“For the past 150 years, vermouth has shaped cocktail culture in the United States more than any other spirit.” So says Adam Ford in his exhaustive 2015 book Vermouth: The Revival of the Spirit That Created America’s Cocktail Culture. And it’s true: Vermouth is critical to our most iconic cocktails, from the Manhattan to the martini. Still, the spirit is often relegated to a bottle that hasn’t been changed since the last time a Clinton was president. It’s time to dust it off and bring vermouth into the 21st century.
Though brands vary widely, vermouth is basically wine that has been fortified with additional alcohol, sweetened with sugar and flavored with botanicals. Those botanicals — usually a secret blend of herbs, barks and spices thought to have some medicinal properties — are where each vermouth derives its characteristic flavor, which can range from crisp and floral to rich and spicy. Most vermouths are loosely categorized as sweet or dry (sometimes called Italian or French, respectively), though styles are constantly being redefined as new producers enter the game.
Unfortunately, good vermouth can be hard to find in Pennsylvania, with most state stores offering just a handful of workhorse options. It’s not hopeless, however. Carpano Antica, a top-shelf sweet vermouth with rich notes of cocoa and dark fruit, is widely available, and the excellent Dolin line is now in many premium stores. And more local bars and restaurants are turning their attention to curating interesting collections of vermouth. Mediterranean-inspired spots like Poros and Morcilla feature vermouth prominently on their cocktail and spirits lists.
When using vermouth at home, remember this: Keep it cold and use it fast. Vermouth is wine-based and, like wine, begins to oxidize the moment the bottle is opened, leading to stale, limp flavors. While that doesn’t mean you have to polish off that bottle by the end of the night, most experts advocate storing open bottles in the fridge and keeping them for no longer than a month.
Though we often think of vermouth as something to mix with, many varieties are excellent straight out the bottle, served unadorned or with a bit of ice and citrus peel. A glass of fine vermouth, with its delicate balance of sweet, bitter and herbaceous, is as complex as any mixed drink.
Of course, vermouth is key to many of America’s most treasured cocktails, playing nicely with clear spirits like gin as well as aged whiskeys and brandies. Showcase it in a so-called “reverse Manhattan,” which likely mimics the original, 19th-century version of the beloved cocktail. Stir two ounces of good sweet vermouth with an ounce of rye whiskey, two dashes of bitters and ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and behold a beguiling, low-alcohol version of the classic drink.