Vermouth is a beautiful marriage of wine, spirit, herbs, roots, flowers and spices, delicious sipped neat over ice, served long as a spritz and the backbone of some of the oldest and greatest cocktails such as a Martini or my favourite, the Negroni.
Vermouth is a wonderful and complex drink in its own right but unfortunately, it is often overlooked here in the UK, not so much as a cocktail ingredient but as a drink you would order by the glass to sip neat, or savour over ice with nibbles whilst enjoying the company of friends, like you might with a beautiful bottle of wine.
A misunderstood and forgotten drink...
Much of the perceptions about vermouth both as a category and as a drink stem from days gone by when not only was there a lack of choice, but vermouth was also misunderstood and would be left to sit for months, maybe years on a back bar or in dad’s cocktail cabinet collecting dust and slowly turning into vinegar. No wonder many had terrible experiences drinking it!
Vermouth is fortified wine, and needs to be treated as such - once opened Vermouth should be kept in the fridge and preferably vacuum-pumped so the air stays out and the liquid keeps its quality for longer without oxidising. Once it’s been open for a month, most vermouths will have lost their character.
In the late 60’s and 70’s right up until the Vodka boom in the 80’s, Sweet Martini or Cinzano Bianco and lemonade were pub staples, they were the equivalent of a Jack & Coke or Gin & Tonic. A lot has changed in 40 years and even more so in the last 10 but sadly, there’s still relatively few places to go in the UK to enjoy a glass of really good vermouth as you can in Europe. This is slowly changing however, and in the past 18 months there has been a renaissance in the UK and a new found appreciation for it.
Lockdown has also helped re-introduce vermouth to many home offerings too, further re-introducing the complexities of the category to discerning drinkers.
From cocktail ingredient to sipping it on the rocks.
Although I have always enjoyed Vermouth, in the early days of discovery it was mostly as part of a cocktail rather than in its own right, I have three standout moments of my realisation that vermouth was more than just a great cocktail ingredient and I wasn’t alone in enjoying drinking it on the rocks. These were the launch of Belsazar in the UK, sipping on a glass of The Collector in St John’s restaurant in Clerkenwell, and meeting Mark of Regal Rogue. The combination of these 3 things and my sheer enjoyment of their stories and the scrumptiousness of the booze made me want to dive into the history, flavours, people and world of classic Vermouth in Europe. Form there I explored the rise of Vermouth trickling in from all over the world, all whilst tasting as many vermouths as I could get my hands on here in London.
My advice when choosing a vermouth is to firstly think about how you will be drinking it and really question what you want to prioritise.
Are you looking to make a Martini or do you mostly drink Negroni’s and Manhattan’s? Do you want a couple of great all-rounders, or are you looking to sip something specific chilled on the rocks. Alternatively, are you looking for something to lengthen with soda for a low abv highball as they have been doing for decades in Italy and more recently in Spain and Germany?
I like a vermouth that will tick all the boxes above, when I see a new release or brand I will often be swayed by the grape or botanical make-up of the product. For instance if they have used a Riesling or Barolo they’ve got me!
I also have a quick look at the botanicals and spices to see if it could be a match for any of my favourite gins. We all have such different tastes and what I like you may not, so looking at the big flavour factors is a good place start selecting the right vermouth for you.
I also look for quality, and the wine used is really important especially if you want to be able to sip vermouth neat. How fresh this is, the mouthfeel, the depth of it and the complexity all play such a big role in shaping vermouth before botanicals are added. I believe the wine is the heart of the vermouth and the botanicals, spice and spirit are layers of character that mature and marry during production to enhance the wine.
Where to start?
Great examples of this are Regal Rogue who use 100% organic Australian wines from winemaker Justin Jarrett’s organic vineyards, as well as herbs and spices sourced directly from Aboriginal farmers across the country. They also use recycled glass and paper on their bottles in guidance with the aboriginal philosophy of having as little impact on the environment as possible and use around 30% less sugar than most other brands. For me they amplify everything that’s great about the resurgence of Vermouth and Aperitif’s.
I love the entire Regal Rogue range, the Wild Rosé is summer in a glass. The base is a dry Barossa rosé and to taste it's full of juicy fruit and exotic spice. The Bold Red is super dry (very unusual for red vermouths, which tend to be sweet) and uses a rich Hunter Valley Shiraz that lends winter spice and dried cherry. The Lively White is bolshy, bursting with citrus and wafts of lemongrass.
However, for me the Daring Dry Vermouth is something super special they use a grassy orange, NSW Organic Sauvignon blanc with native anise myrtle and thyme, gentian, white pepper, olive leaf and juniper. It is complex and savoury with light salty notes, dry and herbaceous. I love that I can still taste the wines grassy citrus notes intertwined into all the complex umami flavours. I like to drink it neat over ice with a couple of bright olives. It’s perfect for a wet martini married with a classic London dry, garnished with a big fat caper berry or in a highball with tonic and a bouquet of fresh thyme, sage and bay wrapped in lemon zest.
Belsazar Vermouths are another great brand that are proud to shout about the base of their vermouths, and how they use a dash of fruit brandy from the Schladerer distillery in the Black Forest. Schladerer have been producing fruit brandies using natural ingredients since 1844 and wines from the best vineyards in the region, along with a selection of extracts from herbs, spices, blossoms and husks.
The soft sweetness in the vermouths comes from adding Black Forest grapes (young wine/freshly crushed grape juice) this is refined with brandy that’s been left to mature in oak casks. All elements are then mixed during filtration and left to marry in stone carboys for a fresher finish rather than adding any other flavours by using wooden casks.
The core range is delicious, the Rosé is light and fragrant, with bittersweet pink grapefruit and delicate orange blossom. The White has subtle vanilla and stone fruit notes and Belsazar Red is bold and buoyant with rich fruit and spice. Try it in a Negroni with Sipsmith VJOP, it’s a killer! The Dry is not to my taste but I adore the Special Edition Riesling Vermouth, which is a collaboration with Dr Loosen, one of the best producers of Riesling in Germany. It’s summer in a glass. Lots of big beautiful tropical notes from the edition of pineapple and pink grapefruit and wonderful citrus-y notes from the Riesling.
The resurgence isn’t just about the newer brands and New World vermouths though, it’s about innovation and rediscovering and reviving historical recipes and showing off the incredible history of some of the oldest vermouth producers in the world. For example, the Bava family - fine wine producers in their own right - have rejuvenated the Cocchi brand.
Cocchi are based in Asti just outside Torino and produce some of the finest Vermouth in Italy. Their Storico Vermouth di Torino is my go to classic red vermouth. I love its complex spice and rich herbaceous notes, it has a slight bitterness and lovely fruity chocolate finish. It mixes with virtually any gin and is great with dark spirits. A dream at the end of the night with a couple of squares of good quality chocolate.
I’m also a sucker for the Cocchi Americano Rosa. A lovely fruity Aperitif, imagine strawberry cream soda but with a big personality and a touch of herbaceous bitterness, it makes a fabulous light negroni or spritz but I’ve spent most of the summer slurping it on the rocks and fascinating over its ever-changing flavours.
It’s worth a mention for versatility is the Cocchi Americano Bianco its bright fresh and zesty with bursts of elderflower and bright honeyed citrus and a joy with a big ice cube and lemon zest or lemon thyme garnish.
The world of Vermouth is changing and I hope I have inspired you to try your vermouth straight before mixing it into a cocktail. Just be mindful that once you start the journey you might not be able to stop...