Demystifying vermouth

The Alchemist tasting panel samples the fortified, aromatized elixir

Vermouth ranges from palest straw to deep ruby red, with flavours to match. Dan Toulgoet photo

Vermouth is not just an essential ingredient in many cocktails, it is already a cocktail, a wine fortified with spirits and flavoured with herbs, spices and other botanicals. And it’s enjoying a major comeback right now.

Five of Vancouver’s top bartenders gathered on a rainy afternoon at Tableau Bar Bistro to taste this beguiling product: Sabrine Dhaliwal, bar manager of Juke Fried Chicken and Beetbox; Adam Domet, bar manager at Pourhouse; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of Elisa Steakhouse; and Katie Ingram, bar manager at Elisa Steakhouse.

They all love vermouth. “It’s rich in flavour and lower in alcohol,” Ingram said. “And we’re all flavour junkies. So we get that fix of citrus and bitterness and everything you’re looking for.” Besides, with prices as low as $12 for a litre bottle, vermouth is also a complete bargain.

The panel tasted 16 local and international vermouths. Here’s what they had to say.

The tasting panel, from left: Adam Domet, Robyn Gray, Sabrine Dhaliwal, J-S Dupuis and Katie Ingram. Dan Toulgoet photo
Noilly Prat Extra Dry

$12.99, 18% ABV (750 mL)

“It’s a long, dry vermouth, tasty and nutty,” Dupuis said of this classic from France. “Floral,” Dhaliwal said. Domet detected a “nice fino finish,” while Gray and Ingram commented on its appealing oxidized notes.

Cocktail: “I use it in my Picklebacks,” said Dupuis. Other suggestions were to serve it in a highball with ginger ale, or in a dry Martini.

 

Imperative Dry Vermouth

$36, 18% ABV (750 mL)

Imperative is a dry vermouth from Ampersand Distilling on Vancouver Island, made with Rathjen Cellars organic Ortega and Petite Milo wines. Opinions were divided, with some unsure of its burnt-almond and quinine-like notes. Domet thought it tasted a bit like the gentian-flavoured aperitif Suze and said, “I want to drink this standing at the bar at Como.”

Cocktail: “It would make a great tonic sort of thing, but with vermouth and soda. This and soda on the patio,” Dhaliwal suggested. Dupuis added: “With three olives.”

 

Maidenni Kina

$57.28, 17.5% ABV (750 mL)

This vermouth comes, unusually, from Australia, created by winemaker Gilles Lapalus and bartender Shaun Byrne, authors of a book on vermouth. It has a Viognier base, and its key botanical is cinchona bark, the bitter ingredient from which quinine is extracted.

The first notes were “popcorn—unbuttered,” Ingram said, and then the cinchona came flooding through. “It’s definitely medicinal,” Domet said, adding, “She lingers. She dances on the tongue.”

Cocktail: “A French 75 with orgeat instead of simple syrup,” said Domet.

 

Martini Bianco

$11.99, 18% ABV (1L)

This light, delicately complex Italian vermouth (not to be confused with Martini Dry) was not only the best bargain of the bunch, but an all-round favourite for its subtly sweet citrus, floral and spice notes. “I love it,” Gray said. “Yum yum yum.”

Cocktail: “We used to use it at The Diamond in our Martinez. There are nice vanilla and fruity notes to it,” said Domet. Dupuis preferred it with soda on ice. As for Ingram, “Just a nice lemon twist.”

 

Miro Vermut Bianco

$35, 18% ABV (1L)

We think of vermouth as hailing from Italy or France, but for more than a century Spain has also been producing exceptional vermouths from houses like Miro, which is one of the country’s oldest. “It’s tasty,” Dhaliwal said. “Citrus peel and vanilla undertones. It’s got a really nice silky texture.” Dupuis liked its subtle baking spice flavours, while Ingram enjoyed its appealing salty note. “That salinity is really nice when you put it into cocktails,” she said.

Cocktail: “A really cool Bamboo cocktail,” said Ingram. Or, Dhaliwal suggested, “That would be a really good dry bourbon Manhattan—rye would be too austere.”

That salinity is really nice when you put it into cocktails

 

De Vine Bianca Vermouth

$24, 18% ABV (375 mL)

From Vancouver Island comes a French-style vermouth made from local white wine grapes, fortified with honey-based spirit and flavoured with apricot, cinnamon, jasmine and chamomile. “It took me by surprise because it’s not a bianco even though the name is Bianca,” said Dupuis, who detected a hint of marzipan, and said, “It’s got a lot of oxidative notes, which isn’t bad.” Added Domet: “The nose has a lemon zest, candy corn note to it. And the palate is super metallic.”

Cocktail: “A Japanese highball with Suntory Toki,” Domet insisted. “I think adding it to a high-flavoured spirit is the way to go. It should not be the star. I don’t think it wants to be the star, either.”

 

Noilly Prat Ambré

$15, 16% ABV (750 mL)

A relative newcomer to the B.C. market, the French Ambré hits that sweet spot between sweet and dry vermouth, but richer and more complex than either, with 49 herbs and spices in the botanical blend. “Noilly Prat Ambré, delicious as always,” said Dhaliwal. “Delightful.” Gray detected “cardamom, cinnamon, lavender.” “And it’s barrel-aged. It’s nutty, it’s rich, it’s oxidative,” Dupuis said. “It’s cheap, too, 15 bucks,” added Domet, “Oh, yeah.”

Cocktail: “I think this in a bourbon Manhattan, or if you floated this on a Fog Cutter instead of the sherry,” said Domet. Or enjoy it on its own, “with some chocolate on the side,” Dhaliwal suggested.

