The Bottles – Dry and Sweet Vermouth
Vermouth is an essential part of any bar. Two of the most important drinks on the planet – the Martini and the Manhattan – simply cannot be made without it, and despite what you may believe, it’s the vermouth that makes a martini a martini. So what is the stuff? Nothing more than wine infused with botanicals and fortified with alcohol, chiefly brandy. Fortification — sometimes in combination with oxidization, a process which robs the wine of much of its living, breathing goodness (something vinophiles will protest in a bottle of Haut-Brion) – preserves the wine far beyond its natural lifespan but substantially changes it in the process. Other fortified wines include port, sherry, and Madeira – many bottlings of which are as prized as their non-fortified counterparts. This is important to know because, under the right circumstances, one of these bottles can be used in place of another (dry sherry for dry vermouth, for example). In a pinch, the appropriate bottle of table wine can also be substituted – just make sure it has the same basic profile as the vermouth it’s replacing.
In cocktails, vermouths bring depth, balance, and low-alcohol volume. At roughly one-third to one-half the ABV (alcohol by volume) of your standard spirit, vermouths help tame drinks. This partially explains their boom in the 1880s. As Americans, we always believe that bigger is better, so vermouth allowed people to enjoy their booze in greater volume without finding themselves under the table after one round. Early martinis were often half vermouth and half gin. Prohibition, of course, put the brakes on alcohol imports, and since we don’t really make much vermouth here (France and Italy are the predominate sources), vermouth quickly lost its foothold. Once twin spectres of the 18th Amendment and WWII were behind us, the world had become enamored by the “wave the cap of the vermouth over the glass” martini recipe, and vermouth gained an undeservedly bad reputation. Most bartenders with a foot in pre-Prohibition culture will tell you, of course, that this is hogwash. In fact, the bulk of the bartending industry today – neoclassicists excluded – is still mired in a Volstead Era mindset that is absolutely antithetical to the production of proper cocktails.
In other words, drinking your martini without vermouth is a bit like driving an automatic transmission Ferrari – it just shouldn’t be done. Still, we’re accepting of all comers here, but we really must encourage you to give vermouth a chance. You’ll need both the dry and sweet varieties, but keep in mind that, like any other wine, every brand is very different. In the scheme of things, vermouths are cheap, so don’t be afraid to try a new bottle. We recommend starting with these fine examples:
PREMIUM ($16 / 750ml)
From Chambéry, France, the recipes behind Dolin have gone basically unchanged since 1821. They bill themselves as “lighter, drier and less pungent than their larger commercial counterparts” and this is very much the case. The Dry is dry but never harsh, as some less expensive brands can be. This is our go-to martini vermouth, but it’s lovely even straight out of the bottle..
Much more subtle than the Martini & Rossi listed below, Dolin Sweet is nevertheless perfect all by itself. Although it may be too mild for some, it provides a perfect, non-competitive backdrop against which spirits can shine and is outstanding in more vermouth-heavy drinks.
MID-RANGE ($8 – $9 / 750ml)
Once the gold standard for a dry martini, Noilly Prat was reformulated in 2009. It’s no longer as dry as it once was nor as clear as the Dolin. It’s also notably more tart than Dolin, meaning that there’s a greater chance of it competing with your gin. Still, there remain plenty of drinks in which it excels.
As mentioned above, the Martini & Rossi is much bolder than the Dolin, boasting an almost Campari-like bitter orange quality. This is perfect for those who like big flavors, especially in drinks like a Negroni. Over ice with a twist of orange, it makes a lovely summer cooler all its own.
FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS ($30 / 1L)
Regarded as the original vermouth from 1786, there is simply nothing else on the planet quite like the Carpano Antica. Full of tobacco, cinnamon, cloves, and bitter chocolate, this is a powerhouse that simply must be tasted to be believed. While not for everyone, if you happen to find yourself among the converted, this will quickly become your sweet vermouth of choice, especially in a Manhattan or Negroni.
A couple of tips for buying and storing your vermouth: Most of the bottles listed above can be found in smaller (375 ml) formats. Unless you use a lot of vermouth, buy these. Not only do they cost about half of the listed amounts, you’ll restock more quickly, which is a good thing. According to many in the spirits trade, vermouth will start to go bad once opened. We have friends in the wine trade that refute this, but we lean toward the “better safe than sorry” camp. Once opened, store your bottles in the fridge and use them as quickly as possible (hence, smaller bottles are better).