Sweet on Vermouth

by Paul Clarke

Several years ago, I was visiting one of the country’s finer craft-cocktail bars and was struck by something I found unusual. I’d browsed through the bar’s massive menu and selected a bold, whiskey-based drink—the kind of brown, bitter and stirred cocktail that really lets its ingredients shine. As I watched the bartender make the drink, he reached for a small-scale, boutique brand of vermouth—certainly a good brand by any measure, but considering the other ingredients in the cocktail, this vermouth had an esoteric character that I suspected would give the finished drink an off-kilter tang.

After he twisted a swath of lemon peel over the drink and placed the glass before me, I politely inquired why he had chosen to use this particular vermouth in the cocktail. “It’s the only brand of sweet vermouth we carry,” he told me proudly. “It’s just the best.”

As I mentioned, this experience took place several years ago, and the number of available vermouths has only grown since then (and I know from repeat visits that the bar in question now carries several sweet vermouths). Bartenders and their guests are gradually becoming more vermouth-literate, but it still happens with surprising frequency that one or another vermouth is judged the best, and all others are overlooked.

“I’m always shocked when people want to know what the best vermouth is,” says Andrew Bohrer. A Seattle bartender who spends his days as a rep for Vinum Wine and his evenings tending bar at Rob Roy, whatever time he has left over is spent consulting and training on cocktail programs around North America. Bohrer says limiting a bar’s selection to one brand of sweet vermouth is akin to stocking a spice rack with only one jar. “No booze-loving person would ever want to limit themselves to one of something, but for some reason, they do it with vermouth.”

Ten years ago, the realm of sweet vermouth in the U.S. was almost entirely dominated by the two big brands: Martini & Rossi and Cinzano. As the craft-cocktail train got rolling, however, more brands started appearing in cocktails—Carpano Antica Formula, Vya, Dolin, and most recently, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (and this isn’t even touching on the area of dry or blanc vermouths – I’ll get to those in another post). These vermouths have enough similarities to occupy the same category, but each brings its own character to the bar.

So which vermouth is right for the job? It depends on the particular job. Carpano Antica revolutionized the way many bartenders think about vermouth; it has a flavor that’s big and bold, with a vanilla richness and a herbaceous complexity that stands up to some of the toughest ingredients, such as cask-strength whiskey or robust liqueurs. But this strength is also its weakness; when mixed with more delicately flavored or nuanced ingredients, Carpano Antica just takes over, and its richness can become cloying when significant amounts of amari or other liqueurs enter the cocktail equation. Vya is in a similar boat; an upstart vermouth from California, Vya is drier and more floral than Carpano, with only a trace of the bitter bite that’s a hallmark of sweet vermouths. Delicious? Yes – but also with its own idiosyncrasies that become pronounced with the increasing complexity of the drink.

Two relative newcomer brands have done much to enliven our concept of sweet vermouth: Dolin Rouge, from France, is floral and ethereal, a delicate blossom to Carpano’s bombast. Dolin is at its best in complex, nuanced cocktails (frequently gin based) that allow its botanicals to shine; big flavors such as those in bold whiskies or certain liqueurs, however, easily overshadow Dolin’s gentleness. A good companion to Dolin is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, a classically styled Italian vermouth with a mild sweetness and enough of a bitter edge to keep things interesting; much drier than Carpano and more complex than the big brands, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino fills an important gap in the vermouth category. (And while it’s hard to find, a similarly styled and likewise excellent vermouth is Martelletti, also from Torino).

And the big brands? It’s tempting to dismiss brands like Martini & Rossi or Cinzano simply because you can buy them at Safeway, but these sweet vermouths haven’t become global brands for no reason. Martini & Rossi has a richness and a level of sweetness that seems custom-made for Negronis, and Cinzano has a bright fruitiness that can keep a Manhattan or one of its relatives from sagging into heavy ponderousness. Judge these brands on their merits, not the size of their marketing budgets.

At Rob Roy, Bohrer keeps six brands of sweet vermouth on hand (not including Punt e Mes or quinquinas such as Dubonnet). Bohrer uses delicate Dolin with gentle whiskies, and the virile richness of Carpano Antica with young whiskies that can benefit from a little bossiness. Cinzano’s bright fruitiness balances the astringency in dry or oak-heavy whiskies, Cocchi finds its way into drinks that could use a little goose of herbal complexity.

Sure, there are differences between these vermouths, but do you really need so many? That depends on the kinds of options you like to give your guests. “Think of a Manhattan—if you expand the Manhattan to bourbon and rye, you likely have more than 200 choices on the American market,” Bohrer says. “Using the same vermouth all the time is like cooking with only salt as your seasoning.”

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