In Defense of Drinking Vermouth

Vermouth has come a long way since its days gathering dust on back bars. That’s not to mention the regular derision from “Martini” drinkers who would ask their bartenders to give but a curt “nod toward France.”

Indeed, we are now in the midst of a vermouth revolution. The classic fortified, aromatized, oxidized wine—sweet or dry, but always boasting a telltale smack of botanical-driven bitterness—has new purchase. You can easily buy niche brands like Dolin, Vergano and P. Quiles, as well as upstarts Sutton from California and Imbue from Oregon. I often overhear mixologists debating the qualities of different vermouths for specific cocktail recipes.

But I’m here to recommend that you approach vermouth with the ultimate respect a liquor can receive: as a drink unto itself. First of all, most vermouths are perfectly balanced, complex products. Carpano Antica Formula’s unctuous sweetness is tamed by a satisfying bitter turn at the end. The overwhelming headiness of Dolin Dry’s ethereal perfume is pleasingly grounded by the nutty robustness of its palate. See for yourself: As enjoyable as they are mixed with gin, rye whiskey or Campari, these bottlings are thrillingly delicious straight.

And conveniently, you probably have an open bottle sitting around, good for moments when you don’t feel like uncorking a new bottle of wine or fixing a cocktail. Similarly, vermouth’s strength lies between those beverages, giving it a unique spot in a balanced drinking progression. And finally, that complexity and sweet bitterness gets the appetite churning.

All together, these factors make vermouth the ideal aperitif. A couple ounces in a Duralex Picardie Tumbler, with a cube of ice, is the perfect sipper while I’m cooking dinner. Or while basking in the warm light of a vanishing afternoon. Or as a quick pour while waiting at a restaurant’s bar for my late friend.

We’ve come far in learning to appreciate vermouth. Now it’s time to drink it on its own.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco-based writer and co-author of the James Beard Award-winning book Secrets of the Sommeliers.

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Comments

  1. Patrick Bolster says

    I couldn’t agree more Mr. Mackay. I am also a big fan of aromatized wines like Cocchi’s Barolo Chinato (which I am down to only a few more ounces…sigh). These beverages are like a “cocktail in a bottle” and deserve every bit of respect you have charged them with in this article. Thank you for spreading the wealth, sir!

  2. I love any cocktail with vermouth (especially the Manhattan) but have been drinking vermouth on the rocks for years. Happy to have the article’s affirmation!

  3. Andrew Quady says

    Great article Jordan…Nice to know that Vya is neither an upstart or a niche vermouth anymore. I would like to add that, in my opinion, most dry vermouths (especially Vya) need to be kept in the refrigerator after opening – because the white wine elements will oxidize, even if the wine is 17% alcohol.

  4. Vermouth is white or red wine that has been infused with a mixture of botanicals and fortified by the addition of a neutral alcohol like un-aged brandy or grain alcohol. The fact that it is fortified leads many people to believe that it is shelf-stable, that is simply not true. For a better vermouth experience, buy a high quality product such as one of the offerings from Boissiere, Noilly Prat, or Vya, and always buy from a source with high turnover. Vermouth should be used within 6-8 months of bottling or it begins to go off. Once opened, it should be stored in the refrigerator and away from light. Even when stored properly, it oxidizes like any other wine, so it is advisable to finish the bottle within a month after opening. Unfortunately, this means you should almost never order vermouth (or a cocktail containing it) in a random bar where the bottle is just sitting out and has been open for who knows how long. Find a cocktail establishment where they care about these things, or make it yourself at home.

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