The 9-Bottle Bar Guide to Homemade Sweet Vermouth

published May 28, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

If you’ve been keeping up with The 9-Bottle Bar this month, by now you’ve learned that sweet vermouth consists of wine that’s been fortified with additional alcohol; infused (or “aromatized”) with a variety of botanical ingredients, one of which should be artemisia absinthium, vermouth’s namesake, better known as grand wormwood; and sweetened with burnt sugar.

The process sounds simple enough — and thus begs the question, Can one make vermouth at home?

The answer is yes — sweet vermouth is ripe for at-home experimentation. With a simple set of ingredients and a basic understanding of how vermouth is made, the ambitious DIYer can easily begin to create recipes that suit his or her own tastes.

With sweet vermouth — with vermouths in general, really — the canvas is largely blank and there’s lots of room for artistic license. Ever tried making mulled wine around the holidays? Then you’re well on your way. The ingredient list may take a bit more effort to amass, but making vermouth isn’t all that much more complicated than warming up a batch of mulled wine.

Instead of providing one recipe, which would yield one narrow interpretation of what sweet vermouth can be, what follows below is more of a primer, meant to kick off your experimentation.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

The Wine

Historically, winemakers produced vermouth from wine that they found to be, let’s say, not quite ready for prime time. Adding herbs and additional alcohol were means to stabilize the wine for longer shelf life and to improve on its flavor. The lesson here is, feel free to choose light, dry, neutral-flavored, and inexpensive white wine as the base of your homemade vermouth. (In other words, no reason to use the good stuff here.)

Varietals like the Italian Trebbiano and French Clairette blanche are often associated with vermouth production, but un-oaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and a host of others would work just fine, too.

The Extraction

Infusing the wine with the flavors of your selection of botanical ingredients can be performed in a few ways.

The quickest method is to boil the full quantity of wine you’re using in a short burst with the herbs and other aromatic ingredients, and later, straining, fortifying, and sweetening the mixture.

A slower, more controlled method is to divide up your volume of wine and infuse about a quarter of the total amount; with this method, the herbs and wine simmer for 10 minutes, give or take, depending on the scale of the recipe. Once strained, the resulting liquid is then used to flavor the remaining wine along with sugar and a spirit such as brandy.

Cold infusion presents a third option, in which wine and botanicals mingle in a cool, dark place for upwards of 10 days.

The Sugar

As mentioned above, burnt sugar is a major component of sweet vermouth — sometimes as much as 15 percent of its volume. It not only adds balancing sweetness to play against the bitter and herbaceous elements, the deep, candied tones of caramel impart a rich, red-brown color.

In recipes for sweet vermouth, a common method for caramelizing the sugar is to heat it with just enough water to create a sand-like texture, stir until well caramelized but not burnt, and, finally, add some brandy or the spirit of your choice to fully dissolve the mixture. (A ratio between 3:1 and 2:1 of grams of sugar to millimeters of spirit should work well.)

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

The Botanicals

The real fun of experimenting with your own homemade vermouth is in finding a blend of botanicals that suits your palate. Beyond the suggestion of including a measure of wormwood for the sake authenticity (not to mention a little requisite bitterness), there are really no rules. Below are just a handful of ingredients commonly featured in sweet vermouth recipes.

Bittering Agents

  • Wormwood
  • Sage
  • Gentian root
  • Chinchona bark
  • Dried orange peel
  • Hops

Baking Spices & Flavors

  • Clove
  • Cinnamon
  • Ginger
  • Star anise
  • Coriander seed
  • Vanilla bean

Herbs & Beyond

  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Chamomile
  • Juniper berries
  • Rose petals

The goal in infusing the base wine is to find a blend and ratio of ingredients that achieve a balanced, palate-pleasing result.

One more thing: a little goes a long way! Start your infusions with small quantities of each ingredient to test their relative potency and then adjust. If the flavor of a given component isn’t coming through strongly enough, quickly boil that ingredient alone with some wine, strain, and add the infused wine to the larger batch you have going.