders. It’s called Vya—made in both sweet and dry—and is produced by the Quady Winery near Fresno, California. Made in small quantities, the vermouth is gentle and harmonious and excludes very bitter or astringent botanicals. I particularly like the dry Vya in a martini (proportion 3-to-1, with a shake of orange bitters).

For my Manhattans there is only one vermouth: Carpano Antica. Smoother, complexly aromatic, and perfectly off-dry, this vermouth has only become available in the States in the last couple of years. Regarded as the ancient formula of Carpano (the Italian house that also produces the more robust vermouth Punt e Mes), it doesn’t just melt into the drink, but gives it an amazing lift. Carpano Antica is similarly beatific in the Negroni.

Finally, I find it necessary to mention one product that isn’t technically a vermouth but falls into the general category. Lillet is flavored with liqueurs and other fruity essences rather than herbs, so it doesn’t use the word vermouth on its label. It comes in two varieties, Blanc and Rouge. But Lillet’s the same proof as most vermouths (40-ish) and fulfills much the same function. Try Lillet Blanc instead of vermouth in a Negroni for a slightly fruitier drink. The great beauty of Lillet, as with Carpano Antica and the Vya products, is that it can be served chilled or over ice with a twist of lemon or orange as a lovely, light apéritif.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.