If you’re bored of the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz and want a new post-work thirst-quencher, or even a simple mixed drink to power summer parties, try vermouth.
For the uninitiated, vermouth is a bottled blend of wine and spirits to which all manner of complex botanicals is added – and it is delicious and refreshing served with tonic, soda, or simply over ice with a citrus zest, wedge or slice garnish.
So strong is the interest in vermouth, that fine wine and spirits merchant Berry Bros & Rudd has reported a 41 per cent increase in sales of aromatised wine. “Vermouth has long been the Robin to gin and vodka’s Batman,” claims Will Wrightson of Berry Bros. “We’ve seen the trend of drinking vermouth move away from predominantly the local drinkers where the product is traditionally made, to more mainstream international markets.”
So why now? After the sugar-coated cocktails of the Eighties, discerning drinkers revolted and sought out classic cocktails and more challenging alternatives.
This trend reached a peak recently when the negroni (equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari) emerged as a standard on menus, but just as bitter flavours went mainstream, some started to question the booze count. Enter vermouth with soda or tonic; a splendid mix of wine and botanicals that provides a pleasantly bitter cocktail – without a hefty measure of spirit.
On the bar side, CGA revealed an early resurgence in its Influencers Report 2016. They noted that leading London outlets were stocking on average nine vermouth brands. Swift, an acclaimed cocktail bar in Soho, is among them.
“Consumers are a lot more aware of what they are putting in their bodies, including alcohol,” says Swift’s co-founder, Bobby Hiddleston, “and with vermouth having a naturally lower ABV than spirits, they are being drawn towards it. At Swift it’s often ordered in classics like Manhattans, but there is a growing trend of vermouth and other fortified wines being used in highballs, which gives a fantastic variety of styles and flavours.”
As a fortified wine, vermouth’s alcohol content can range from a minimum of 14.5% abv to a maximum of 22%. At least three-quarters of the liquid must be wine, and while these have historically been lesser wines, if you’re an oenophile this aspect should appeal.
Vermouth also frequently contains botanicals such as juniper, angelica, cardamom, coriander and citrus peels, which should interest the gin enthusiast. And it must include wormwood. During the late 18th century, Italians began infusing their less palatable wines with wormwood, to create vermouth. It was originally served up neat as an aperitivo.
In the early 20th century, vermouth became best known as a key component in classic cocktails. The Americans added tonic to create the Americano, and when the Martini brand was exported from Italy to the US it was mixed with gin or whisky, popularising the martini and Manhattan cocktails.
However, the slightly bitter hit of vermouth meant the neat serve fell out of favour as our palates started to demand something sweeter. Added to which, it was often impaired. Most people have been guilty of opening a bottle before consigning it to the dusty depths of the drinks cabinet, only to try it a year later when it has become eye-wateringly oxidised. It is fortified, so vermouth will survive longer than a standard wine, but once it’s open oxidisation tends to affect the taste from about four weeks, and certainly by six.
Another challenge has been the confusion over what is a complex creation. The bartenders of the early 20th century pigeonholed it a little, so that if you reference old cocktail menus, you’ll find vermouth invariably split between “sweet” as an Italian creation, with “dry” from France. But while the Dolin Dry Vermouth de Chambéry provides an excellent of exponent of the dry style, it also produces a red vermouth, which is rich and sweet. So, region is a misleading indicator. As a rule, sweet tends to be taken neat, while dry tends to be used in cocktails.
These days it is also worth asking about the wine at the base. While the starting point for this category was to make use of substandard wine, increasingly we find producers talking up the grape juice. Dolin works with ugni blanc, a grape popular with cognac producers – which, while not the finest, is still capable of producing reputable wine. In the case of newbies Regal Rogue in Australia, you’ll find Hunter Valley sémillon and South Australian sauvignon blanc among the carefully selected grape styles.
The vermouth family is vast; so here are four to get you up and running.
Cocchi has been making vermouth in Asti since 1891 (and is one of only two vermouths granted AOC status; the other is Chambéry). This one is sweet, using fine moscato wine as its base, infused with local and exotic botanicals. On the nose you’ll get orange peel and chocolate, which carries through on the palate, with sweet raisins and cinnamon, but also that key light bitterness to finish. Try it neat over ice after dinner. It’s great long with a Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic and a lemon twist.
The etymology of “vermouth” points to the German for wormwood – “wermut” – yet Teutonic interpretations are rare, which is a shame as the country has form with wine and fruit brandy. Belsazar uses wine from the Weingut Zähringer winery established in 1844, selecting from the Kaiserstuhl and Markgräflerland regions; and eau de vie and macerates from sixth-generation distiller Philipp Schladerer. This one is bone-dry and it works with any tonic.
£24.95, thewhisky exchange.com
From the reputable sherry house comes a rich, red vermouth that builds on its famous Bodegas Emilio Lustau sherries. Blending a sweet pedro ximénez with a drier amontillado, it uses these exceptional wines for separate macerations with more than 10 botanicals. There’s a charge of wormwood along with coriander, gentian, angelica and orange peel for a complex expression, but one that is less bitter than most. It works brilliantly in a cocktail with gin and a little King’s Ginger liqueur.
Mark Lord launched Regal Rogue in 2012 in the face of new interest in vermouth, and his rosé is an example of its diversity. Light but fruit-forward, it uses barossa shiraz rose blush at the base and infuses native Illawarra plums, rosella and strawberry gum with rhubarb and kina. Despite all this fruit, it still lands a hint of anise and a dry finish. There’s a recommended neat serve partnered with lemon and fresh mint, but again, it’s useful with a preferred tonic or even soda water – they garnish with a kiwi.
£16.15, thewhisky exchange.com
The Thinking Drinkers will be performing their new Pub Crawl show at Edinburgh from Weds-Aug 26, and then on a UK-wide tour in the autumn; thinkingdrinkers.com