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Vermouth is on fire: in the mix, on the rocks and even served neat

Joel Harrison explains why, when it comes to vermouth, one bottle simply isn’t enough – the true cocktail connoisseur will need a selection in their collection, and everyone else should keep a bottle on ice for the summer months ahead

Words by Joel Harrison

glass of red vermouth on ice

If bottles of booze were measured on ‘smiles per litre’, then at the top of my list would be vermouth. Much underrated, maybe much misunderstood, vermouth is a vital part of any cocktail cabinet, key to classics such as the Negroni and Martini – yet it can also be enjoyed perfectly well on its own.

Vermouth is a fortified wine (that is, wine that has had spirit added to it, an ancient trick that helps prolong the life of wine), which has been flavoured with botanicals, herbs and spices. Specifically for vermouth, it must include one herb from the artemisia wormwood family. For those of you who are new to the world of wormwood, it comes with quite the reputation. One specific variety, ‘artemisia absinthium’ (grand wormwood), lends its name – and vicious reputation for hallucinogenic effects – to another drink in which it is found: absinthe. Thankfully, the days of absinthe being considered loopy juice are over. But there are plenty of reasons to go crazy for wormwood’s inclusion in vermouth instead.

wormwood absinthe
At least one herb from the 'artemisia wormwood' family must be included in the making of vermouth

Historically, vermouth hails from the regions around the north of Italy and the south of France, with three key styles made: white (bianco), dry, and sweet. Traditionally white vermouth is just that – bright-white and see-through – with dry vermouth being a little more flinty in colour. Sweet vermouth, however, is a tawny-red hue.

When it comes to brands, possibly the most famous is Martini; also the name of a cocktail which calls for the use of dry vermouth. This Italian brand has become the market leader, extending its range from the core of white, dry and sweet, to two premium versions of dry and sweet vermouth, called Riserva Speciale – as well as a fantastic bittersweet orange version, Fiero.

el bandarra vermouth rose
El Bandarra's rosé vermouth: 'utterly, utterly delicious'

Alongside Martini, there’s Punt e Mes, Noilly Prat, Dolin, and Antica Formula, all producers that should be on your list to explore if you haven’t already done so. A great way to spend an afternoon is to choose a cocktail to which vermouth is key, and experiment with how different brands can bring different flavours to the party (note: this is best done with friends). See, for example, how a sweet vermouth such as Antica Formula can bring a bolder, dark chocolate and ripe cherry note to a Negroni, over the almost smoky notes from Cocchi’s version.

It is in the humble Martini that the choice of vermouth is most stark. Here, the dry style can have a big impact on your chosen gin; I find Noilly Prat brings an oaky note to the glass, whereas Martini’s Riserva Speciale Ambrato adds a peachy tone to the drink.

Today, vermouth has matured into a drink that is both mixable and quaffable on its own

Today, vermouth has matured into a drink that is both mixable and quaffable on its own. To my mind, rosé vermouth is as easy and pleasurable to drink on its own as any of the canon of Provençal wines of the same colour – and it mixes incredibly well with pink gin into a Pink Martini (50/50 gin to vermouth, with a frozen white grape in place of an olive for garnish). Versions of rosé vermouth can be found by innovative New World producers such as Australia’s Regal Rouge, and Spain’s El Bandarra, the latter made using a rosé Grenache wine, which is then macerated with red fruits and herbs including thyme and rosemary. Utterly, utterly delicious.

Regal Rogue rose vermouth in glass
Regal Rogue rosé vermouth: 'To my mind, rosé vermouth is as easy and pleasurable to drink on its own as any of the canon of Provençal wines of the same colour,' says Joel Harrison

This focus on a quality base wine is partly why a revolution is underway in vermouth. Take Germany’s Belsazar who recently collaborated with fine wine legend Ernst Loosen to produce a limited edition vermouth based on the Riesling grape and flavoured with homegrown botanicals as well as dried pineapple from the Azores. Now tell me you don’t want a glass of that, ice cold and served neat?

This is serious winemaking, with results that are perfectly quaffable straight from the fridge on a warm day, or brilliant mixed into anything from a Martini to a Manhattan. And you needn’t be in a hurry to finish a bottle once open – the joy of a fortified wine being that it’ll keep in the fridge for at least a month, if not longer. But once you start to enjoy the smiles per litre of a good vermouth, I doubt your bottles will last that long anyway.

What Joel Has Been Drinking…

  • Ardbeg is one of the cheerleaders of Scotch whisky from the island of Islay, famed for producing smoky single malts. The distillery has an avid following and each year releases a limited-edition experimental whisky. This year’s release is called Ardcore, and uses roasted burnt black malt that delivers notes of charcoal and sweet smoke with chocolate. If you like smoky whisky, you’ll love this.
  • I’ve developed a bit of thing for the classic ‘Collins’ cocktail of late. A refreshing mix of gin, lemon juice, sugar and soda water it is so simple to make, and even more simple to drink. I’m currently using Sipsmith’s Lemon Drizzle gin to up the citrus notes, making for the ultimate palate cleanser before dinner.
  • Scotland is known for top-quality distilling, and this is evident not just in the whisky produced there, but also in the gins. The Glenrinnes Distillery in Speyside, the heartland of Scotch whisky country, produces a first-rate gin and an amazing Scottish vodka. Both organic, both delicious, and both from a distillery that is focused on making only white spirits, it shows that Scotland isn’t just about Scotch; it’s all about flavour.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.