The classic cocktail revival is in full swing these days, and it’s bringing vermouth back with it. For cocktail lovers, this is a very good thing.
Vermouth has been a staple bar ingredient since the cocktail era dawned in the late 19th century. In its heyday, lower-proof vermouth played a popular supporting role to stronger spirits like gin and whiskey. The classic martini (gin, dry vermouth, and bitters) and the Manhattan (whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters) are perfect examples.
Vermouth, with its delicate herbal flavors, takes the boozy edge off the gin and softens the whiskey in these cocktails, and does so without changing the drink’s structure too much (which can easily happen when you add juices or liqueurs). It dresses up the star spirit without overwhelming it. In short, it’s the perfect co-star.
But what exactly is vermouth? It’s a wine that’s been macerated with a garden’s worth of botanicals, barks, and herbs (like marjoram, mace, orange peel, and wormwood, or wermut in German, from which vermouth takes its name). This aromatic wine is then fortified (which means extra alcohol is added to it) with neutral grape spirits. The resulting drink is balanced and complex, with flavors that can range from sweet to herbal to bitter.
There are two basic vermouth styles: dry and white, or French; and sweet and red, or Italian. The geographic reference indicates the style of the vermouth. And while both styles are made from white wines, sweet vermouth gets its dark red hue from the addition of caramel.
As a general rule (and every rule has its exceptions), sweet vermouths, which are more full-bodied, sweeter, and more bitter, hold their own against brawny, aged spirits like whiskey and brandy. Softer dry vermouths are more delicate and enhance the botanicals of white spirits like gin and white tequilas or rums.