 

Cinzano Orancio

$14, 15% ABV (1 L)

Is this a vermouth or an orange-flavoured aperitif? No matter, it’s delicious. As Gray said, “I can’t keep it in the fridge. I go through it too fast. I just crush it on the rocks.” “It’s great in a low-alcohol cocktail,” added Dupuis. “I love this shit. It’s got baking spice, lots of orange obviously, lots of oxidative notes. I would literally use it in everything.”

Cocktail: Use it as a low-alcohol substitute for any drink that requires Cointreau, such as a Margarita. “It’s great in Manhattans. It’s great in any drink you want to stretch out and lower the heat,” Dupuis said.

I can’t keep it in the fridge. I go through it too fast. I just crush it on the rocks.

 

DeVine Moderna Vermouth

$24, 18% ABV (375 mL)

The darker, deeper sister to the DeVine Bianca is based on the original vermouth recipe from Turin, and made with more than 30 different botanicals including orange, clove, cardamom, rose, juniper, wormwood and gentian. “It’s like tamarind—or like those little gummy Coke bottles,” Domet said. “Medicinal,” Gray added. “It feels like it should be good for you.” Dhaliwal noted its long bitter finish and Dupuis agreed: “I think it needs sugar, honestly. It’s got a very herbal finish.”

Cocktail: “I kind of want to make a Last Word with this,” Dhaliwal said. “But I’d add sugar to balance it out.”

 

Odd Society Bittersweet Vermouth

$20.99, 18% ABV (375 mL)

This is B.C.’s oldest vermouth, produced by Vancouver’s Odd Society Spirits. Based on an ancient vermouth recipe, it’s fortified with the distiller’s own malted barley spirit and flavoured with 25 botanicals. It’s a craft product that varies from batch to batch; this one, the bartenders felt, had pronounced complex, bitter and woody notes.

Cocktail: “This would be good with tonic, a sweeter tonic like Schweppes,” Ingram said. “A highball. Two parts vermouth, one part simple syrup, four parts tonic or soda.”

 

Martini & Rossi Riserva Ambrato

$33, 17% ABV (750 mL)

This floral and honeyed amber Vermouth di Torino is new to the market, and inspired by the earliest vermouth recipes. “It’s got a petrol nose to it. It smells wonderful,” Dupuis said, while Domet detected something almost prosciutto-like. “It’s a better version of Martini Bianco,” Dhaliwal said. “I get tons of thyme.” Dupuis summed it up: “This is quite delightful.”

Cocktail: “This would be really nice in a Martini with salty aspects,” Ingram said.

 

Cinzano Vermouth Rosso

$11.99, 15% ABV (1 L)

“This is workhorse vermouth,” Domet said, and where this classic Italian vermouth works hardest is in a Negroni. “I need Cinzano in my Negroni,” Gray said. Or an Americano, someone suggests. Gray points out that the Americano was originally called the Torino “but it was all the Americans would drink, so, OK, fine, Americano.” “Honestly,” Domet says, “it’s so good, and it’s what, $11.99?”

Cocktail: Negroni or, as Domet said, “This with Campari in anything.”

 

Martini & Rossi Riserva Rubino

$33, 17% ABV (750 mL)

Also new to the market is this rich, dark, complex Vermouth di Torino, flavoured with rare botanicals such as red sandalwood and three varieties of artemisia, aka wormwood or vermut, from which vermouth gets its name. Surprisingly, it wasn’t very bitter at all; instead, the predominant flavour was “winey.” “I think it’s delicious,” Dupuis said. “Yeah,” Dhaliwal replied, “but it needs a little more bitterness though.”

Cocktail: “Throw that in some sangria with blueberry juice,” Domet suggested. Ingram agreed: “A vermouth sangria!”

 

Giuseppe Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

$18.99, 16.5% ABV (375 mL)

One of the first vermouths to attempt to recreate the original recipe created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786, this sweet vermouth is flavoured with three different vanillas, as well as saffron and wormwood, among other botanicals. It is a popular choice among all the bartenders, because of all that natural vanilla.

Cocktail: “A rye Manhattan would be my preferred cocktail,” Gray said.

 

Dopo Teatro Cocchi Vermouth Amaro

$52, 16% ABV (750 mL)

Inspired by Piemontese tradition of sipping chilled vermouth with lemon zest after watching a theatrical performance, this “evening vermouth” is based on Barolo wine and flavoured with rhubarb, quassia wood, chiretta and a double infusion of cinchona. “I get dusty cocoa nibs,” Dhaliwal said. “It’s got a candied note,” Dupuis said. “I love that Cocchi. It’s real good,” Domet added.

Cocktail: “I’d like this in a rum Manhattan, something dessert-y,” Domet said. Or, Gray suggested, “In a Harvard cocktail, with a rich, round cognac.”

You don’t need a cocktail to drink vermouth. It was meant to be drunk on its own. It’s a beautiful, light, slightly bitter, amazing thing.

 

Punt e Mes

$29.15, 16% ABV, (750 mL)

Gray noted that in the 1870s, the Carpano family “created an entirely new category called ‘Vermouth Amari.’ Stockbrokers would drink vermouth mixed with amaro in the local bars, and Carpano decided to capitalize on it.” The name Punt e Mes means a point and a half in stockbroker slang. It actually straddles the line between vermouth and amaro, with an extra bitter kick.

Cocktail: “Drank on the rocks as it was designed to be,” Gray said.

 

Dupuis concluded, “People don’t understand. You don’t need a cocktail to drink vermouth. It was meant to be drunk on its own. It’s a beautiful, light, slightly bitter, amazing thing.”

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