Like many people, I imagine, I got my first taste of vermouth as a teenager, during a highly illegal raid on my granny’s drinks cupboard. I forget the brand, but it was probably Martini Extra Dry or Cinzano: bittersweet, a bit herbal, and with a whole jumble of spicy and citrusy notes I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Unsure what to do with this strange beverage, I tipped it into a mug with some Stone’s Ginger Wine, sloe gin and Bell’s Scotch, then didn’t touch vermouth again for 20 years. If your experience of vermouth is anything like this, then now might be the time to take another look: because vermouth is back. And this time it’s really, really exciting.
Before I get to the exciting bit, let’s just establish what vermouth actually is: it’s a wine that’s been fortified with a bit of spirit, sweetened, and flavoured with bitter wormwood and other botanicals (the word vermouth comes from the German for wormwood, Wermut). Vermouth has many different styles – dry, sweet, white, amber, rosé and red. It can be powerful and spicy, delicate and floral, herbal, citrusy or nutty, rather like a sherry. It all depends on the botanicals it’s flavoured with. Wormwood – which tastes like bitter sage – is a legal requisite, but most vermouths contain many more botanicals, ranging from rosemary, cloves and citrus peels to lemon verbena, rose and myrrh.
Vermouth is exotic. It’s relatively easy on the alcohol (at around 18 per cent abv it’s just a bit stronger than a table wine). And it’s versatile too. It’s delicious long with tonic water, soda or prosecco, you can stir it into Negronis, Manhattans and martinis, or you can just sip it neat, over ice with a slice of orange, come un italiano.
The Italians generally get the credit for inventing vermouth – but people have been drinking wine infused with wormwood for thousands of years, originally for medicinal reasons. Vermouth as we know it today really took off around the turn of the 19th century – this was when a lot of the iconic names like Martini, Cinzano and the French brand Noilly Prat (which remains, for me, the ultimate martini vermouth) were born.
But thanks to the recent boom in craft distilling, vermouth is now being made throughout the world, with all sorts of interesting ingredients. At Neil Rankin’s bustling new Temper restaurant in Covent Garden, they serve nigh on 30 vermouths: biancos from Italy, craft vermouths from the UK, Greek vermouths flavoured with herbs and honey, and a range of vermouths from Australia, spiked with olive leaves, desert limes and peachy quandong fruits.
“The sweet and bitter nature of vermouth pairs really well with strong charcuterie and anchovies especially,” says Rankin, “but it also goes really well with cheese, which is in or on most of the dishes at Temper Covent Garden, so we’re on safe ground whenever customers order one.” The Negroni list is particularly good here. I ate salty anchovies and crispy fried bread with an excellent twist on a Negroni made with tequila, pineapple-infused Campari and earthy Mancino vermouth from Italy.
Over the other side of Regent Street, Nieves Barragán and José Etura’s Michelin-starred Sabor serves a range of vermouths on tap – just like a traditional vermutería. Sitting on a stool at the tiled bar, you can have a glass of fragrant Lustau Blanco from Jerez with lemon, ice and a green olive, or a mellow rojo from Rioja, while nibbling on jamón, almonds and sizzling octopus tentacles. “When I was a child growing up in Spain, my family would always stop by the vermutería after church at weekends to have a little vermouth with friends,” says Etura. “It’s a tradition that I want to keep alive.”
Vermouth is also the star at Italian restaurant Bocca di Lupo, where a whole swathe of the menu is dedicated to cocktails that have been reweighted in wormwood’s favour. Instead of using just a whisper of vermouth in its martinis, Boca di Lupo makes them 50:50 (which is, incidentally, how early martinis were often made). And the result is delicious – delicate, refreshing and light enough to drink a couple more. (It also does a beautiful White Negroni with Beefeater gin, two types of white vermouth and bitter génépi liqueur).
