Welcome to Vermouth 101. The intent of these pages is to demystify vermouth, primarily for the American audience. Vermouth has been ubiquitous in the USA for well over a century, but few Americans actually understand or appreciate the stuff and some have even maligned it. Coincidentally, today we’re living in a new “golden age” of vermouth with classic brands revitalized and new, experimental vermouths emerging both from the traditional European sources and from upstart American artisans. Now is a great time to raise your vermouth awareness! While we’re here, we’ll also look at quinquina and americano, two cousins of vermouth that are all but forgotten in the US, yet are also reemerging with vigor.
To understand vermouth, one first must understand aperitif wines. Aperitif derives from the Latin aperire, which is the verb “to open,” in the sense of opening up the appetite. All true aperitifs carry a bittersweet character that stimulates the production of gastric juices and promotes appetite.
Aperitif wines are aromatized wines. Aromatized means that the wine has been infused with botanicals that add flavor and color. The aperitif wine category includes all vermouths, quinquinas, americanos, and an smattering of other proprietary formula wine products.
Vermouth, quinquina and americano are also fortified wines. Fortified means the alcohol percentage of the wine has been raised through the addition of spirits (a fairly neutral grape brandy is ideal in most cases). Almost all these wines have a white wine or mistelle base. Mistelle is the result of adding alcohol to the juice of crushed grapes rather than fermenting them to produce alcohol. The mistelle approach yeilds a sweeter base (because the fructose has not been converted to alcohol) and may lend a more “fresh fruit” characteristic to some products. All but a handful of red/dark/opaque aperitif wines achieve their coloration through other ingredients rather than the wine itself, namely caramel color (burnt sugar).
In 18th Century Italy, France and Spain—all lands in which the Romans promulgated winemaking centuries before—commercial aperitif production emerged with a focus on craft and consistency. Within these products is the confluence of two imperatives: the flavoring of local wines to make them more commercially valuable and the ancient trade in folk medicines and tonics. These wines are delicious and packed with medicinal botanicals (now enjoyed for their flavors and appetite-enhancing effects rather than as cures). Traditionally, these products were named for the entrepreneurs that created them. Today, several of these names are amongst the greatest brands in this history of spirits.
Aperitif wines are relatively low in alcohol content when compared to other spirits, but rather higher than straight wine. Aperitif wines are comparable strength-wise to non-aperitif fortified wines like Port, Madeira, or Sherry. Also, like other fortified wines, aperitif wines are typically enjoyed in smaller servings than straight wine (perhaps 2-3 oz).
|Approx. Alcohol by Volume||Beverage|
|3-10||beers, ciders and beer-related ferments|
|13-24||fortified and aperitif wines|
|25-40||underproof spirits (some vodkas and styles of shōchū)|
|50+||high proof spirits|
The vast majority of aperitif wines are reasonably priced ($10-25 for 750ml). In liquor stores, aperitif wines are typically found on shelves near sherries and ports, although this is not always the case. Unfortunately, these days, even the best liquor stores are unlikely to have more than a haphazard assortment of aperitifs wines, and are even less likely to have anyone on staff that actually knows anything useful or correct about these products. A key point to keep in mind when shopping: there is no such thing as “the best” amongst these or any other liquors. We are blessed with a wealth of fine products with individual characters, and that diversity should be celebrated.
The word “vermouth” derived from the German word for “wormwood”, which was once one of vermouth’s primary infused botanicals. Some vermouths still employ a little wormwood. Vermouth—as a commercial product—originated in the region around Turin, Italy in the 18th Century as a moderately sweet, herbaceous, dark red or brown bottled beverage. Shortly thereafter, drier styles emerged from Chambéry (Savoy) and Marseilles in colorless or straw-colored form. Also, a blanc (white) sweet style, emerged from Chambéry.
In the United States, red (rosso, rouge) vermouth imported from Italy became wildly popular in the 1880s, and ever since, this “Italian” vermouth has been strongly associated with the Manhattan cocktail. By contrast, Europeans commonly sip this aperitif neat or over a little ice. The dry style achieved similar popularity in the US a few years later, becoming strongly associated with the Martini cocktail. Dry vermouth, especially that in the Marseilles style, also has a strong tradition in the regional kitchen as a cooking ingredient, and it makes a particularly nice alternative to white wine in pan sauces. The blanc style never enjoyed as much success in the US market but interest is justifiably growing.
