One of my favorite pastimes is browsing spirits shops. I like to hunt for the new and unusual, as well as for that rare and precious bottle that the shop owner is unknowingly selling for cheap. Those finds may be few and far between, but, thankfully, shopping for sweet vermouth can offer a taste of that kind of excitement — like you're getting away with something.
I say that because sweet vermouth can be one of the cheapest items to restock in the 9-Bottle Bar — and yet the product quality of the category, even toward the low end of the price spectrum, is superb.
Add to the value equation the fact that producers often bottle their sweet vermouth in small-format, 375-mL bottles as well as the larger, more conventional sizes like 750 mL and 1 L. The benefit of the small bottle is twofold: the cost is even lower (although you are likely paying more per ounce), and you run less of a risk of your sweet vermouth suffering a bad turn in flavor over time due to oxidation. (Vermouth has a wine base and ought to be refrigerated after opening to slow the oxidation process.) If you're not consuming your vermouth at a rate of, say, a 750-mL bottle per month, you may be better off opting for 375s and restocking more often — and this is true for sweet as well as dry vermouth, which we'll cover in this column in the months ahead.
So, what to look for the next time your browsing the shelves of your local liquor store, scouting out deals?
Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge - $14 for 750 mL
Yes, my go-to value bottle of sweet vermouth — the one I always have on hand for after-work Manhattans and Negronis — hails not from Italy, the birthplace of sweet vermouth, but France. (Going back to my column from last week, this is another reason why "sweet vermouth" and "Italian vermouth" aren't perfect synonyms.) The southeastern French city of Chambéry, near the border shared by France and Italy, has its own (albeit younger) tradition of making vermouth, and the Dolin label dates back to the 1820s.
For a sweet vermouth, Dolin Rouge has a relatively dry formula, and the slightly restrained sweetness allows for more of its softer, herbal, spice-kissed qualities to come forward. Likewise, when you mix Dolin Rouge in cocktails, it plays more of a supporting role, with its subtleties leaving the flavors of base spirits to shine through.
Carpano Antica Formula - $32 for 1 L
No discussion of sweet vermouth can overlook the original, the pioneering product in the category, Carpano Antica Formula, which can trace its history back to the late 1700s. At nearly double the price by volume compared with Dolin Rouge, Antica Formula is undoubtedly one of the more extravagant sweet vermouths on the market today, but its robust character and complex profile are what keep it in the conversation. (In other words, it's not a budget vermouth, per se, but rather one you should considering budgeting for.)
The cost is in the choice and handling of ingredients. As Nicola Olianas, a brand ambassador from Fratelli Branca, the maker of Antica Formula, told me recently, the company is very careful about quality control when sourcing the herbs, spices, wine, and fruit that go into the final product, as well as how they go about coaxing flavor out of their botanicals. Vanilla from Madagascar, cinnamon, Rosa canina, first-press wine from Sicily, and whole oranges that the company peels in-house for the freshest skins are just a few of the raw materials. Olianas added that Fratelli Branca is perhaps the only maker today using saffron in its sweet vermouths.
Because Antica Formula is so full-bodied, some drinkers complain that its taste, especially with its strong vanilla notes, can dominate certain cocktails where the sweet vermouth is better employed in a supporting role. But by the same token, Antica Formula has a unique prowess among sweet vermouths to stand up against other strong ingredients and still assert itself. And cocktails taste more rich and luxurious because of it.
Punt e Mes - $19
Produced by the same outfit that makes Antica Formula, Punt e Mes represents a distinctive style of sweet vermouth, in that the formula includes chinchona bark, a bittering agent. Known to the Italians as china (KEY-nah), this plant is rich in quinine, which has a long medicinal history and is typically found in commercial tonic water. With a kick of bitter china, Punt e Mes can play two roles in a cocktail, adding both sweetness and bitterness — a handy multitasker when making so-called brown-and-stirred drinks, which generally feature aged spirits, bitters, and something to sweeten the two. If you dig the presence of bitters in your cocktails, then Punt e Mes may be the ideal sweet vermouth for your home bar.
Olianas explained that the name, meaning a point and a half, can be interpreted as one part sweet vermouth to one-half part bitters, which is how Italians often took their aperitivo: a measure of sweet vermouth, mixed with a half measure of china liqueur. By turning that common drink order into a commercial product, Punt e Mes may be the first bottled cocktail in history.
(Image credits: Roger Kamholz)