The One Bottle for Your Home Bar That Makes All the Difference
(Bloomberg) -- Odds are you already have a few bottles of spirits in your home bar. Although in these stay-at-home times, if you want to coax a wider variety of better-quality cocktails out of them, there’s one more that you’ll need to buy: vermouth.
Vermouth—wine fortified with brandy or another neutral spirit and flavored with roots, herbs, or spices—is the critical ingredient needed for martinis, Manhattans, Negronis, and a wide range of other drinks. No vermouth, and it’s not a Martini; it’s just a glass of cold gin.
Personally, if I don’t have it, I feel limited. And when I do have it, I’m back in business. If I have both dry and sweet vermouth in my fridge, I feel like a queen.
“Vermouth is great because it is complex without being overwhelming and brings great texture without being sticky sweet,” says Toby Maloney, head mixologist at celebrated Chicago bars the Violet Hour and Mother’s Ruin. In addition to mixing a sweet vermouth like Carpano Antica into strong-and-stirred standards like the rye-whiskey-based Vieux Carre, he uses it in more unexpected places, too, such as a splash of Dolin Blanc to add complexity to a Paloma alongside tequila and grapefruit soda.
Long a part of cocktail culture, vermouth traces its roots to Europe’s winemaking regions. Traditionally, Italian (aka red or sweet) and French (aka white or dry) were the core varieties, but those boundaries have blurred, with great vermouth from Spain, the U.S., and beyond (not to mention excellent dry Italian and sweet French bottlings). But the word vermouth comes from Germany: vermut, meaning wormwood, the bitter herb once used to flavor it. (You may also recognize it as the psychoactive component of absinthe.) Today it’s not always used, as modern consumers tend to prefer a more easy-drinking profile.
Vermouth first became a regular feature at American bars in the late 1800s, according to cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, writing in the revised edition to his book Imbibe! “This ‘vino vermouth,’ as it was known, enjoyed enough of a reputation for Delmonico’s and the Metropolitan Hotel to carry it on their wine lists.” It wasn’t until the 1880s and ’90s, though, that it really took off, first with the help of the Manhattan and then with the martini. And then, as the new century opened, it began to appear “in just about everything.”
Today vermouth increasingly takes center stage, especially as many are seeking out lower-alcohol cocktails. When Wildhawk opened in San Francisco in 2016, it was arguably the first vermouth bar, offering specialty bottlings and pages of vermouth-forward cocktails, such as the Sichuan, a drink featuring amber vermouth, Amontillado sherry, and orange Curaçao, plus a dose of spicy Sichuan pepper. (In my opinion, amber vermouth, with its bittersweet flavor profile, is the most versatile bottle to keep on hand: It can meld seamlessly into drinks that call for dry or sweet varieties.)
Still not sold? Bartenders warn that treating your bottle right can make all the difference.
“I will guarantee you that most if not all of the people who think vermouth is gross have never actually tasted good fresh vermouth,” insists John deBary, former bartender for PDT and Momofuku Ssam Bar, both in New York. In his forthcoming book Drink What You Want (Clarkson Potter; June 2), his signature martini includes a full ounce of vermouth—preferably Dolin Dry—to 2 oz. of gin.
“Vermouth is essentially wine,” he adds, “so once you open it, you should treat it the way you would an open bottle of wine.” That means it should be stashed in the fridge, where it will keep for a couple of weeks. If you don’t go through vermouth quickly, some producers offer smaller bottles (Dolin, Carpano, Noilly Prat), which means less opportunity for spoilage, so snap them up if you see them.
Already have an open bottle that’s been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long? Toss it out and start over with one of these instead.
Eight Vermouths to Try
A veritable rainbow of vermouths is available these days, from dry to honeyed (but still relatively dry) blancs/biancos, all the way into sweet vermouths that span from light to rich and spiced. And in the middle, there’s tawny, bittersweet amber/ambrato. A few bottles to mix—or not:
Dolin Dry; Dolin Blanc (France): For those who love a bone-dry martini, the dry is the way to go, while the versatile blanc offers subtle citrus and vanilla.
Imbue Dry (U.S.): Made in Oregon, it’s easy-drinking with mild honeysuckle and fresh apple notes.
Lustau Bianco (Spain): An unusual sherry-based vermouth, this adds complexity to a martini. One of Pursuits’ Best Spirits of 2017.
Mancino Bianco Ambrato (Italy): Mouthwatering tropical fruit and the light bitterness of grapefruit peel mark this pale gold option. For a true one-bottle bar upgrade, go for this.
Noilly Prat Rouge (France): This is herbaceous and on the lighter side of the sweet vermouth spectrum.
Carpano Antica (Italy): On the other, richer side of the sweet vermouth spectrum, its dried fruit, cocoa, and spices give weight to Manhattan variations.
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (Italy): A specific style made in Piedmont, this lush sweet vermouth is ideal in a Negroni, and pleasing to sip straight up, too.
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