One year ago when the first MCO was announced, I decided to make a cocktail every day and post it on my Instagram as my “Daily MCO Drink”. Since then, I’ve made a single, different cocktail for every day (except two) for the past year. Yes, that’s an entire year of cocktails.
When I started making those daily drinks, I thought I’d run out of one of the base spirits first. While I did go through quite a bit of gin and bourbon at first, surprisingly, it was my vermouth bottles that were emptied first.
The sweet vermouth went first, used in classic drinks like the Negroni, Manhattan, Americano and the Hanky Panky, among others. I’m a big fan of the Martini, and so I also made quite a few of its variations (50/50, dry, dirty, and so on), so the dry vermouth went pretty quickly as well.
It got me thinking about just how much vermouths features in drinks and bars all over the world, and just how underrated it seems to be. Fortunately, that is changing, with last Saturday (March 21) being the first ever Vermouth Day.
This is a “holiday” that was created by renowned bartender Giancarlo Mancino (though not linked to the Mancino Vermouth brand he inspired), who wants this to be a day to “celebrate vermouth in all its forms, without barriers. Vermouths from every country, colour and flavour, each with its own productive method”.
So, here are a few things you should know about this essential spirit.
Did I say spirit? I meant wine. Yes, vermouth is technically a wine – a fortified wine, to be exact.
Pronounced “ver-mooth”, it is an aromatised, fortified wine flavoured with botanicals that was first produced as a medicinal product, used to treat stomach disorders and intestinal parasites. The man credited with inventing the modern vermouth is Italian merchant Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who created the first sweet vermouth in 1786.
Vermouth starts off as a wine, which is then fortified with a neutral spirit that is usually made with a related product, such as a brandy made from the same grapes as the wine (this may vary with different brands).
The difference between vermouth and other fortified wines like sherry or port, however, is an ingredient called wormwood, which is where the term “vermouth” comes from. (Vermouth is the French pronunciation of the German word Wermut for wormwood). Every vermouth, sweet or dry, will have the tinge of wormwood in it, alongside all the other complex botanicals infused into it.
Vermouth are typically separated into three styles, depending on sweetness level – sweet (Rosso), semi-sweet (Bianco), and “dry” (Secco), which is the least sweet of the three.
The general rule of thumb for vermouth is 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 Bianco vermouth. And finally, if dry vermouth is needed, then the lightest-coloured one, the Dry is used.
Since vermouth is a wine and not a spirit, you will need to take extra care of how you store it as well. Spirits are distilled and contain a high alcohol base volume (ABV), so they can be left out in room temperature without going bad. but vermouths need to be chilled after the bottle is opened, otherwise, you would lose the subtlety of the aromatics and the vermouth will taste flat.
So, if you happen to have a bottle of vermouth at home, keep it in the refrigerator after you’ve opened it, just like any wine, and try to consume it within three months.
The two biggest brands of vermouths in the world are Martini and Cinzano, and for a long time, it seemed that these were the only two brands in the market.
In recent years, however, the rise of the cocktail scene both globally and locally has seen an increase in the number of vermouth brands, including artisanal ones like the aforementioned Mancino Vermouth and the increasingly popular French brand Dolin, as well as more commercial ones like Martini and Cinzano, and Carpano’s Antica Formula (a red vermouth based on the original recipe created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano himself).
Eiling Lim, who is Malaysia’s first and only female independent bottler of spirits and whiskies, even released a single cask vermouth from Lacuesta, a renowned winery that ages its vermouth in oak barrels.
There is no Martini without vermouth, declares Mancino Vermouth’s press release for Vermouth Day. And indeed, vermouths are probably most famously used in classic cocktails.
Dry vermouth is typically used for drinks like the Martini and the El Presidente, while sweet vermouth is essential in drinks like the Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth and Campari) and its many variations (Boulevardier, Americano, Martinez etc), the Manhattan, the Hanky Panky, and many more.
There is more to the category than just a supporting act in cocktails though. It can be the base of a drink as well, including in low ABV highballs – just add soda or tonic water to the vermouth and serve on ice.
There are also classic and vintage cocktails where the vermouth is the star of the show. Case in point, the Bamboo cocktail, which uses both sweet and dry vermouth as a base alongside sherry, and the Adonis, which pairs sweet vermouth with sherry. The obviously named Vermouth Cocktail is another old drink, dating back to the late 1800s – made with a base of dry vermouth, mixed with simple syrup, maraschino liqueur and bitters.
You can even drink vermouth on its own in some cases. In Spain, sweet red vermouth is is often drunk neat or on the rocks.
Michael Cheang made an extra dry Martini to celebrate Vermouth Day. Follow him on the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (fb.com/MyTipsyTurvy), Instagram (@MyTipsyTurvy) or Twitter (@MichaelCheang).