Vermouth is a Hidden Gem

By Jessica Granatiero

New England weather has often prompted us to try our hand at creating refreshing cocktails, and this is even more so now as the pandemic has forced us to stay home and limit our outside interactions. An ingredient that has long taken a back seat to whiskey, gin or vodka in famous cocktails such as martinis, Manhattans and Negronis is now standing on its own. This is vermouth, with its beautiful, glistening white or luscious red hue.

While often thought of as a spirit because it is often mixed with other spirits to make cocktails, vermouth is a wine-based beverage that has been fortified with a neutral spirit (often brandy), and then infused with a secret mixture of herbs and botanicals that add flavor, color and individual uniqueness to this delicious liquid.

Each vermouth producer has its own original recipe, often never revealing the real mixture or all the botanicals used. Some vermouth makers will use up to 30 different botanicals, such as wormwood, grapefruit peel, vanilla, gentian rosemary, orange peel and licorice root.

Vermouth ranges from dry to sweet. Dry vermouth is typically radiantly clear and called white vermouth, bianco or blanco. Sweet vermouth is mostly a reddish-orange hue and acquires its color from aging of the base wine, caramel that is often derived naturally with small artisanal producers, or caramel coloring. The reddish, sweeter style is used to make the famous Negroni cocktail.

QUALITY CONTROLLED: The production of Vermouth di Torino is regulated by Italian law to ensure its excellence is maintained.

Small-production vermouths are often handcrafted. For small producers, the botanical infusion process may also occur in-house and be longer, thus extracting richer flavors. Smaller producers often create without using bulking agents or industrial colorants.

Reportedly, originating in the 18th century by Antonio Benedetto Carpano, from Turin, Italy, vermouth was created for its medicinal purposes. It also had a long aristocratic history involving the Savoy family, supposedly becoming the beverage of this royalty. But over the years, vermouth’s popularity waxed and waned, until recently with the cocktail resurgence and widely sought after Negroni cocktail. There is also the Negroni sbagliato – translated as the mistaken Negroni – a cocktail with a history in which an Italian bartender accidentally used sparkling wine instead of gin to make the Negroni.

Not all Vermouths are ­created equal. While it hails from many countries, vermouth from Italy is the most popular. And there is only one Vermouth di Torino, the production of which is controlled by Italian law to ensure its quality. Others cannot use the term “Vermouth di Torino” unless it adheres to its rules.

Vermouth is great to prep the stomach before a meal. In Italy, this is referred to as “aperitivo,” akin to “happy hour.” Good sweet or dry vermouth, like a good scotch, can be enjoyed alone, over ice and topped with a touch of club soda and twist of lemon or orange. Vermouth has a life cycle before its quality deteriorates. It is best fresh. Once opened, store it in the refrigerator, often only up to four weeks. Enjoy, get creative and try crafting one of these easy cocktails at home.

Classic Negroni – equal parts gin, red vermouth and red bitter liqueur.

Negroni bianco – equal parts gin, white vermouth and white bitter liqueur.

Negroni sbagliato – equal parts sparkling wine, red vermouth and red bitter liqueur.