Understanding the World of Vermouth: The Dry Side

published Aug 6, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Time to set aside orange liqueur, which we’ve been discussing all throughout July at The 9-Bottle Bar, and pick up our coverage of vermouth. You’ll recall that the 9-Bottle Bar arsenal features not one but two bottles of vermouth — one sweet (explored in depth back in May), and the other dry.

One might ask, with such a short roster to fill, why devote two precious spots to vermouths? As we’ll see, even though sweet and dry vermouth grew out of a common tradition, the latter is a distinctive product with its own profile and applications in cocktails.

A Short History of Vermouth

Having covered much of the history and production methods behind vermouth already, we’re not going to drill into those details here. A short recap: commercial vermouth came about in the late 1700s in northern Italy, particularly around the city of Turin. Though they likely weren’t thought of in this context initially, those earliest products were sweet in style.

It took the arrival of a dry style of vermouth — the creation of which drinks writer Paul Clarke ascribes to Frenchman Joseph Noilly — for this essential distinction to arise.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

How Noilly Dry Vermouth Changed the Field

Noilly created his dry vermouth formula in 1813, and relatives of his were producing the product commercially in the town of Marseillan by 1855, under a label still in existence today, Noilly Prat. Shortly after Noilly pioneered the style, the Dolin brand, based in the French town of Chambéry, introduced its own dry vermouth, which can also be seen on liquor store shelves today.

For a time — namely the years surrounding the turn of the 20th century — dry vermouth was an extremely popular cocktail ingredient. It remains most associated with the the dry martini which grew out of this period. Some cocktail recipes minted in this era even called for vermouth as the main ingredient, reversing the typical build.

Why Dry Vermouth Suffered a Lull in Popularity

But dry vermouth’s heyday was just that — an interlude with celebrity that was succeeded by a period of marginalization. Likely due to a combination of improper storage methods and the serving of old product, dry vermouth became reputed as the thing you add to a martini in increasingly small doses. Winston Churchill famously said that in lieu of vermouth in his martini, he simply bowed toward France.

Being an aromatized and fortified wine, vermouth should be refrigerated after opening; even then, it will noticeably degrade in flavor after a few weeks. Given its easily-spoiled nature, 20th-century drinkers discovered a distaste for (probably spoiled) dry vermouth, stopped requesting it, and then forgot what it tasted like, recalling only that they didn’t like it.

A Return to Favor

Thankfully, dry vermouth has returned to favor in the canon of cocktail ingredients. More people are appreciating how it adds wonderful depth and complexity to a well-made dry martini, for instance. If served fresh, dry vermouth is something not to skip but to celebrate.