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)

Dolin Dry Vermouth

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..

 

Dolin Sweet Vermouth

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)

Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth

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.

 

Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth

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)

Carpano Antica Formula

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).

35 Responses to “The Bottles – Dry and Sweet Vermouth”

  1. July 29, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    I bought one new bottle of the Noilly Prat to try it for myself. But now I’m done. Boycotts are lame. I’m just not going to reward the company that ruined my Martini by continuing to purchase their sweeter wine.

    My new dry is Boissiere.

    But the instant Noilly Prat realizes the error of its ways, I’ll switch back to them in a heartbeat.

  2. Ben
    December 24, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    The new Noilly is quite nice, but it’s closer in sweetness to Lillet – it makes a good martini with a twist (“a yellow, a mellow martini” – I’m not sure when the American formula came into being but clarity seems fairly recent), but the old-fashioned flavor profile is unsuitable for an olive. Dolin’s dry vermouth, however, is perfect for a dry martini.

  3. Lee
    December 16, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Question here:

    None of my local stores carry Noilly…. is it ok to substitute it with Martini & Rossi’s dry vermouth?

    The store has both dry and sweet vermouth from Martini & Rossi ($7.59/bottle)…. they also have some cheaper brand ($3.97/bottle) that i’ve never heard of.

    Should I go with Martini & Rossi for both dry and sweet?

    • Anonymous
      December 16, 2011 at 10:00 pm #

      If the Martini is the best that they have, I would certainly got with that. If spending a few much more isn’t an issue, grab a bottle of the cheap stuff as well. The goal is the pick the one you like.

      • leeFX
        December 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

        Will do… it’s only $4 so I might as well. That way I have a back-up if I run out after a few drinks or whatever. ;)

        Thanks!

  4. Daniel Nash
    February 8, 2012 at 5:24 pm #

    Hi, new blog reader hear, so a bit late to this particular discussion. First: thank you for singing the praises of vermouth!  Vermouth is important to many cocktails, and bad vermouth will ruin a good drink faster than cheap spirits. My personal favorite drink is the Manhattan, and over the last couple years I’ve managed to sample several red/sweet vermouths for it.  I must disagree with your selection of Martini & Rossi’s red vermouth here – I find their red to be syrupy and cloying.  For a couple years my “house” red vermouth has actually been Noilly Prat (they make a red one too, y’know), with Carpano Antica as an occasional splurge.

    Recently though, after hearing it mentioned a couple times in articles relating to well known bars and bartenders, I tried Vya’s sweet vermouth… and became an instant fan. Sure, it costs twice as much as the Noilly Prat I’ve been buying, but the flavor profile is SO nice I don’t think I can give it up. (I haven’t tried Vya’s dry vermouth yet… it’s on my list to get to soon…)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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