Perhaps the two most important drinks in the cocktail renaissance have been the Manhattan and the Negroni. And while it’s common today for customers to voice their preference for the gin or rye used in these drinks, the other major component, vermouth, is only now starting to emerge from the shadows.
At cocktail-centric bars, the likes of such artisanal vermouths as Dolin and Carpano have established themselves at the core of beverage programs, especially as the 19th and early 20th century drinks that feature different types of vermouths have returned to prominence. Several restaurants have started creating vermouth sections on the menu to highlight the wine-based aperitif. Some ambitious bars have launched “design your own” Manhattan and Martini programs, featuring vermouths and their aromatized and fortified wine relations and encouraging customers to mix, match and sample.
It’s about time vermouth regained its luster in the American drinking scene. While an enormous category internationally, there hasn’t been much growth in the U.S. for some time.
About 30% of the volume now comes from the various vermouths made by category leader Martini and Rossi, though the brand, like the other top-five, best-selling vermouths (Gallo, Tribuno, Stock and Dubonnet) all lost volume last year, according to data from the Beverage Information Group.
Only Cinzano of the major brands grew last year, and the leading brands were down 6.5% overall. The real growth is among the smaller brands, which account for about 25% of volume but grew more than 6% last year (The total vermouth category was down 1.4%.)
POISED FOR A COMEBACK
“I see a future when we start to see vermouth reassert itself as a stand-alone drink,” says Jackson Cannon, who heads the bar program at Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar and the Hawthorne in Boston. “The cocktail revival did a lot of work to move it from something you count every inventory and put back on the shelf to an important ingredient in many, many cocktails—with great variation in flavor profile from one type to another.”
The shift has been remarkable, he notes. “It’s pretty amazing how much vermouth an American bar can go through now, when ten years ago, it was an ingredient that just sat around.”
Cannon points out a couple of reasons vermouth is poised for a return. For one, younger drinkers haven’t developed an aversion to it the way previous generations, weaned on the decades-long fad for vermouth-free Martinis, had. What’s more, many adventurous diners are attracted to lighter, food-friendly beverages, especially as apertifs, and they don’t find bitterness off-putting in a drink.
“Believe it or not, people are far more educated about vermouth now than just a few years ago,” says Sother Teague, head bartender at New York’s tiny Amor y Amargo bar. “They realize its importance in their favorite cocktails and are finally coming around to the idea that it’s also delicious on its own. If it’s one-third of their Manhattan, it’d better be good as a standalone.”
At Amor y Amargo, “We sell a ton of Manhattans and Negronis,” Teague says. “People gravitate to the classics as a jumping off point,” he notes. “Beyond that, we spend the bulk of our time making variations on these themes.”
ANCIENT EUROPEAN ROOTS
Vermouth has ancient roots—literally—as it began as fairly bland white wine spiced up with roots, bark, herbs and spices and then fortified with spirit. Commercial varieties began popping up in Northern Italy the late 18th century, especially the variety commonly called Italian or sweet vermouth. While there a couple of red or rosé-based vermouths, the majority are made with white wine and added color.
An enterprising Frenchman named Joseph Noilly is believed to be the first to commercialize the dry, or French, style of vermouth in the early 19th century. European vermouths by law must contain wormwood, the source of the beverage’s name, in the botanical mix.
At one time, Americans drank gallons of vermouth—both in cocktails and as aperitifs—but the post-war craze for dry, drier, driest Martinis helped kill its use. The abominable way vermouth has been treated at the bar hasn’t helped. It may be flavored and fortified, but vermouth is still a wine and needs to be preserved, used or disposed of within a month of opening, at the most.
The tide may be finally turning for all vermouths, says Jacob Briars, head of training and education for Bacardi. “For a long time bartenders, especially in craft cocktail bars, have been trying to push vermouth-led cocktails, and we’ve been saying it’s the next big thing. If you say something long enough, eventually, I hope, it comes true.”
This newfound interest has encouraged Noilly Pratt, owned by Bacardi, to bring to the U.S. a limited amount of their Ambre vermouth, which is sought after by craft cocktail makers.
DYI PROGRAMS LEND A HAND
Bars that are pioneering the Martini and Manhattan DIY programs are helping repopularize the ingredient. At 643 North in Los Angeles, the “Build Your Own Martini or Manhattan Bar” program has been in place for about six months, and bar manager Adam Acuff is enthusiastic about the possibilities.
The menu and DIY experience starts with guests choosing their spirit from a selection of 12 ryes, 20 bourbons, 12 gins and vodkas. Next, they select a vermouth from three sections: Dry (white), Sweet (red) and Aromatic; brands include Dolin Blanc, Lillet Rose, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Noilly Pratt Dry and Punt e Mes. (Like at most contemporary bars, other European aperitif and aromatized wines are used interchangeably here with vermouth.)
The menu at 643 North also has some helpful suggestions about the vermouths to guide. The guest then chooses bitters and garnishes for the drink.
“A lot of times we get people who don’t really care or haven’t heard of many of them,” Acuff says of the vermouths. “But they are starting to sample things and be more adventurous, once they get used to having their favorite drink a new way.” Even the Perfect Manhattan, made with dry and sweet vermouth, has made a bit of a comeback at 643 North.
