Vermouth is a key ingredient in a number of classic cocktails, like a martini, Negroni or Manhattan. But for decades, vermouth took a backseat to the other elements of these drinks like gin, bourbon and whiskey. But vermouth is having a moment, and understanding the different vermouth styles is key to shaking (or mixing) up a delicious cocktail.
Major brands like Martini & Rossi, Carpano Classico, Cinzano, Noilly Prat and Dolin still shine. But, smaller craft producers, including Distefano Winery Poppi Dry Vermouth and Method Spirits Sweet Vermouth, are creating unique flavors and gaining a following.
Here’s a look at the different vermouth styles and how they can be incorporated into many different cocktails.
What Is Vermouth?
Vermouth has been around for centuries and was originally created for medicinal purposes, says Anthony Caporale, director of spirits education at the Institute of Culinary Education. It’s a fortified wine, which means distilled alcohol (like brandy or a neutral spirit) is added to increase the alcohol content and stop the fermentation process, explains Gregory Bonath, a chef instructor at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts.
The fortified wine must then be infused with botanicals to be considered vermouth. Some common infusions include wormwood, orange peel, juniper, star anise and angelica root. Many brands keep their exact ingredients top secret, though. This is why the flavor profile of the final product varies depending on the region and producer.
Generally, vermouth comes in sweet or dry varieties. According to the European Union, the product must contain 75% wine to be considered vermouth. Vermouth’s alcohol by volume (abv) ranges from 16%–18%, slightly higher than unfortified wine’s 9%–14% abv. It’s still considered lower-proof than most spirits.
Vermouth Styles to Try
Sweet vermouth traditionally comes from Italy, and usually contains 130 grams or more of sugar per liter. This vermouth style can be red or white. They vary slightly in flavor, but both red and white vermouth can be used interchangeably in cocktails calling for sweet vermouth, says Caporale.
“Sweet red vermouth could be described as the flavor of warming spices, such as clove, cinnamon [or] nutmeg. Think of fall and wintertime spices,” says Bonath. “Sweet white vermouth will have the flavor profiles of vanilla, citrus and spiciness.”
Sweet red vermouth, also known as rosso, is classically used in a Negroni or Manhattan. Other cocktail options include a vermouth spritz, an Americano cocktail or simply drinking this fortified wine on its own.
Try it with “a little bit of ice and add orange or lemon zest,” suggests Izzy Tulloch, head bartender at Milady’s in New York City.
She also loves using sweet red vermouth in sangria. “It adds a really beautiful texture and complexity,” says Tulloch. “The herbal and bitter root flavors just play really nicely with red wine and fresh fruits.”
“Adding aromatic, earthy and spiced bitter components [to vermouth] will round up the cocktail and add complexity to it,” adds Milos Zica, partner and beverage director of Fandi Mata in New York City.
If you find yourself with white vermouth on hand, Emanuele Balestra, bars director at Hotel Barriere’s Le Majestic and Le Gray d’Albion in Cannes, France, says he prefers it in cocktails like his Chamomile Negroni cocktail, since it’s not quite as sweet.
“This allows me to use the floral flavors and elegant plant aromas I make my cocktails with,” he says.
Dry vermouth originated in France and was traditionally made with wormwood, a key ingredient in absinthe. It’s light in color and more herbaceous, floral and citrusy, compared to sweet vermouth, Bonath explains. It typically contains less than 50 grams of sugar per liter, adds Caporale.
Dry vermouth also contains “oxidated flavors,” says Balestra, “so when I mix it with gin, for example, it adds a saline twist which stimulates the tongue and causes it to salivate.”
The classic use for dry vermouth is a martini. Zica says one of his favorites is a 50/50 Martini with equal parts gin and dry vermouth, garnished with both an olive and lemon zest. He describes the drink as “light-bodied, nutty [and] mineral,” adding that the dry vermouth softens and freshens up the gin’s botanical and juniper notes.
“It’s very popular among industry people and is to-die-for, stirred, yet not [an] overly boozy aperitif,” says Zica.
This type of vermouth also pairs well with dark spirits, says Tulloch. “I think we often forget that whiskey can have these really delicate floral notes that dry vermouth can shine a spotlight on.”
Extra-dry vermouth is even less sweet than dry varieties, with less than 30 grams of sugar per liter. It has lemon, orange and herbaceous notes, Bonath says. It tends to go well with sharp, acidic flavors.
“If you’re looking to add botanicals to a drink without increasing the sugar content, then extra-dry vermouth is a great way to go,” adds Caporale. It’s also commonly used in a martini.
Amber vermouth is an in-between of red vermouth and dry vermouth, explains Caporale. Depending on how you look at it, it’s semi-dry or semi-sweet and tends to be fruity and floral.
“If you want a martini on the sweeter side, amber is a step up from dry vermouth,” he says. “If you want your Manhattan on the drier side, amber vermouth does it.”
Caporale says he also enjoys amber vermouth with sparkling water, while Bonath adds it pairs well with sparkling wine. No matter how you mix it, vermouth is a great option to have on hand to elevate your DIY cocktails.