Vermouth, The Cocktail Chameleon

Add spice to your life with a splash of vermouth.

 For some, it’s a mere addition to a favorite cocktail; for others, it’s a stand-alone drink with both character and charm.

   When vermouth was invented towards the end of the seventeenth century, it was an immediate sensation. The creation is generally credited to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, who enhanced the coarse wine of the period with a blend of 30 herbs and spices. The sweetness of Carpano’s potion appealed to many segments of the population (particularly to the ladies), and became a favorite of the Turin royal court. In time, a second style—pale and dry—was introduced in France by Joseph Noilly in the early 1800s.

Origins: Carpano Antica.

   The invention of the cocktail in the late nineteenth century was the agent that launched vermouth into hyperspace. Virtually every classic drink used it to add balance and serve as a buffer to enhance or contrast the taste of the primary spirit. Artisanal vermouth producers flourished, each with their own distinctive flavor profile.

Italian classics include Cocchi and Punt e Mes, while France’s Noilly Prat served as the prototype for pale and dry vermouth.

   Italy remained the mother ship of vermouth, and the house of Carpano bottled its original creation as Antica Formula ($30): rich, sweet and unctuous without being cloying. Although the company eventually began to manufacture two white versions (Bianco and dry), red vermouth became its specialty. The most interesting vermouth on the planet might just be Punt e Mes ($22), invented by Carpano in 1870. The name translates to “point and a half”—one point of sweetness and a half-point of bitters. Another top name is Cocchi, founded in 1891, making white Americano ($20) and the distinctive, perfectly balanced Vermouth di Torino ($22). The third producer in the triumvirate is Contratto, also founded in the 1890s, known for both red and white versions ($30), as well as Fernet ($35), the famous potable bitter.

   In France, Joseph Noilly’s potion morphed into Noilly Prat ($12), which became the prototype of the pale and dry style. Its production method has been basically unchanged since the 1850s; the white wine is aged in large oak casks for eight months then transferred to smaller barrels, which are left outdoors for one year to season the contents. In the Alpine village of Chambéry, Dolin became celebrated for making vermouth unlike any other. It was fresher and drier than its competitors, herbal without being bitter, filled with elegance and finesse. And while technically not vermouth, no discussion of the category would be complete without mentioning Lillet ($20), a blend of dry white Bordeaux wine and macerated citrus, kicked up with a dose of quinine liqueur. 

While technically not a vermouth, Lillet is a close relative.

   The American craft cocktail boom of the past few decades has reawakened interest in vermouth, so it’s not surprising to see some interesting examples emerging stateside. California’s Andrew Quady, who gained fame making dessert wines, is infusing Orange Muscat grapes grown in the San Joaquin Valley with 17 aromatic herbs for his Vya Sweet and Dry Vermouth ($24). 

Oregon is the domestic equivalent of eighteenth-century Turin, playing host to an assortment of artisan producers, including: 

  • Portland-based Patrick Taylor’s Hammer & Tongs, offering the white Sac’Résine and red L’Afrique ($35). 
  • Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth ($28), with a base of Pinot Gris fortified with Clear Creek brandy.
  • Ransom, making both dry and sweet (about $35) from small-batch Oregon wineries.
  • Interrobang, crafting sweet vermouth ($20) from Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

   Still doubtful that vermouth can be a great drink? Mix some Carpano or Contratto Bianco with tonic, add ice and a sprig of fresh rosemary, and your perception is likely to be instantly transformed.

Hammer & Tongs L’Afrique, an artisan offering out of Oregon.

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