If you experiment with cocktails often, there are a few ingredients you’ll see over and over. Particularly common are vermouth and bitters. They form the composition of countless classic cocktails from the Manhattan to the Alaska, the Bobby Burns, Adonis or Rob Roy.
While the craft bitters boom of recent years has led to volumes being written about bittering-agents in cocktails, the role of vermouth is often overlooked.
So how did this fortified wine become such an integral part of so many drinks?
Vermouth starts with a base of wine or grape must. In Europe, regulations mandate that the final product be at least 75% wine, with an alcohol by volume (abv) of 14.5–22%.
The wine base is fortified and aromatized with ingredients like citrus peels, herbs, spices and a bittering agent. Traditionally, the bittering component is wormwood, but these days you’ll find non-European offerings labeled vermouth (or colloquially lumped into the vermouth category) that achieve bittering through mugwort, cinchona bark or a variety of roots and other ingredients. However, for many purists, along with E.U. regulations, if it doesn’t have wormwood, it’s not vermouth.
Part of the fun of vermouths are the wide range of flavor profiles you’ll find. Wine acts as a canvas for producers to create limitless combinations of herbs and aromatics, and there’s a staggering array of bottlings.
However, for the purpose of the at-home bartender, we’re breaking down three categories of vermouth that are commonly called for in cocktails: sweet, dry and blanc/bianco.
As its name suggests, these red vermouths are usually the sweetest offerings. In cocktails, they’re commonly used as a more aromatic replacement for other sugar-based options. The primary difference between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan? The former uses a sugar cube where the latter uses an ounce of sweet vermouth.
While some sweet vermouth is still made from a red wine, it’s more common these days for producers to use white grapes, with the red coloring coming from caramelized sugars.
As with traditional wine, a dry vermouth has less sugar. This can range from extra-dry to dry offerings, though other factors like barrel aging can sometimes affect the perception of sweetness without increasing the total grams of sugar.
Dry vermouths often showcase more herbal, floral or citrus notes like lemon peel. They are also often used by bartenders in spirits-forward cocktails like the Martini or El Presidente to add a touch of acid.
Called “blanc” vermouths in France and “bianco” in Italy, these often tend to split the difference between sweet and dry vermouth and can be comparable to an off-dry wine.
In cocktails, blanc/bianco vermouths are used in drinks where a small amount of sugar may be desired to balance bitter ingredients that could create undesirable astringency, but where sweet vermouth may be too cloying. A great example of this is the White Negroni, where a bianco vermouth makes up for the absence of Campari’s sugar.
Worth noting, some cocktails like the Corpse Reviver #2 or Vesper Martini may call for ingredients like Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano, which fall under the vermouth-adjacent category of fortified aromatic wines that don’t specifically contain wormwood. However, these drinks would be equally well served by substituting blanc/bianco vermouths.
Why is vermouth so common in cocktails?
Vermouth is often said to “bring out the flavors” of a cocktail base like whiskey or gin, but what does that really mean?
It’s a theme we touch on again and again in Bartender Basics: dilution.
Reducing the alcohol-by-volume of a drink by cutting a high-proof spirit with a lower-proof fortified wine reduces the taste of ethanol, or that boozy, stinging-the-back-of-your-nose perception of alcohol that can overwhelm your ability to appreciate more subtle flavor and aroma compounds. It’s not unlike adding a splash of water to Scotch—the reduced booziness allows you to pick up on notes of caramel, vanilla, peat or oak rather than simply alcohol.
This also helps illustrate why “dry,” when used in the context of cocktails, isn’t always the same as in wine. If you make a Martini with a full ounce of bone-dry vermouth, the cocktail doesn’t become sweeter. It simply tastes less boozy. Of course, dilution could be accomplished by stirring or shaking a cocktail with ice. Vermouth’s unique, complex and varied aromatics dilute drinks while creating new flavors and dimensions.
Playing with different types of vermouth isn’t unlike experimenting with herb and spice combinations when cooking, to find what brings out desirable flavors in your main ingredients. Fan of a Moscow Mule? Try making a Boulevardier with a vermouth that offers ginger notes. Enjoy Palomas in the summertime? Reach for a grapefruit-forward vermouth in your next Negroni.
Vermouth is also common in spirits-forward drinks to include an element of fruit in a cocktail without juices. Owing to its wine base, vermouth creates the best middle ground between distilled spirits and drinks in the sour family that incorporate higher citric acid and pure fruit juices, like a gimlet (lime) or whiskey sour (lemon).
So why is vermouth so often found in cocktails? Versatility. There are few other ingredients that can combine such a range of flavor, aroma and textural profiles into a single pour. Vermouth allows you to create a cocktail that gives the impression of a staggering number of ingredients, using fewer bottles.