The Spiced Wine Revival
These vermouths are delicious on their own — no, seriously
This week, we’re heading to the far reaches of wine, to the time-traveling realm of vermouth. Every year, as soon as temperatures dip, I crave the warming flavors of sweet vermouth, full of cinnamon, orange peel, cola, ginger, and clove.
For the uninitiated, vermouth is actually a wine that’s aromatized (herbs and spices added) and fortified (brandy or other spirit added). And we are in the midst of a vermouth renaissance with scores of fantastic versions. So while you may never have given vermouth a second thought, I’m telling you — it’s time to try these richly spiced elixirs.
This fall, I’ve been sipping sweet vermouth on its own over a big ice cube, sometimes topping it off with soda and adding an orange twist. I’ve also revisited my favorite classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Americano, and Boulevardier (using the recipes in my book Storied Sips, on the real-life tales behind the world’s most popular cocktails). And I plan to riff on these all season long, playing with ratios and different combinations of spirits and vermouths.
I’ve also been experimenting with low-alcohol, wine-based cocktails. Here, vermouth takes a starring role, standing in for high-alcohol spirits to give the drinks richness and complexity. So today, I’m sharing a double trifecta — my three top sweet vermouth recommendations, along with the three low-ABV cocktails that showcase them perfectly.
What to Know
I mentioned time travel because vermouth has a deep history, dating back to the 5th century BCE, when Greek doctor Hippocrates would prescribe wines infused with herbs like wormwood to cure a range of maladies. The word “vermouth” is derived from the Germanic name for wormwood.
That basic formula for vermouth holds true today. Start with a base of wine. Add citrus, herbs, and spices. Then add sugar, along with brandy or another neutral spirit, which helps to stabilize the flavors. And don’t forget the bittering agent. Traditionally, it was wormwood. But these days, it could be cinchona bark, angelica root, or another plant.
For a deep dive into vermouth history and its current revival, here’s a feature I wrote for Saveur magazine. But the cliffs notes version is this: Vermouth’s modern era started in northern Italy in the late 1700s, when wine shop owner Antonio Benedetto Carpano introduced a bittersweet concoction that became a popular aperitivo and digestivo. His vermouth was the template for the sweet (aka Italian) style of vermouth, which is bittersweet and showcases warming spices. The citrussy and herbal dry (aka French) style followed, as did others like blanc, bianco, and chinato.
Those were the key historical styles. But these days, anything goes. Walk into a good wine store and you might find an herbal, savory biodynamic vermouth from France’s Loire sitting next to a yuzu- and peppercorn-accented sake vermouth from Japan.
For cold-weather sipping and mixing, these are the three sweet vermouths I buy:
Gonzalez Byass La Copa Vermouth ($29) — There are a lot of interesting vermouths coming out of Spain. My favorite happens to be sherry-based. Based on a 19th-century recipe, it features a rich blend of oloroso and pedro ximenez sherries. Cinnamon, clove, and cola aromas lead into a full bodied mouthful, with additional nutty and bittersweet flavors.
Massican California Sweet Red Vermouth 2018 ($24) — Winemaker Dan Petroski developed his vermouths for a wine drinker’s palate, and they’re less sweet than many vermouths. The red version is rounded and complex with black cherry, cola, savory dried herbs, and rich spices of ginger, orange, and nutmeg. Dan’s most recent vintage is 2018, but he tells me he’ll be making another batch again soon.
Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth (375ml) ($19) — This is arguably the most liqueur-like vermouth out there, said to be Antonio Benedetto Carpano’s original recipe. It is different from most sweet vermouths, with vanilla featuring prominently. Intensely spiced with cinnamon, cola, dried orange peel, raisin, and sassafras flavors, it is bittersweet, rich, and mouth-filling.
For my money, sweet vermouth is the ultimate aperitivo. The spices and bitterness get your appetite going, and it’s the kind of drink you want to savor, sipping as you’re chatting and nibbling.
And let me address the 500-pound gorilla in the room: The sugar/carb calories that concern some would-be sippers. A standard 3 oz. pour of vermouth has about 145 calories. That compares to about 120 calories in a 5 oz. glass of wine. So yes, there’s some sugar in there, but not a ton, and it’s counterbalanced by a pleasing bitterness. And what you get from that sweetness is worth it — a rich mouthfeel and full body that allows the drink to stand on its own.
Finally, one of my favorite attributes of vermouth: It keeps well for a few months in the fridge. And a little goes a long way. The bottles I purchase in fall keep me me stocked for aperitivo and cocktail hours all the way into spring.
Three Vermouth Cocktails to Try
These days, I’m drinking fewer high-octane cocktails. These lower-ABV cocktails are the ones I’ll be mixing up all season long.
Created in New York to honor an 1884 Broadway musical of the same name, this low-alcohol cocktail is my #1 fall go-to.
1 1/2 oz. fino sherry
1 1/2 oz. Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Orange peel, for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice. Add all ingredients and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with the orange peel.
Early recipes for the Manhattan, created in New York in the 1860s, called for equal parts of rye whiskey and sweet vermouth. The cocktail dried out over the years, to the generally accepted 2:1 ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth. But with a “less sweet” vermouth like Massican, the 50/50 is an excellent option.
1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey
1 1/2 oz. Massican California Sweet Red Vermouth
2 dashes orange or Angostura bitters
Orange peel, for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice. Add all ingredients and stir until chilled. Strain into an old-fashioned glass, over a large ice cube (or into a chilled coupe glass, your call). Garnish with the orange peel.
If you like vermouth, you’re in good company. Ernest Hemingway famously loved it and created his own vermouth cocktail, which he references in this 1936 essay for Esquire. Back then, dry vermouth was also called French, and sweet was referred to as Italian. He writes: “We had the tall glasses with mixed French and Italian vermouth (two parts French to one of Italian, with a dash of bitters and a lemon peel, filled with ice, stir and serve)…”
3 oz. dry vermouth, like Dolin
1 1/2 oz. Gonzalez Byass La Copa Vermouth
Lemon peel, for garnish
Fill a tall glass with ice. Add ingredients and stir. Garnish with the lemon peel.