These same regions have historically produced other styles of vermouth in the past that haven’t survived. Two that have, both from Torino, are vermouth alla vaniglia (vermouth with vanilla) and vermouth con bitter (vermouth with extra bitters). Various new contemporary styles also can be found. What some call “Western Dry”—a quasi-style from California—is already fairly well established. Other new ideas, such as rosé-based vermouth, are just testing the market.
Almost all contemporary vermouth producers manufacture both red and dry vermouths, and many also produce a white vermouth. “Me too” products have a long history in this segment. It is generally fair to say that French producers are better known for the lighter, dry and white vermouths, and Italian producers for the red, spicy Torino-inspired vermouths, but all commercial vermouths are proprietary formulas, and it is their unique botanicals and flavor profiles that distinguish them. Some may be better, some lesser, although even those often judged amongst the “best” may not be best in all circumstances. It is particularly important to not fall into the trap of comparing vermouths to some platonic ideal: it’s no more reasonable to expect all vermouths of one style to taste the same than it is to expect all bourbons or gins to taste the same. Celebrate the diversity of choice and let your own taste be your guide.
There are a number of venerable aperitif wines that aren’t vermouths, but have much in common with vermouth. One group of these wines is known as “quinquina” (kenKEEnah), because historically these wines feature (or at least include) Peruvian chinchona bark (“quina” in the native Quechua tongue, “china” [KEE-nah] in italian, and possibly Anglicized as china [chai-nuh]) amongst their botanicals. Chinchona bark is the primary source of quinine (the pharmaceutical and taste component of Tonic water). Quinine became the wonder drug of the 18th Century when colonizing Europeans realized that it was beneficial in warding off malaria, and for a while, Europeans were adding quinine to anything and everything. A major market for quinquina was France’s protracted campaign in Algeria, which held large numbers of French troops and administrators in tropical peril. Some quinquina was specifically produced with the French foreign legion in mind.
Americano can be looked at as either a sub-class of quinquina or its own style, entirely. Americano refers to the word amer—bitter—not the New World. Where quinquina’s defining flavor is quinine, Americano’s is gentian and/or wormwood. Vermouth, quinquina, and americano all draw from much the same pool of botanicals, and their classification or style is a question of the intent behind the proprietary formluation. Both Quinquina and Americano can come in various colors, such as deep red, straw or even clear (colorless). Almost all are based on white wine mistelle, although one notable exception is Byrrh, which is based on a red wine mistelle.
Quinquinas and Americanos serve a similar function to vermouths: they are excellent aperitifs on their own, and they make fine components of mixed drinks.
You will find that vermouths and quinquinas are often sold in different “colors” under the same brand. The color ostensibly refers to the hue of the liquor itself, which in vermouth is most commonly reddish brown, colorless (“white”) or amber, although other possibilities exist, such as rosé. The naming and labeling of these products is not always straightforward.
Originally, most vermouth and quinquina brands were established around a singular product. For example, the original commercial vermouth was probably Antonio Benedetto Carpano’s Vermuth Carpano, an 18th Century product that no longer really exists, although the Carpano brand is alive and well. Today we would call Vermuth Carpano a rosso (red) vermouth. Moreover, we would call this product Vermouth di Torino (vermouth of Turin), because it was the defining commercial example of that regional tradition. (To be clear, vermouth was an extensively home-made aperitif in Turin prior to Carpano’s success and remains so today.) The original Vermuth Carpano label would have made no mention of rosso because there was no distinction to be drawn at the time.
Vermuth Carpano proved itself in the market and others entered the business, introducing new commercial vermouth brands. These brands immitated Carpano’s product to a greater or lesser extent and recipes were closely held secrets. Those that sought to distinguish themselves innovated. In Savoy and Marseilles, new commerical vermouths surfaced that had different flavor profiles and eschewed the caramel coloring that made Carpano’s vermouth dark-hued. The market expanded rapidly and soon all the producers were leveraging their brands across multiple vermouth products in different colors, and a de facto nomenclature emerged:
Most (not all) vermouth today is labeled with one of these terms. A few manufacturers reject this color-based classification and either employ their own naming scheme or—least helpfully—slap the same label on all their products and leave it up to the buyer to sort out which is which.
