Vermouth is a fortified wine aromatized and flavoured with botanicals that is excellent to sip as an aperitif or to mix into cocktails. It is particularly common in pre-prohibition era classics. The term fortified means made stronger, in this case referring to alcohol content, often raised by the addition of another grape-based product - brandy.
When categorising vermouths, there are a few variables to choose from. Geographic region is an important one, and we will touch on the characteristics of different regions, but the most common determining factor is whether a vermouth is classed as sweet, dry and blanc/bianco. A sweet vermouth from one region will differ from the same product from a different region, so it’s useful to know the profile of both the type of vermouth and its geography. Remember vermouth is wine. It can be categorised similarly.
There are dozens of brands of vermouth out there, each one creating a wide range of styles. For the purpose of this guide, we’ll include the largest players in the international market, and of course some of New Zealand’s own. As with everything consumable, this is subjective, so there will be no ‘best’, but we will go through the bouquet of each one and suggest where they might be best utilised.
Originated in Turin, Italy in the late 18th Century. Despite the name, and having a sugar contents of roughly 10-15%, sweet vermouth is often more bittersweet in flavour, and is sometimes referred to as red or rouge. The common misconception is that sweet vermouth is red because it comes from red wine. This is often not the case, especially nowadays as almost all vermouth, sweet, dry or bianco, come from neutral white grapes. Some sweet vermouths use a mixture of white and red grapes, but most get their dark colour, and indeed their sweeter notes, from caramelised sugar. Botanicals included in sweet vermouth are more earthy spices than seen in its dry counterpart, and common include cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, cloves and anise. These strong, rich flavours can sometimes become the overarching flavour of a cocktail, which is why the most well-known classics using sweet vermouth, the Manhattan and the Negroni, use ingredients that can stand up to that richness, in Rye whiskey and Campari respectively.
A French variety created in the 1700’s, dry vermouth generally has a sugar content of less than 5%, and is less rich in flavour. Botanicals are citrusy, floral or herbaceous, leaving a clean finish. When used in a cocktail, dry vermouth is understated and excellent at bringing the best out of the drink's other components. A great option as an aperitif or digestif, dry vermouth is more palatable alone than sweet vermouth.
Blanc (French) / Bianco (Italian)
Coming about almost a full century after the other main types, Blanc/Bianco’s, due to their clear appearance, do sometimes get categorised alongside dry vermouths. In actual fact though, they are much sweeter, closer in sugar content to a sweet vermouth than a dry. They will however contain a botanical bouquet more herbal than spicey, and closer to that of a dry product from the same region. They're a very useful middle ground, almost a gateway towards dry vermouths, and are the best of the 3 to have over ice.
Below we’ve pooled together some of the most popular vermouths around. This list only touches on a few of the biggest brands, partly because they’re what most bartenders use, but also because it shows the difference in regions and styles more clearly, whereas different brands will always be unique.
Carpano Antica Formula (Turin, Italy) - White wines from Italian grape varieties from Romagna, Puglia and Sicily. Vanilla heavy. Almonds and raisins. Better with whiskey than with gin. Use it in Boulevardiers and Manhattan’s as oppose to Negroni’s.
Punt e Mes (Turin, Italy) - Translates to ‘one and a half’, referring to one part sweet, half part bitter. Cinnamon, Pine, Honey, Vanilla. Works great with Campari.
Martini Rosso (Turin, Italy) - Wormwood initially, then heavy on caramel. 15% sugar content. Its best use is in a Negroni
Dolin Rouge (Chambery, France) - Ginger and clove. Dried fruit finish. The least-sweet of this group. Very versatile but may leave Negroni’s too bitter for some palettes.
Reid & Reid Red Vermouth (Martinborough, New Zealand) – Pinot Noir base. Manuka and Kawakawa bring the sweetness. Horopito, juniper, cassia and anise make the root elements. A very versatile product that can make subtle changes to classics when used in place of old-world alternatives.
Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth (Marsailles, France) - Camomile, Gentian, Bitter Orange. The driest without going into the Extra Dry category. Use this if making a classic dry Martini with a citrus-forward gin.
Dolin Dry Vermouth (Chambery, France) - Wormwood-heavy, Cloves. Makes the best Dirty Martini, but is also a better option than Noilly Prat when blending with a sweet vermouth for a Perfect.
Mount Edward Dry Vermouth (Queenstown, New Zealand) - Reisling and Chenin base see this start out very dry, with elderflower bringing a bit of balance to the equation. A really great aperitif with a wedge of citrus over ice or mixed with soda. Handy in cocktails but not so much as a like-for-like replacement for European dry’s - Great as a base for a lower-ABV mix.
Carpano Bianco (Turin, Italy) - Very winey. Not overly-complex. Use in a Martini as a less-dry dry vermouth. Carpano are arguably better at sweet vermouths than any other type.
Dolin Blanc (Chambery, France) - Light citrus, Stonefruit, Grape (obviously), Pear, Floral. A great base for something lower-ABV, or in place of a blend in perfects.
Martini Bianco (Turin, Italy) - Acidity coming from Trebbiano grapes. Sweetness from vanilla. A very high-quality, complex Bianco that almost isn’t worth mixing with anything other than soda or tonic.
Karven Bianco (Riverhead, New Zealand) - Peach-forward with soft citrus. Kawakawa and Horopito. Richer in flavour than traditional European bianco’s. If you must mix it, make it the dominant component.