What Is Vermouth? Your Guide to This Fortified Wine

Updated January 11, 2022
Two vermouth cocktails garnished with orange

You may think of vermouth as being more in the cocktail sphere than in the wine world, but vermouth is actually a fortified wine infused with a treasure trove of aromatic herbs, roots, barks, and spices. Depending on the type of vermouth, it can be a player in a cocktail or be the sole performer, served on the rocks.

What Is Vermouth?

The short story: base wine + distilled spirit + aromatic herbs and botanicals + sweetner (sometimes) = vermouth

Origins

Traditionally used for medicinal purposes, vermouth gets its name from the German word, wermut, which translates to wormwood, an old-school bitter component common in vermouth ages ago. In the late 18th century, vermouth made its way into the pre-dinner drink scene as an apéritif in Turin, Italy, where is became a staple in all bars. Today, it is produced in a very similar style to traditional methods and enjoyed in a whole manner of ways. First, a base wine is made and a neutral distilled spirit, such as brandy, is added to increase the alcohol content (ABV). If it is a sweet vermouth, sugar, caramelized sugar, or honey is added. Then, a lengthy list of aromatic botanicals from cardamom to citrus peel to licorice root is infused into the fortified wine. This custom blend of herbs and spices is unique to each label, and the concoction defines much of the final character of the vermouth.

Types of Vermouth

Vermouth can range from dry to sweet and can be white, blush, golden, red, or caramel in color. Its fragrances and flavor profiles vary depending on the types of botanicals, herbs, and spices used in the aromatizing process. The iconic three are the sweet red vermouth, originating in Italy, the dry white vermouth, originating in France, and the off-dry white vermouth, which is somewhere in between on the sweet scale. While these are the OG styles, there is a growing spectrum of artisan vermouths being produced today.

Flavor Profile & Characteristics

As vermouth is a fortified wine, it has an ABV ranging from 16-22%. Dry vermouth is light in color, lean, and tart, often with herbaceous and floral notes. White vermouth, often labelled in the French or Italian, blanc or bianco, is sweeter, yet it has good acidity and often expresses floral and citrus characteristics. Red, or rosso, vermouth is typically the sweetest and has a rich profile of heavily spiced and herbaceous notes as well as vanilla and caramel.

How to Drink It

Vermouth is incredibly versatile and is a key ingredient in many classic cocktails. The iconic martini is made with a splash of dry vermouth, while both a Manhattan and Negroni each incorporate sweet vermouth for that classic spiced richness. But vermouth isn't just for mixing; artisan dry and sweet vermouths can be sipped neat or over ice. Additionally, each can be served spritz style, over rocks with a splash of seltzer and a lemon twist or orange wedge. Essentially, there is no better way to enjoy your chosen vermouth than just the way you like it.

How to Store Vermouth

Because vermouth is fortified, it lasts longer than an opened bottle of wine. That being said, it is still wine, and oxidation will contribute to its deterioration over time. Opened bottles should be stored in the refrigerator and used within one to two months. Keep in mind the quality will start to diminish, so if you are only using small amounts infrequently, look to buy smaller bottles. Unopened bottles should be stored in a cool, dark place until ready for use.

From Dry to Sweet: A Few to Try

If you are most interested in setting up a basic bar and plan to primarily mix cocktails, don't splurge on a spendy artisan bottle. If you are looking for something austere to sip on, step it up a notch and start dappling in the growing number of craft vermouths. From the OG's to new-school, dry to sweet, white to red, a few names to get you started are Carpano, Dolin, Noilly Prat, Cinzano, Vya, Little City Vermouth, Lo-Fi, and Capitoline.

Getting to Know Vermouth

If your sipping, spritzing, cocktail game is falling a little flat, you are likely missing a good quality vermouth in your life. This underdog fortified wine should be a staple on your bar cart. Dive into this world and taste around to find one you are particularly jazzed about.

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What Is Vermouth? Your Guide to This Fortified Wine