Unfortunately, the color of vermouth doesn’t necessarily mean a great deal. A red vermouth indicates a brand’s entry into the red vermouth market segment, but that doesn’t mean the product has any great similarity to the original Vermuth Carpano or the Vermouth di Torino style. All you can really presume is that it is reddish or brown and probably on the sweet side. Vermouth that is labeled white is white, and also probably on the sweet side. Vermouth labeled dry is usually pale straw colored and somewhat less sweet, at least in comparison to whatever other vermouths that particular brand might offer. The actual botanicals, flavors and character of the product can only be ascertained by tasting it and testing it out in mixed drinks.
Like the original vermouth producers, quinquina brands were generally created around a single product. Some quinquina producers eventually felt obliged (for marketing reasons) to come up with “new colors” to add to their brands. Consequently, you’ll find both a straw-colored and a red-colored Lillet product on today’s shelves; although the labels are identical on both bottles, the contents are not. Dubonnet is another example of this peculiar market-driven phenomenon.
Aperitif wines are ready to serve from the bottle. In Europe, they are primarily thought of as a stand-alone aperitif, served in a 2-3 oz (6-9 cl) pour, neat, chilled, or over ice. In the United States, vermouths and quinquinas are primarily served in mixed drinks. We recommend you enthusiastically explore both approaches.
As with other wines, aperitif wines oxidize once they’re opened. They may take on different flavor characteristics in as little as 15-20 minutes after opening! While open bottles of aperitif wines tend to gradually lose their more refined qualities over time, they have just enough alcohol in them that they tend to take weeks or even months to go decisively bad. Open aperitif wines can keep reasonably well if they are tightly capped, in the refrigerator (or a cool place), and away from light. The wine may not be quite as good down the road as when first opened, but it will still be usable (especially for cooking).
The longevity of aperitif wines may be extended by using a “wine pump” or inert gas system to reduce the oxygen in the bottle. When possible, it can be advantageous to buy small bottles (so as to replace them more frequently.)
Aperitif wines do not tend to sell in high volume in the United States, so there is some risk of buying bottles that have been sitting in the distributor’s warehouses or retail stores for a long time under less-than-optimal conditions; while old product is seldom ruined, it may have lost some of its joi-de-vivre. Avoid dusty bottles, especially those with out-of-date labeling.
As of July, 2011, we are fortunate to finally have a book in English that delivers a history of Vermouth that actually makes sense. That book is The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs by Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller. While this work may not be the last word on the topic, it has several laudable features: first, its concise coherent history of vermouth; second, that it takes into account how the marketing of vermouth in the United States in the eighteenth century profoundly impacted the cocktail culture there; third, that it keeps vermouth in context with the other botanically rich aperitifs and digestifs; and fourth, its survey of vermouth botanicals, complete with illustrations.
You can order this inexpensive volume, amongst other places, from Amazon. And you should.
Otherwise, there’s not a great deal of literature on this topic—particularly not in English—and much of what is available tends to contain a great deal of misinformation. Here we are endeavoring to correct the misinformation, but we are admittedly heavily reliant on an accumulation of facts and oral statements from industry participants. If you can parse Italian, one interesting historical source to look at is Arnaldo Strucchi’s Il Vermouth di Torino (1907), available in its entirety on Google Books. For further primary research, you may want to look up Maynard Andrew Amerine’s Vermouth: an annotated bibliography (1974).
For further discussion on aperitif wines and their uses in mixed drinks, please visit The Chanticleer Society.
Special thanks to Eric Seed, Romée de Gorianoff, Alexandre Vingtier and Carl Sutton for their invaluable assistance on this project. Otherwise, the individual to blame for this site is Martin Doudoroff, a New York City cocktail enthusiast driven to this sort of folly from time to time.
Corrections, augmentations and general feedback, particularly from vermouth and quinquina producers, are all welcomed at email@example.com.
The text and original images of Vermouth 101 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Bottle and label photography employed on the site are not covered by this license, belong to the brand-holders in question and are protected by copyright law. When in doubt, ask.
Vermouth 101 was edited by Martin Doudoroff, inspired by preceding work by Martin Doudoroff & Ted Haigh. All trademarks and intellectual property employed in discussing brands belong to their respective owners.