Understanding the World of Vermouth: The Sweet Unknown

published May 21, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

For the past few weeks, we’ve had sweet vermouth on the brain here at the 9-Bottle Bar — the history, the production process, the botanicals, the brands worth considering. But so far we’ve confined our exploration to the more mainstream stuff, namely sweet red vermouths hailing from France and Italy. But not all sweet vermouths are red in color, nor are they produced exclusively in those two countries. This week we touch on a few of the outliers.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

As sweet vermouth grew in popularity and spread to other lands, so too did the methodology behind its making. And where domestic markets for sweet vermouth took hold, local producers naturally turned to prevailing grape varietals for the wine base and the native flora for botanicals. Take the Spanish, who have been enjoying their own homegrown vermouths nearly as long as the French and Italians have. Only in recent years, though, have Spanish brands begun to export to the U.S.

One intriguing twist on traditional sweet vermouth to come out of Spain recently (and to thankfully land in select markets in the U.S.): Vermut Negre, hailing from Casa Mariol, a winemaker based in the Terra Alta region of Catalunya. Clad in a smartly designed bottle, complete with instructions for making happy-hour cocktails, Vermut Negre (“black vermouth”) isn’t quite so robust as the ruby-red varieties of sweet vermouth Italy’s known for, nor is it so dry as the straw-pale French vermouths we’d mix in a Gin Martini. If anything, it’s a dead ringer for a rich, complex sherry.

This resemblance to sherry is rooted in its making. Casa Mariol macerates a blend of herbs, walnuts, spices, and other ingredients in a wine made from wild-grown Catalan Macabeo (aka Viura) grapes, a typical component of cava. All vermouth production includes a step like this. But, taking a page from the sherry-production playbook, the wine is also aged in a solera format, in which barrels cellared for as long as 60 years are blended together with younger stock in order to impart deeper character and achieve consistency. The result is a nutty, concentrated, raisin-like flavor profile and a beautiful, burnt-orange color. Paired with a squirt of club soda, Vermut Negre performs splendidly as a quick, light, bubbly aperitif (a handy diagram on the bottle recommends this concoction). For more mileage, try swapping it in for the sweet vermouth or sherry in your favorite cocktails.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

A much older offshoot of traditional sweet (red) vermouth is what’s commonly called white vermouth. Dolin, the French producer whose Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge we recommended last week, was the pioneer of this style. One of the key differences between white and red vermouth is the lack of caramelized sugar in the former, which leads to its colorless appearance.

Since Dolin created the white vermouth category with its Vermouth de Chambéry Blanc, other houses, including Carpano and Martini & Rossi, have followed with their own recipes. While white vermouths are still sweet like their red counterparts, they often exhibit more honeyed, floral profiles. Carpano Bianco, which was first sold in the U.S. since last fall but originated in the 1950s, includes ginger, chamomile, and hyssop among its botanicals. In cocktails, white vermouths can work in tandem with light-colored spirits to make transparent riffs on classic recipes.