Published: Sunday April 20, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 21, 2014 MYT 7:19:23 PM

Discovering the vexing vermouth

Omakase + Appreciate has an impressive range of vermouths from Carpanos, Martini and Cinzano.

Omakase + Appreciate has an impressive range of vermouths from Carpanos, Martini and Cinzano.

Our columnist ventures forth to discover more about the popular fortified wine.

Vermouth has always been something of a mystery to me. For the longest time, I thought the spirit was called Martini, not knowing that it was a brand of vermouth rather than the category itself.

Not popular enough to be considered one of the main base spirits, but yet well known enough that everyone knows what it is (or rather, what brands are in the category), vermouth (pronounced ‘ver-mooth’) is nevertheless an essential spirit that every bar should have, being a main ingredient of iconic cocktails like the Negroni, Manhattan, and of course, the Martini.

To get a better understanding of this enigmatic little spirit, I headed back to specialist cocktail bar Omakase + Appreciate, where the speakeasy bar’s co-founder Shawn Chong was more than happy to show off his impressive range of vermouth.

According to Chong, vermouth is essentially an aromatised, fortified wine flavoured with botanicals. However, there is much more to the category than that. “Vermouth is an aromatic fortified wine, meaning it starts off as a wine. Most vermouth is produced using local grapes from Italy,” he said. “It may be white or red, but it all starts off as a still wine. Then it is fortified by adding a neutral spirit, usually made with a related product like a local brandy.”

Shawn Chong of Omakase + Appreciate preparing to make a cocktail using a vermouth by Martini.
Shawn Chong of Omakase + Appreciate preparing to make a cocktail using a vermouth by Martini.

Although it is a fortified wine like Port, Sherry and Madeira, vermouth is on the other end of the spectrum. “Sherry, Port and Madeira fortified wines tend to be sweet wines that are usually drank as after dinner digestifs. Vermouths are usually drunk as aperitifs,” said Chong.

“The main thing that separates vermouth from other fortified wines is the ingredient called wormwood, which is where the term ‘vermouth’ comes from. (‘Vermouth’ is the French pronunciation of the German word ‘Wermut’ for wormwood). It gives it a slight bitterness – every vermouth, even if it’s sweet, has the tinge of wormwood in it.”

Like so many other spirits and liqueurs, vermouth started out as a medicinal product, used to treat stomach disorders and intestinal parasites. The man credited with inventing the modern vermouth however, is Italian merchant Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who created the first sweet vermouth in 1786.

According to Chong, what’s interesting about vermouth is that it comes in a range of varying sweetness. “Vermouth tends to have three styles, depending on sweetness level, namely sweet (Rosso), semi-sweet (Bianco), and ‘dry’, which is the least sweet of the three,” he said.

Martini and Cinzano are the two most popular brands of vermouth in the world, and they both use the colour of their spirits to differentiate between the three varying levels of sweetness. Using the Martini variants as an example, Chong said that when a recipe calls for ‘sweet vermouth’, it refers to Rosso, or the red one. If semi-sweet vermouth is called for, then it is the straw-coloured vermouth. And finally, if dry vermouth is needed, then the lightest-coloured one, the Extra Dry is used.

“The general rule of thumb for vermouth – Rosso is sweet, Bianco is semi-sweet, and Extra Dry is the least sweet. It can be confusing sometimes, because the Extra Dry is not exactly ‘dry’, just less sweet than the rest,” said Chong, adding that he chooses his vermouths based on the cocktails he makes.

“It’s usually a matter of the bartender’s preference, but for classic cocktails like the Manhattan or the Negroni, or those that require a sweet vermouth, I usually use Carpano’s vermouths. For other cocktails, I’ll use the more commercial brands like Martini or Cinzano.”

Cinzano is one of the most popular vermouth brands in the world, second only to Martini.
Cinzano is one of the most popular vermouth brands in the world, second only to Martini.

To illustrate the difference between premium and commercial vermouths, Chong made two different versions of the classic Manhattan (20ml sweet vermouth, and 50ml bourbon, dash of orange bitters, and garnished with a cherry).

In one of the Manhattans, Chong used Carpano’s Antica Formula, a red vermouth based on the original recipe created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano himself. For the other, he used a Martini Rosso.

“Personally, I feel that the commercial vermouths tend to be sweeter, and the spices don’t come out as well,” he said, adding that the spices in Carpano’s original vermouth recipe come through better. “You get a more complex drink using Antica Formula versus the more commercial brands, which won’t give you as much complexity.

“It’s not that the commercial brands are bad – they are just different. It depends on what you are aiming for in a cocktail – I tend to use them for fruiter cocktails, where you may not want too much of the spices coming out. But for drinks that concentrate on classic flavours like the Manhattan, you want as much complexity as you can get.”

By the way, if you happen to have a bottle of vermouth at home, you might want to keep it in the refrigerator after you’ve opened it, where it will be able to last longer. “You should treat it like a wine – any vermouth that is opened should be kept in a chiller, where it will hold longer than one week or two,” he said, adding that some bars keep it sitting on the shelf, which is not the proper way to store it.

“On the shelf, it will only last about four to five days, but in a chiller, you can keep it for one or two weeks, or even up to a month. After that, the taste will be flat, as you lose most of the subtleness of the aromatics. In the worse case scenario, it might go bad completely.”

Omakase + Appreciate is located at Bangunan Ming Annexe, Jalan Ampang. For more information, visit their Facebook page:

> Michael Cheang has concluded that Martini (the brand, the glass and the cocktail) deserves a whole future column all by itself.

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Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Tipsy-Turvy, vermouth, Martini

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