When you hear the word “vermouth,” do you immediately picture the bitter white liquid usually mixed with gin to make a dry martini? If so, you apparently are not alone. As the co-owner of Heavenly Spirits, a Massachusetts-based company that specializes in showcasing and selling French spirits in the United States, I recently learned this interesting fact while conducting tastings at several pre-holiday events. In addition to a range of well-aged French brandies, I was offering consumers a taste of sweet red and white vermouths. When someone approached my table, I listed the various Cognacs, Armagnacs, and Calvados, as well as our sweet vermouth. Upon hearing the name of the final product, most people grimaced and said, “No thank you, I don’t care for vermouth.”
Of course, this reaction intrigued me to the point where I needed to find out why. My hunch was soon confirmed that American consumers – or at least a good portion of them – strongly associated vermouth with the bitter, dry, white variety and had never given other delicious vermouth varieties a second thought. This reaction, I believe, might be the result of Hollywood’s longstanding depiction of the iconic dry martini, made using gin, just a touch of dry white vermouth and a green olive, and served in “that glass.” Sure enough, after I explained my theory to some of my clients, they usually agreed and were then willing to taste a different kind of vermouth. Typically, and often to their surprise, they liked sweet vermouth!
Vermouth is a fortified wine, originally infused with herbs and spices for either “medicinal” or taste reasons. These botanicals can include angelica root, bitter orange peel, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander. Sweet vermouth was first invented by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin, Italy, in 1786. Dry vermouth was created in 1813 by Joseph Noilly in the Southern French village of Marseillan. With an ABV typically between 16% and 18%, vermouth can be enjoyed as an apéritif on ice, chilled, or in a wide variety of delicious cocktails. France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal are all countries that enjoy vermouth as a daily apéritif, and a 700-milliliter bottle ranges in price from 9 to 49 dollars. Like other fortified wines, vermouth should be stored in the refrigerator to preserve its flavors and freshness, and consumed within two months.
As importers of French spirits, my wife Christine and I spent some time looking for a high-quality French vermouth to add to our portfolio, and we found the perfect product just a few years ago. Guerin vermouth is produced in the Cognac region of Southwest France by one of the top producers of the regional apéritif known as Pineau des Charentes, a grape must fortified with Cognac and aged in wooden barrels. In addition to offering the classic sweet red, dry white, and sweet white vermouths, Guerin also makes a very rare dry red vermouth expression. Each variety of their vermouth is produced with wine as the base, into which is Pineau des Charentes, and a selection of different botanicals and herbs are then infused. It continues to age for a brief period of time in oak casks before bottling. The result is a flavorful apéritif, typically served chilled or on ice before dinner, along with charcuterie, salted nuts, sharp cheeses, or olives. Guerin vermouth is generally priced at 20 dollars per 700-milliliter bottle.
With all the flavors and ingredients that go into creating a quality vermouth, one might even consider this relatively low-ABV apéritif to be the original ready-to-drink cocktail in and of itself. But of course, a great vermouth, dry or sweet, is also an essential ingredient mixed with a range of full-strength spirits to make great cocktails – the dry martini and the Manhattan being two of the best-known examples.