There’s a strange phenomenon in the world of booze. Let’s call it “the blinding brand effect.” Many of the products with the most possible iterations get lumped together as a single conception of flavor because one, or a few, brands dominate the market. Perhaps nothing embodies this phenomenon as much as vermouth.
Let’s look at this from two angles. On the one hand, because of how vermouth is made, the final result has nearly infinite possibilities. Vermouth is fortified wine "aromatized" with herbs, spices and botanicals added during maceration. Which herbs, spices and botanicals used, not to mention what kind of grape(s), has a monumental impact on how the vermouth turns out. So does whether or not the producer allows the wine to oxidize, and to what degree. Throw onto that aging and sweetness level, and it’s easy to see why no two vermouths are the same.
Yet, to most people, there are only two kinds of vermouth: dry and sweet. And the only brands of vermouth most people ever come across are Martini & Rossi and Dolin’s. Hence, colloquially, and outside the world of craft cocktails, vermouth is simply an ingredient in Manhattans and Martinis.
We’d like to take the time here to make very clear that we think this is shame. Well-made vermouth can not only take cocktails to new heights, but they taste incredible by themselves. Anyone who’s capped a great meal with two ounces of Carpano Antica can attest to that.
But this series is about “understanding cocktails,” so for the rest of this post we’ll focus on how to use some of our favorite vermouths.
We might as well start with the one we’ve already mentioned. To call this vermouth a gem should flatter literal gems. It’s that good. Like many of the tastiest things made by people, the exact recipe is a tightly held secret. Some of the obvious notes give hints to its construction. Vanilla bean, for instance, plays a huge role, as do some classic baking spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon. Beyond that, we can only offer conjecture.
For cocktails, this vermouth plays exceptionally well with brown liquors, particularly whiskey and brandy. It has a ton of weight, being both red and sweet, but doesn’t have much of the piney note that many Italian vermouths do. This means you don’t need much of it to dramatically shift the texture and aromas of a drink. It’s so good, though, you have no need to worry about using too much.
Capitoline Dry White
Unlike the Carpano, you can easily use too much of this one. It has such a strong and intricate herbal bouquet, that an extra quarter of an ounce can throw off a drink. And don’t let the fact that it is a white wine fool you into thinking it’s light and delicate. The skins were left in during maceration, bulking it up and adding a funky layer that’s delightful, but potent.
Accents drinks made with aromatic clear spirits, such as Gin and certain Piscos. Be wary of focusing too much on it. It performs best in the background.
Priorat Natur Vermut
This one is so much fun. It has a gorgeous amber color, meaning the producer fermented white grapes. From there, they infused the wine with “les millors herbes,” Catalan for “the best herbs.” What herbs is their secret. After this, they allowed the wine to oxidize, most likely by only filling the barrels they aged it in about two thirds of the way. This result is a sweet, silky smooth delight.
With these 3 selections, we’ve only scratched the surface of the vermouths we offer, much less the world of vermouth writ large. We encourage you to try as many as you can. A great way to do this is by hitting up your favorite cocktail bar and asking either for a taste (don’t abuse this by asking for too many), or by ordering an ounce or two neat, or with a large ice cube.
Before we get into the recipes for this installment, please keep in mind that vermouth is still wine. It will not last forever. As a rule, sweet red ones, especially ones that were allowed to oxidize a bit during production, last the longest. Even they, however, should only be kept for 3 months or so after being opened. A dry white will last a few weeks at most.
Deceptively simple, making a Manhattan well doesn’t require any special skill or dexterity. Instead, it requires that you 1) pick good ingredients 2) understand what you like. The best part about having a home bar is that you get to tailor cocktails to your taste. This can mean tweaking the ratios, adding a bit of mineral water to cut the sweetness, or picking a vermouth with more, or less, herbal qualities.
2 oz high-proof Bourbon
1 oz sweet, red vermouth - the Carpano is perfect for Manhattans
3-5 dashes Angostura bitters
Bar mixing glass - the widest glass you have will do
Bar stirring spoon - get one of these, they have many more applications than just bartending
A large ice cube - not necessary, but larger cubes melt more slowly and therefore water down the drink less as it sits
Add all ingredients except cherry and large ice cube to mixing glass. Stir vigorously for 20-30 seconds. The less you stir, the less the ice will melt and the stronger the drink will be. You don’t stir with ice simply to cool it down, you stir to add water and mix the ingredients.
Place the large cube in the rocks glass, then strain the contents of the mixing glass over it. Add cherry for garnish and serve.
Note: For experimentation purposes, think of the Manhattan recipe as a blueprint. You can replace any, or all, ingredients with something relatively similar, as long as you keep the ratios fairly similar. As an example, a “Black Manhattan” is made by replacing the vermouth with amaro. Pisco instead of whiskey, and lavender bitters instead of Angostura, is quite delicious as well.
Two Vermouths, One Stone
1.5 oz Carpano Antica Vermouth (sweeter and more decadent)
1.5 Oz Yzaguirre Red Vermouth Reserva (more herbal and bitter)
1 oz iced tea (unsweetened)
Vichy Catalan, or similar sparkling mineral water
1 lemon wedge
This is a super easy, very refreshing drink. If you want to make it boozier, add an ounce of any dark liquor before you add the sparkling water.
Build the drink by using the ounce markers on the side of the Mason jar. Start with the vermouths, then the iced tea. Add the ice, then fill to the top with Vichy Catalan. Squeeze the lemon wedge and drop it in the drink. Stir and serve.