What Is Vermouth?

Everything you need to know about vermouth beyond the classic martini.

bottle of dry vermouth

When you think of vermouth, most people will conjure an image of James Bond's favorite drink, the martini. Vermouth is often paired with extremely assertive flavors and astringent spirits like vodka or gin in the martini. But vermouth is full of deep and complex flavors that lend themselves to more than just a standard martini. So what exactly is vermouth, and what does it bring to the party? Glad you asked.

What Is Vermouth?

You may be surprised to hear that Vermouth is technically wine. It's categorized as a fortified wine, meaning some type of spirit is added to it to manipulate the flavor, and in this case, different herbs and spices as well. Which herbs and spices are added depends on the variety, sweet or dry. Similar to gin, each brand has its own recipe for which additives they include. Vermouth is often added to cocktails to add a herbal flavor though it can also be sipped alone as an aperitif.

Dry Vermouth vs. Sweet Vermouth

The two main types of Vermouth are sweet and dry. The dry variety is usually French, and likely the one most people are familiar with, as it's the vermouth included in martinis. It has a light, floral, and almost medicinal flavor. It's not sweet and has an overall mild flavor with an herbaceous kick.

Sweet vermouth, also known as Italian vermouth, is much more full-bodied and bolder in flavor. Dry vermouth plays a supporting role, while sweet vermouth takes center stage. It's red and has a signature sweetness with an undercurrent of warming herbs and spices.

Some red vermouth has a slight vanilla-ish tinge, making it the perfect complement to spiced rum, scotch, whiskey, and especially bourbon – dark liquors with mirroring flavors. But don't be fooled by the reddish-brown hue; all vermouth is made from white wine. The sweet variety just has additives like caramel color that change its appearance.

What Does Vermouth Taste Like?

The main notes of vermouth are bitter and herbal. Each brand and variety has its own blend of spices, herbs, and additives, but generally, you'll find spices like clove, anise, and juniper. Other less well-known additives include botanicals and bitter roots like wormwood and angelica root.

You're also likely to find various types of citrus, like the usual lemon or orange, but it wouldn't be uncommon to spot blood orange or bergamot on an ingredient list. All these flavors create complex layers and intriguing flavors that combine into a sort of bitter, kind of herbaceous, spicy, and sometimes sweet liquor.

How to Use Vermouth

Negroni Cocktail
Photo by Getty Images. Getty Images

Get the Recipe: Negroni Cocktail

Vermouth is often behind the scenes; it's like a bay leaf — you don't immediately notice it's there, but you'll definitely miss it if it's gone. If you're unfamiliar with vermouth, you might be surprised to learn it's an ingredient in some of your favorite drinks. You'll find vermouth in a martini, Manhattan, Negroni, and Rob Roy, among many others. Dry vermouth is the choice for a martini — it complements both vodka and gin.

A Negroni is a classic Italian cocktail that calls for sweet Italian vermouth. The spicier, the better when it comes to a Negroni; the flavors need to play well with assertive Campari and botanical gin. Variations on a Negroni, like an Americano or Boulevardier, also play to sweet vermouth's strengths.

Rye and bourbon-based Manhattans also call out for sweet vermouth. A spicy liquor harmonizes well with the deep, caramel-like flavors of either, especially when bitters are added to the party. The sweetness cuts right through in a pleasant way. The Bronx cocktail is an unusual drink as it combines both sweet and dry vermouth. Alongside gin and orange juice, vermouth plays an important role in this assertively botanical cocktail's flavor profile.

Where to Buy Vermouth

Vermouth will likely be available anywhere you usually buy hard alcohol and liqueurs. They can be found at designated liquor stores, whether state-run or privately run. You can also find it through some online retailers.

Martini & Rossi is one of the most famous brands, and you've likely seen their bottles at your favorite bar. They produce both sweet and dry vermouth, but they're most well known for their sweet red "rosso" vermouth. Dolin is another brand that produces both sweet and dry though this French brand is much more well-known for its dry variety. Cinzano and Noilly Prat are well known for their exceptional dry varieties.


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