It’s made from grapes, although it isn’t — strictly speaking — a wine. It’s an invaluable part of any bartender’s arsenal, but it isn’t a spirit. Vermouth inhabits its own unique (and incredibly versatile) drinks category, and Australians are increasingly taking their cues from Spain, Italy and France, where vermouth has been enjoyed as a solo drink for a long time.
Thanks to the growing trend of aperitivo hour and the continued rise of craft spirits, the vermouth renaissance is well and truly upon us. Here is how we are embracing it.
Vermouth is an aromatic fortified wine — but what does that mean? The specifications for vermouth are as follows: it is fortified, meaning its alcoholic content is enhanced, or spiked, with the addition of unaged brandy; it is aromatised, meaning steeped, macerated, or infused with a variety of botanicals (like gin, which why gin and vermouth play so well together in cocktails).
In addition, there are some regulations imposed on vermouth (within the EU at least) as to what exactly it must be aromatised with. Specifically, “true” vermouth must include wormwood – a herb also used to make absinthe – in its list of aromatics. In fact, the word “vermouth” is the French pronunciation of “vermut” — the German word for wormwood.
Vermouth has traditionally been split into two camps. Sweet vermouth usually refers to the Italian red styles, sometimes known as vermouth rosso. These are often made using catarratto and trebbiano grapes, and exemplified by the intense, rich stalwart Rosso Antico, tend to have notes of caramel tempered by the slight bitterness of wormwood, or those of dried fruit, earthy spices, and vanilla like Antica Formula vermouth. And if you’re wondering is Cinzano vermouth – yes, it’s one of the best known brands of the Italian style of sweet vermouth.
These sweet red vermouths are typically medium-bodied, with a slightly tannic edge to them, and can be anywhere from a mellow pink to a red-brown in colour. They are sweet because they have a high sugar content, usually around 15 per cent.
And what is dry vermouth? This style of vermouth is usually French and made with white grapes like clairette and piquepoul. The best known example is Dolin Vermouth Dry. White vermouth can range from clear to a straw-toned yellow in colour, and has a flowery, herbaceous, and fruity nose. It is typically only around five per cent sugar, hence its more dry profile.
The growing number of craft vermouth producers experimenting with botanicals has expanded the flavour profile and spectrum, with the range now including extra-dry whites and semi-sweet rosés. They are using various roots, barks, fruits and spices used to flavour and aromatise vermouth, infusing it with unique and complex flavour profiles.
Vermouth will keep for longer than regular wine once the bottle is opened, although it will gradually oxidise and deteriorate over time. It’s a good idea to keep your open bottle in the fridge, where it can stay in shape for up to about three months.
A bridge between wine and spirits, vermouth is best known as a key ingredient in classic cocktails such as the Manhattan, Martini and the increasingly popular Negroni. Wondering if you can use dry vermouth in a negroni? Well, the best vermouth for negroni is the sweet Italian style, but you can always give it a twist with a dry vermouth for a slightly different taste.
These vermouth cocktails have traditionally been the entry point for drinkers — since the alcohol in vermouth is only around half that of gin, vermouth is an excellent option for lighter mixed drinks
However, aficionados assert that vermouth is best served on its own, like wine, in order to appreciate its individual characteristics and complex layers of taste. Try red vermouth with just a twist of orange for a perfect late-afternoon sipper, or a dry white vermouth on ice with a slice of lemon.
For a good middle ground, look to a “long serve” of vermouth and soda with a citrus garnish. Another unique way to serve it is by enjoying it straight over frozen grapes. In all cases, be sure to add nibbles such as olives, crisps or salted nuts for the full aperitivo experience. It’s a delicious (and surprising) addition to your dinner party drinks menu.