Bartending Techniques

A Beginner's Guide: Vermouth

Greg Horton, ReserveBar Spirits Contributor


France is certain that it is the sole point of origin for vermouth. In that sense, France is like the Austin of Europe in that they believe they are the source of all good food and wine-related things. The rest of the world, however, is aware that our modern version of vermouth actually began as a medicinal remedy in Italy. Its name also comes from the German word for wormwood, a bitter botanical central to ancient recipes for wines infused with botanicals. This bittering agent is key to vermouth.


Yes, vermouth is wine, a fortified wine to be exact. Because it is a wine, a neutral grape spirit like brandy is used to raise the alcohol level. In the case of fortified wines, the goal is to achieve between 13 and 24 percent alcohol by volume. Most vermouths land in the 18-21 percent range, a number low enough that vermouth must be refrigerated after opening — assuming you do not finish the bottle.

Vermouth is also an aromatized wine, which means aromatic botanicals are added to change the flavors, aromas, and character of the wine. This was a fairly common practice long before modern vermouth, largely because wine was believed to be medicinal in the ancient world. Growing up in Sunday School, it was endlessly disappointing that St. Paul’s admonition to his young protege Timothy — “take a little wine for your stomach and your frequent infirmities” — in the New Testament was never the memory verse of the week, the memorization of which might earn diligent students a candy bar.

Because they are aromatized, they exist in the aperitif category but are different from other fortified wines like Sherry and Port that do not have added botanicals. The aperitif category includes vermouth, quinquina, Americano, and other amari. Aperitifs are typically considered appetite enhancers; they are sipped in one- to two-ounce pours prior to a meal. In Spain, a nation whose vermouths didn’t become widely available in the U.S. until after 2000, locals celebrate “la hora del vermut,” a pre-lunch or pre-dinner “happy hour” where vermouth is consumed, often drawn from taps in Madrid bars and restaurants. At the risk of oversimplifying, Spanish vermouths tend toward sweeter and less bitter than Italian and French offerings.


While Italians often speak in terms of nearly a dozen styles, there are three important, overarching styles American drinkers should know: sweet, dry and bianco (or blanc). By far the most common style is sweet, although you’ll often see it referred to as red.

In fact, vermouth begins as white wine, almost exclusively, with Trebbiano the grape of choice in Italy, Picpoul and Clairette most common in France, and Macabeo, Albarino, and Verdejo dominating Spanish production. The red color comes from caramelized sugar or botanicals (or both).

The sweet vermouths are well known in the U.S., as they are used in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Negroni, and Blood and Sand. In this category, Antica Carpano — believed to be the first of the modern vermouths — dominates.

The vanilla-plus-cocoa note makes it an excellent introduction for beginners, and it’s best served as an aperitif with an expressed orange peel. For an American take on this style, both Accompani and Lo-Fi Aperitifs make excellent versions suitable for sipping or mixing.

Dry vermouths are what give martinis character; without them, it’s just cold gin in an elegant glass. Dolin dominates American bars, and its quality is uncontested, but new labels abound thanks to an explosion in interest in traditional, authentic, and even “archaic” products beginning in the early years of this century.

Dolin Dry’s character is similar to a fino sherry or dry white wine: slightly herbal, very crisp, refreshing when a little chilled. To really get a sense of its impact on a cocktail, try a 50/50 martini with dry gin and Dolin Dry.

Blanc or bianco vermouths come in French and Italian styles, with the former being drier and more floral, and the latter having vanilla notes, making it seem sweeter. The bitterness of a blanc is gentler than the other two styles, which makes it a popular choice for modern craft cocktails, where it can help blend disparate elements with its sweetness and bitterness in solid balance.


Beyond its use in cocktails, sipping vermouth can be very pleasant, especially if you love bitter notes derived from citrus, pith, chocolate, and coffee. A great jumping-off point for vermouth as an aperitif or digestif is Cocchi Torino, a popular choice of bartenders thanks to its rich blend of cocoa, ginger, orange peel, rhubarb, and earth.

To enjoy the depth of impact that vermouth adds to a cocktail at home, you should try making a Watermelon GimletBianco Negroni, and a classic Boulevardier. These will also offer you some great ways to expand and test your own bartending skills.

Vermouth is very affordable, making it easier to taste through several styles until you find a favorite. While most bars don’t carry more than a few bottles, they are a good place to begin your journey. Once you know what you like, check out ReserveBar’s selection of quality vermouth.

Start Mixing with Vermouth