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An essential building block for many classic cocktails, from martinis to manhattans, vespers to negronis, vermouth continues to enjoy a welcome resurgence. It’s such a staple for mixology that it’s easy to overlook that it doesn’t need to be mixed with other spirits at all.
Traditionally produced in Italy and France, vermouth is made from wine that’s been fortified with neutral grape spirit (unaged brandy) and bottled between 16 and 18 per cent alcohol. Its real character, however, comes from flavour enhancement by various herbs, botanicals and spices, and whether it’s made in dry (typically white) or sweet styles (red or white).
Mildly bitter red vermouth is usually sweet and more closely associated with Italy: Carpano Antica Formula represents the high end, while Cinzano Rouge and Martini & Rossi hold forth as brand champions. Floral and fragrant white vermouth was popularized by French brands, such as Dolin and Noilly Prat.
Purists would insist that I explain how the honeyed and citrus-flavoured Lillet Blanc, the fortified wine brand made popular by James Bond’s Vesper Martini order from Casino Royale, isn’t technically vermouth. It contains citrus liqueur and doesn’t include wormwood, which is one of vermouth’s key botanicals and the inspiration for its name. Wormwood in German is “wermut.”
The cocktail boom and rise of craft distilling has created room for an increasing array of vermouths and other wine-based apéritifs to come to market. New and more strongly flavoured styles, including barrel-fermented examples as well as rosé expressions, have joined the ranks and added greater variety for mixologists and consumers to appreciate and explore. Because of the wide assortment of botanicals and selection of wines used in production, vermouth comes in a range of styles based on the producer’s recipe.
In Italy, Spain and France, traditionalists enjoy vermouth served chilled, on the rocks or with soda water with a twist of orange or lemon. (Having occasionally reached for the wrong can in haste, I can attest tonic water works, too.) That’s how I propose you embrace vermouth as summer rolls into fall.
Keep it simple. Keep the bottle in the fridge. (That’s always good practice as vermouth starts to oxidize after a month’s time). Leave mixing cocktails for another day. Embrace its ethereal, floral and refreshing nature, and if you’re so inclined, imagine you’re drinking with the locals in Barcelona.