Ask an American winemaker how they wound up in the business of making vermouth, and most of them will respond by saying the first step was figuring out what exactly vermouth is in the first place.
For a long time, Americans have pretty much ignored the storied category of fortified wines, relegating a French dry or Italian sweet to a dash in a Martini or a dram in a Manhattan. Meanwhile, over the pond, vermouth has played a role in the tapestry of European culture. Originally consumed as medicinal tonics in the late 1700s, Carpano, Cinzano, and other historic brands are still enjoyed on the rocks with a citrus peel before or after dinner across the continent.
But over the last decade or so, a new set of American producers have turned their attention to vermouth, with flagship brands like Vya, Imbue, and Atsby paving the road for others to impart their own interpretations and local flavors onto the style.
Unlike in Europe, there are very few regulations surrounding vermouth production in America. The biggest distinction? The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau doesn't require the bittering agent wormwood to be present in the recipe, simply stating that the liquid must smell and taste like vermouth to bear the name. Outside of requiring a wine base, neutral spirit fortification and an assortment of herbs, spices, and other botanicals, the nuances and recipes are left up to the producer's imagination. Thus, the category is open to individual interpretation. Very few resemble their European counterparts, focusing instead on a wide swath of indigenous flavors, aromas, and colors that speak to where they are made and who makes them.
Of course, not all these newbies are on the money: we tasted our way through more than 20 examples, and some bottlings we tried had a lot of promise but were too bitter and one-dimensional to stand up to the complexities of the competition, while others featured overwhelmingly conflicting botanicals, resulting in a tailspin of strange mismatched flavors. (Of course, new batches are being made all the time, and next year's recipe might be a winner.)
Wondering which new American vermouths to buy? Here are our favorites: 12 delicious new-school American vermouths that are pushing style boundaries with a playful sense of irreverence and unique American sensibility.
Hammer & Tongs L'Afrique Vermouth Vin Aromatique
By far the most expressive vermouth coming out of the American market right now hails from Patrick Taylor, owner of Portland-based Hammer & Tongs. The Syrah-based L'Afrique ($34.99 for 750 mL) is a big, round sweet vermouth blossoming with botanicals like kola nut, turmeric, kava kava, and fresh bergamot sourced from West and North Africa. While those ingredients paint an exotic picture, the taste is grounded in American roots. Based on Taylor's childhood memories of playing in the forest, lush black cherry and tart black currant flavors intermingle with earthy, dry cedar and chocolate elements, creating a body that closely resembles the richness of a fine port. Complicated layers unfold at room temperature, so there's no need to tarnish the experience with ice. Sip it neat to get the full scope of its complexity, and savor the long, endearingly sweet finish.
Hammer & Tongs Sac'Resine Fine Vermouth
The second vermouth in Taylor's armory goes by the name Sac'Resine ($39.99 for 750 mL), a floral and citrusy blend with a Pinot Blanc foundation, also best enjoyed neat. This golden-hued vermouth took inspiration from childhood trips to the Santa Barbara Mission, so it is laced with strongly incense-like botanicals including frankincense and myrrh, licorice root and various tree saps (or resins, hence the name "sacred resins"). Sac'Resine has a fresh grapefruit and crunchy green apple flavor upon first taste, with hints of earthy stucco and pine. A healthy acidity drives the mix, and softer flavors like lavender and honey keep things balanced. It's pungent and perfume-like without being too overwhelming. Both of Taylor's current offerings are fortified with Clear Creek brandy, and a new dry formula will hit the market sometime next year.
Named for the punctuation mark that indicates the end of an exclamatory rhetorical question, Interrobang currently produces one sweet-style vermouth in Oregon's Willamette Valley ($18 for 375 mL). Pinot Noir and a small percentage of Viognier make up the wine blend, fortified with Clear Creek brandy and spiced with a variety of 11 proprietary botanicals that includes eucalyptus and uses wormwood as a bittering agent. Flavor-wise, Interrobang's balanced profile plays sweet blackberry and rosemary with dark chocolate and coffee notes against woody tannins reminiscent of Italy's artichoke-based Cynar. On ice, the menthol from the eucalyptus and ripe black cherry flavors emerge, subduing the lingering dryness just a bit; the body and character are robust enough to stand up to aged spirits in cocktails like a Manhattan.
Matthiasson 2011 Napa Valley Vermouth
Steve Matthiasson is one of Napa's most respected winemakers and viticulturalists, so we weren't that surprised to discover that his single-vineyard vermouth ($25 for 375 mL) is delicious. It's made with a grape called Flora, a cross between Semillon and Gewurztraminer that was bred at UC Davis in the 1950s and has since fallen into obscurity. Picked late in the harvest when the grapes started to raisin and develop botrytis, the wine was aged two years in half-full barrels without sulfites in order to develop nutty and dried fruit flavors from exposure to oxygen. Steve and Jill Matthiasson harvested sour cherries, cardoons, and blood oranges from their home orchard, creating an infusion that was also flavored with purchased organic cinchona bark, wormwood, and blessed thistle, and added to the wine just before bottling. The result tastes almost like a ripe-but-edgy apricot liqueur: warming and rich, with a spiced citrus flavor that's sweet but clean, with a bitter cut at the finish. If you like amari, try this delicious concoction chilled or on the rocks.
Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth
The flagship product from Oregon-based Imbue Cellars, this bittersweet vermouth ($34.99 for 750 mL) has a strong Pinot Gris base with Clear Creek brandy as the fortifying agent. The aromatics include chamomile, elderflower, clove, and orange peel. The result is one of the most approachable sipping vermouths on the American market, opening with dried berry flavors slightly muted by spicy clove and cinnamon. Fruity peach and basil appear towards the end, arriving with a pronounced twinge of bitterness. A few ice cubes bring out the orange and clove, making it easy to enjoy a few before or after dinner.
Imbue Petal & Thorn
Owner Neil Kopplin calls this rose-colored aperitif wine "feminine with a sharp edge to it," perfect for "tough chicks with tattoos." Loosely inspired by Campari and Aperol, Petal & Thorn ($34.99 for 750mL) uses slightly sweet Semillon as the base, strengthened with brandy from Clear Creek Distillery that's been infused with cinnamon bark. Orange peel, Egyptian chamomile, and black pepper are incorporated and the blend is bittered with gentian root, resulting in a strikingly floral, grapefruit-like citrus and cinnamon flavor that ends audaciously herbal. The bitter aspects are unapologetic and surprising for such pink vermouth, but after diluting with a few ice cubes (and garnishing with an orange peel), a soft, silky texture emerges and the aggressive elements mellow into a charmingly floral personality.
Harris Bridge Vineyard Timber Sweet Vermouth
The most grapey and approachable of the sweet vermouths, Harris Bridge's Timber ($25 for 375 mL) features a short list of botanicals including dandelion, angelica, licorice and fennel. The Pinot Noir foundation steals the show, with dark prune and strawberry flavors, hints of anise and medium tannins carrying through the finish. Bitterness isn't a strong point as with others, making it a great introductory vermouth. Sip it on the rocks, or mix it with a light spirit like gin, to bring out the botanicals.
Vya Sweet Vermouth
This California-grown vermouth ($26.99 for 750 mL)—one of the earliest 'new vermouths' to hit shelves—is made with a base of dry white wine made with mostly Colombard grapes, plus a bit of port-style wine made mostly from Valdepenas grapes. Galangal root (a cousin of ginger), cinnamon bark, and oaky quassia bark add seasoning. What does it taste like? Plush cherry and red currant ease into a peppery bitterness with wisps of incense-like herbs and dark caramel in this big-bodied vermouth. Vya tastes splendid with just a few ice cubes and an orange peel, but will make for a robust Manhattan or Rob Roy as well.
Vya Extra Dry Vermouth
Hearkening back to the style of traditional French dry vermouths, this formulation ($28.99 for 750 mL) uses the same white wine base as the Vya Sweet, but it's flavored with linden flower, rose petals, and a pinch of alfalfa, along with 12 other herbs and spices. Unlike the opulent sweet version, Vya Extra Dry tastes notably fresh and crisp, though it still offers rich body and supple texture. Sage and rosemary flavors pop out at the front and mellow into a dry, almost hay-like finish. This vermouth plays best with other ingredients in cocktails like the classic gin martini.
Ransom Dry Vermouth
Oregon-based Ransom Spirits has nothing to hide when it comes to the straw-colored Pinot Noir Blanc-based dry vermouth ($34.99 for 750 mL). All 16 botanicals are listed on the front label, including wormwood, rosehip, fennel, lemon peel, anise and vanilla bean. Such transparency certainly helps navigate the experience; orange, pine and floral flavors overpower the delicate blend, with subtle raw turbinado sugar rounding out the body and licorice-like anise peeking through. Ice diminishes the elegant citrus and vanilla characteristics so much so that sipping it chilled or mixed into a cocktail are preferable ways to honor its light soul. Keep your eyes out for the company's next release: a sweet vermouth set to hit shelves this summer.
Sutton Cellars Brown Label Sonoma County Vermouth
Crisp, herbal flavors dominate the Sutton Cellars dry vermouth made in San Francisco ($20 for 750 mL). While owner Carl Sutton won't divulge the base wine of the amber-colored vermouth (other than saying it's a neutral white, fortified with un-aged brandy), he does admit to honing in on a trifecta of dried orange peel, chamomile, and rosemary for the main botanicals. Warm caramelized sugar and rustic rosemary drive the profile, with hints of nutmeg evoking memories of potpourri. We love it in a Bamboo cocktail with amontillado sherry.
Channing Daughters Vervino
Most vermouths take themselves pretty seriously—something that the crew at Long Island's Channing Daughters Winery wanted to avoid with their VerVino series ($28-40 for 500 mL to 750 mL). Each one of the 5 currently on the market takes inspiration from the seasons, using local fresh botanicals and fruits for each bottling. Across the board, they taste more wine-forward than your traditional fortified wine, each one exploding with fresh, idiosyncratic personalities.
Variation one and two (representing late spring/early summer) use Sauvignon Blanc as the foundation, whereas three (also early summer) uses Syrah. Four is a blend of white and red wines for late summer, and the similarly late summer five features a field blend called Mosaico. Each vermouth uses grape brandy and local honey as the base. While each one is a fun exploration in wild flowers, herbs, fruit, spices and chiles, variation four (late summer) shines the brightest, with a huge juicy burst of watermelon, flowering basil and coriander and carrots, evoking the laid-back fun of Fourth of July picnics and fireworks. Drinking these vermouths on ice with soda and a citrus peel is the best way to experience the fullness of their flavor.
Disclosure: All vermouths were provided as samples for review consideration except the Matthaisson, reviewed by Maggie Hoffman above.