“People are responding positively and want something off the beaten path—some work better with bitters, others with ryes or gins,” Arcuff says. “The point is to try to get people to try a different style every time they come and get another aspect of what vermouth can add.”
A similar program, Manhattans only, is in place at Luxbar in Chicago. Principal bartender Matthew Lipsky created a Manhattan card, listing a variety of rye whiskeys, vermouths, bitters and ice. Vermouth options include Carpano Antica, Dolin Rouge, Punt Y Mes, Byrrh and Lillet Rouge. Guests even can choose their preferred type of ice and glassware.
“It’s a fun idea to give people options,” says Lipsky. “Many people drink Manhattans and say it’s their drink, but when you change the spirit or especially the vermouth, they can be so different from their usual.”
He says customers want to learn more about drinks made with vermouth and how different brands change a drink’s flavor. But he doesn’t push too much info at his customers—not everyone, it turns out, likes to “geek out” about their cocktails.
Sweet vermouth has also been benefiting from the many Negroni options today, from barrel-aged variants to the so-called Sbagliato (Italian for incorrect) Negroni. The Gilroy in New York opened in February with seven Negronis on its cocktail menu, five using vermouths and one barrel-aged, for instance.
For some, the spectrum of flavor in commercially available vermouths isn’t enough. Bartenders at Eastern Standard have been making their own vermouths since 2007, whipping up as many as seven varieties each year.
The stand-by is a rosé variant made with Spanish garnacha, fortified with strawberry-soaked Cognac and a long list of botanicals including gentian and wormwood as bittering agents. The main vermouth at the Hawthorne is a stab at the Noilly Pratt Amber, which Cannon makes with salted banana and pineapple with cognac.
“We were trying to replicate two niches that weren’t being served, rosé and amber,” Cannon says. “They have this great vibrancy and deliciousness, even though what we ended up with was not the thing we were trying to make,” he adds.
At Eastern Standard, he also uses four or more commercially-produced vermouths, while the smaller Hawthorne might feature six or eight vermouths at a time.
Key to keeping the selection fresh is making sure they are featured in well-promoted drinks, he notes. One of the more successful drinks at Eastern Standard is the Bitter Wine Fizz, made with rosé vermouth, lemon juice, apricot brandy and an egg white, shaken and topped sparkling wine.
A cocktail made with equal parts Plantation aged rum, amber-style vermouth and the Italian cardoon amaro Cardamaro was a big hit at the Hawthorne recently.
The newly opened Lupo Verde, a Southern Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., carries a number of vermouths but is also in process of creating its own. Francesco Amodeo, who directs the bar program, is also a distiller and soon will unveil a variety evoking his native Amalfi Coast made specifically for the restaurant.
Strong in citrus, the vermouth will soon join the six or so vermouths the restaurant carries and uses in drinks such as L’Americano, made with gin, pisco, Dolin Rosso, Campari, coffee beans and orange bitters. The menu, with an Italian aperitivo cocktail list, fits perfectly with the varieties of vermouths served, Verde says.
Recognize each vermouth’s qualities when creating a drink. “You must be very, very precise and choose the right vermouth in order to respect the craft behind the spirits,” says Amodeo. “For instance, a gin with more juniper may overwhelm one vermouth and not another, so you can’t just switch these in and out.”
Few operations feature vermouth on its own, but at Boston’s Blue Room, seven vermouths and a number of similar aperitif wines are sold and menued on the rocks and in many drinks.
“We opened with a vermouth-heavy cocktail list, since we really wanted to do our best as a wine bar to keep the cocktail program as wine-forward as possible,” says Fanny Katz, bartender/opening bar manager at the Blue Room and the Belly Wine Bar next door.
A particular fan of the Bamboo cocktail—equal parts dry sherry and vermouth with orange bitters; she suggests it often to Martini drinkers. “Vermouth itself is the best advocate of its flavors and freshness,” Katz says. “We make sure the staff is well trained and aware of what they are serving so they can share what the vermouths are with the guests.”
Above all, she likes how well vermouths can be paired with food, and how their lower alcohol makes them quaffable and adaptable. “It’s such a beautiful aperitif and digestif, and well suited to making people hungry and excited about the foods we serve,” Katz says. ·
Jack Robertiello is a wine and spirits writer/consultant based in Brooklyn, NY.
Chains Not Yet on Vermouth Bandwagon
As popular as vermouth has become at fine dining and craft cocktail operations, it will likely be some time before the chain restaurant environment is more accommodating. Upscale chain concept Morton’s The Steakhouse, for instance, currently offers a Martini menu that proudly proclaims there is no vermouth in the Martinis.
“Vermouth and chain restaurants are almost oxymoronic,” says chain restaurant beverage consultant David Commer. “But I think it’s coming—we’re on the cusp of chain operators paying attention to it more, perhaps in the next few years.”
Most chain operators could begin by taking better care of the vermouth they do have, he notes. Then they need to carry a few more brands, as they have started with amaros such as Aperol. One they do, Commer says, the vermouth revival will likely pick up at the chain level. “I think it’s coming—I hope it’s coming,” he adds.—JR