Shoreditch’s wine bar of the moment, Leroy, makes its own vermouth from scratch. “I love vermouth because it has all these complex flavours, and yet it’s also a really lovely, simple drink,” says Leroy co-owner and former River Cafe head sommelier Jack Lewens. “You can just drink it neat or with a dash of soda, some ice and a twist of lemon or with a splash of prosecco.” The wine for the Leroy vermouth will, ultimately, come from the same vineyards in Cilento where Lewens makes Leroy’s house wine Vigneti Tardis. “We’ll be flavouring our vermouth with indigenous botanicals, including rosemary, chamomile, fennel, lemon peel, wormwood, local hops and dandelion root – you see wild dandelions growing everywhere there. It will be a real expression of the place.” Early versions of the recipe are already on sale in the bar; the vermouth proper will launch under the Vigneti Tardis label in 2019.
Vermouth is traditionally made from a base of white wine – usually something fresh and relatively neutral like Trebbiano (most red vermouths get their colour from the botanicals or the addition of a little caramel). But a growing number of vermouth producers are choosing to use wines that are more distinctive.
Belsazar is a range of artisan vermouths from the Black Forest that are all made with German wines. Belsazar Rosé – which is based on a local Pinot Noir – has tart summer pudding fruit and pink grapefruit notes that go deliciously with bitter tonic. The brand also makes limited edition white vermouths from Dr Loosen Riesling, wormwood and dried pineapples that’s very stylish.
Real aperitif nuts also go to great lengths to hunt down the vermouths of Mauro Vergano, an Italian aroma chemist who hand-blends all his vini aromatizzati in a backstreet of Asti using local wines. His bright-gold Vermouth Bianco is an appetising blend of Cortese and moscato d’Asti wines flavoured with wormwood, citrus and Mediterranean herbs.
Piedmont’s renowned winemaker Roberto Bava has been key in reviving traditional Torino-style vermouth under the label Cocchi (Bava is so mad about vermouth he signs all his letters with vermouth-coloured ink infused with the same botanicals as his rosso). Bava’s daughter Francesca, meanwhile, is behind the resurrection of the historic brand Chazalettes, which used to be the vermouth of choice for the Royal House of Savoia. I particularly like the Chazalettes rosso, which has a bright, damson-and-rhubarb fruitiness and more bitter liquorice notes. I’m sipping a glass of it on ice, as I type.
English wine is also producing some fine vermouths. Sacred Spiced English Vermouth is a bittersweet rosso made in north London with wine from Three Choirs in Gloucestershire. Flavoured with 26 botanicals, including English wormwood, thyme and plum stones, this grown-up red vermouth is inspired by “Tudor pomanders, Elizabethan herb gardens and English orchards”, says Sacred distiller Ian Hart. Hart also makes a gin laced with frankincense, a Campari-like Rosehip Cup and an extra-dry vermouth that has the distinction of being the house pour at London’s most celebrated martini bar, Dukes.
The 600-acre Rathfinny estate in Sussex made its debut this year with a pair of very good sparkling wines, and will soon be launching a vermouth, too, made with the brand’s own Pinot Gris and botanicals including artichoke, gentian, calamus and grapefruit. In a bid to be more sustainable, it is being fortified with a distillate made from the rebêche, or third pressing of the grapes. It’s set to launch at the end of the year.
Sustainability is also at the heart of the new brand Discarded, a quirky red vermouth that’s flavoured with cascara, or the coffee berry fruit, which is a by-product of coffee production. The result is a dark, silky vermouth with rich notes of cherry and dark chocolate. At the plush Scarfes Bar in Holborn they serve it in an Espresso Martini made with coffee liqueur and dark rum.
On the fringes of the vermouth category you also have quinine wines, which are bittered with cinchona, the same bark that gives tonic water its bitterness. Two of my favourites are Caperitif, a tart aperitif from one of South Africa’s hottest new-wave winemakers, Adi Badenhorst; and the Mattei Cap Corse quinine wines from Corsica. The lemon-thyme Cap Corse blanc is particularly good.
There are enough aperitifs to make your head spin. But whichever one you choose, remember that vermouth oxidises, like a wine – so once you’ve opened it, keep it in the fridge, and that way it will stay in good nick for two to three months. Don’t leave it at the back of your drinks cupboard, like my gran did – that wouldn’t be doing the next generation any favours.