Cocktail 101: Introduction to Vermouth and Aperitif Wines

Vermouth used to be a relatively simple topic, at least in the States. The American market had sweet and dry styles and largely shunned both. When Paul Clarke wrote about vermouth for SE back in 2007, he had very few brands to discuss; not many brands or styles were available on the American market.

In the past four years, though, that's changed, and now there is a wide range of options in vermouth and other aperitif wines. This week, I'll share a few of the available choices with you offer some suggestions on how to enjoy them.

What Is Vermouth?

Before I discuss the styles of vermouth now available in the U.S., let's review some terms.

Vermouth is an aperitif wine that takes its name from its former primary ingredient, wormwood. The word vermouth derives from the German word for wormwood, Wermut.

An aperitif wine is nothing more than a wine (naturally) served before a meal as an appetite stimulant. Aperitif wines are often bittersweet and herbal. Aperitif wines are also fortified, which means they're blended with additional alcohol, usually grape brandy. Finally, they're aromatized, or flavored with botanicals, such as aromatic herbs, roots, and barks.

Hm. Herbs, roots, and barks. Where have we seen these before? Oh yes, bitters. Like bitters, vermouths were once used as medicinal tonics.

Spices and other botanicals in vermouth include cardamom, chamomile, cinnamon, citrus peel, cloves, coriander, ginger, juniper, marjoram, saffron, and vanilla.

Two cousins to vermouth are beginning to emerge onto the American market: quinquina and americano. Whereas the prime herbal component in vermouth was traditionally wormwood, in quinquina, it's quinine, and in americano, gentian.

Americano, by the way, has nothing to do with the continents or the nation. In this context, americano is derived from the word amer, meaning "bitter." (The same root is used in amaro.)

Styles of Aperitif Wines

Broadly speaking, vermouth can be broken down into two styles: Italian, also known as sweet, red, or rosso; and French, also known as white or dry. Other designations are possible, though; some manufacturers now have rosé vermouths on the market now. Quinquinas and americanos can be red, white, or rosy, depending on the bottling.

Keep in mind, the words French and Italian here are used loosely to describe styles of vermouth, not their country of origin. Italian brands make French-style vermouths in Italy, and at least one French brand (Noilly Prat) makes Italian-style vermouths in France.

If you're not confused yet, I'm not trying hard enough; but to make things simpler, I'll refer to the styles from this point on by their color.

Red Vermouth

Generally the sweetest of the aperitif wines, red or rosso vermouth is also the oldest style, originating in Italy in the 18th century.

Common brands include Cinzano and Martini & Rossi, both from Italy, and Noilly Prat from France. These brands, especially the Italian offerings, exemplify the American conception of red vermouth—sweet, mildly herbal, winey...and unfortunately, not always pleasant to drink on their own. However, these brands are all highly mixable, in such cocktails as the Negroni or the Manhattan, where their botanicals blend well with the base spirit, enhancing and complementing the base's flavor profile.

In the past few years, though, some new reds have come onto the market, with more complex flavors, less sweetness, and bitter undernotes—all of which make these newer styles delicious to drink on their own.

These "new" styles, though, are not really all that new. Carpano Antica Formula is a perfect example. The clue is in the name Antica, an Italian word for "old." It's pronounced like the English antique, but, y'know, with an -ah at the end. Antica Formula isn't the Carpano brand's original recipe for vermouth, but it's an old recipe. Carrying notes of vanilla and a mild bitterness, it's lovely chilled or over ice, but the same bittersweet and vanilla notes also mean it pairs well with whiskey in cocktails.

Dry Vermouth

Developed in southern France in the late 18th century, dry styles of vermouth lack the caramel coloring that makes sweet styles red.

Common brands include France's Noilly Prat and the Italian brands Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. As with the sweet style, these brands are what most Americans think of when they think of dry vermouth. The flavor profile is less sweet and a little more herbal than red vermouth. Classic cocktails include, of course, the martini, but also the El Presidente, Income Tax, Scofflaw, and Satan's Whiskers.

Noilly Prat, you might recall, sparked some conversation a couple of years ago, when it reintroduced its classic dry vermouth style into the United States. This product replaced the prior dry style that Noilly offered to Americans—a dry style intended for mixing into cocktails instead of for drinking straight. I won't reiterate the controversy here, but Paul Clarke wrote about it in this space in 2009, if you want to know more.

In 2008, importer Eric Seed began bringing a line of French-produced vermouths, by Chambéry-based Dolin, into the United States. Dolin offers dry, blanc, and rouge styles, all of which are drier and lighter than most commercial vermouths. The dry, especially, is quite refreshing—crisp, bone-dry, and floral. This past summer, I very much enjoyed drinking it on ice.

Dolin dry is all sorts of wonderful in a martini, especially if you bump the ratio up to 2 parts gin to 1 part vermouth (my favorite with a crisp vermouth, such as Dolin) or even equal parts gin and vermouth. Whatever ratio you use, don't forget the orange bitters.

New World Makers, New World Styles

Don't think, however, that vermouth is entirely an Old World production. Some excellent products are coming from the West Coast of the United States now, including Vya and Imbue.

Vya, a product of the Quady Winery in Madera, California, came on the market in 1999. It's made from orange muscat grapes, blended with port, and it's made to be sipped on its own, as well as mixed into cocktails.

Hailing from Oregon's Willamette Valley, Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth starts with that region's Pinot Gris wine before aging in oak barrels and macerating with botanicals.

Quinquinas and Americanos

The aforementioned Eric Seed is also responsible for reintroducing quinquinas and americanos to the U.S. market. He offers two quinquinas and one americano.

Bonal Gentiane-Quina is a French product and, as you may guess, a quinquina flavored with gentian and quinine. Its flavor profile is mildly sweet, bitter, and lushly herbal. I love drinking it chilled from the fridge or over ice. Bonal is also excellent in place of red vermouth in a Manhattan or Negroni.

Cocchi Barolo Chinato is Italian, a quinquina made on a Barolo wine base. Seed's website indicates it's traditionally an after-dinner sipper, but I'm including it here anyway because of its obvious similarities. It's available in New York and California, but not to my knowledge in Rhode Island; so I've never tried it, but I'm sure if you drank it as an aperitif, your life would be none the worse. Other brands of Barolo Chinato are imported into the United States, so it may be worth calling around to see whether your favorite liquor store can get some in.

Finally, and also from the Cocchi brand, is its americano, an aperitif based on Moscato di Asti wine. Cocchi Americano is delicious on ice; its sweetness is somewhere between the crisp Dolin dry and a traditional commercial dry vermouth, but there's an underlying hint of bitterness to balance out the sweetness. I recently used it alongside Dolin dry vermouth in this variation on a Negroni, to delicious effect.

Get the Recipe

White Negroni »

Want to explore the world of vermouth? Gather up a friend or three and mix up two different martinis, one with Dolin dry vermouth and another with Cocchi Americano. Perhaps even mix one with a traditional dry vermouth, such as Martini & Rossi, as a control. You'll find that each aperitif wine brings different qualities to the classic martini. All of them are fascinating and delicious in their own way, so I love having various aperitifs around, to change up my martini based on my mood, the weather, or the day's news.

Wondering How to Use Up the Bottle?

More ideas for what to do with Dry Vermouth »