WineThe Collection

Vermouth’s quality boom

A revival of historic vermouth brands and a surge of newer producers sees the aromatised and fortified wine shine. Kate Hawkings pits classic European examples against some impressive UK upstarts

Words by Kate Hawkings

Photography by Xavier Young

The Collection

Vermouth, that once-overlooked apéritif gathering dust on our granny’s shelf, is now enjoying a massive boom among the world’s drinkerati – from the reliable, mass-produced bottles that are an essential part of any back bar, to hand-crafted bottlings using top-quality ingredients.

Technically speaking, vermouth is a fortified and aromatised wine, infused with all manner of botanicals along with its defining ingredient of wormwood, long known as a digestive aid and an effective bittering agent. Approximations of vermouth were made domestically around Europe for centuries, generally taken as tinctures to prevent or cure gastric troubles. The first commercial production was in Turin in 1786, with Antonio Carpano using exotic spices then being imported from the Far East to make what we now know as Carpano’s Antica Formula. A canny operator, Carpano sent a case of bottles to King Vittorio Amedeo III, who was so impressed that he immediately made it the official drink of his court, to be taken before dinner in delicate glassware. The aperitivo hour was born, and vermouth was its star.

Shortly afterwards, dry white vermouths using local alpine herbs rather than spices were marketed in Chambéry in southeastern France, which, like Turin, was part of the Duchy of Savoy.

The Spanish also got in on the act in the 19th century, producing their favoured semi-sweet vermút. Production in these countries flourished, and brands we still know and love – including Carpano, Martini, Cinzano and Noilly Prat – cemented their status as vermouth market leaders.

noilly prat vermouth
The 'quintessential French dry vermouth' Noilly Prat remains a market leader

The birth of the cocktail scene on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw vermouth’s fortunes soar as it found its place in so many instant classics – Martinis, Negronis, Manhattans and the rest – but sales slumped in the postwar doldrums. Vermouth became frumpy until the cocktail comeback of the 1990s, when the seeds were sown for its current revival as a serious drink that deserves serious attention.

Although the UK vermouth scene is barely a decade old, there are now more than 30 producers pushing the boundaries with unconventional ingredients and techniques

Its current boom can perhaps be traced back to 2001, when Carpano recreated Antonio’s original recipe and released it as Antica Formula – just as the Negroni became the world’s most fashionable (and enduring, as it’s turned out) cocktail. There have been other recreations of old recipes that had been discontinued during the 20th century, as well as revivals of historic producers that had become moribund, all focused on the authenticity and quality that bartenders craved. Meanwhile, producers in other countries began making new vermouths, expanding the category to include styles that went way beyond the traditional definitions (such as ‘French’ = dry white, ‘Italian’ = sweet red). Now we enjoy a huge diversity of vermouth, with the market steadily growing: The Whisky Exchange, which has the largest range in the UK, reports sales up by a healthy 4% in the past year alone.

Although the UK vermouth scene is barely a decade old, it has ballooned since Sacred launched the first English vermouth in 2010. Now there are more than 30 producers here, many pushing the boundaries with unconventional ingredients and techniques.

sofia rose vermouth
Sofia Rosé comes from The Aperitivo Co, one of a wave of new UK producers reinventing the vermouth category

For this reason, I pitted the best of the British against more traditional producers, splitting the vermouths into four stylistic categories and focusing on the current trend to drink vermouth by itself with a little ice and/or a splash of soda – although any of these would also work brilliantly in cocktails, of course. There has never been a more exciting time to discover vermouth, in all its colours and all its forms, whichever way you choose to drink it.