American Sweet Red Vermouth Tasting Guide
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
This guide will primarily echo my sentiments of the entire category of American vermouths.
Strict US laws on all things wormwood require pricey thujone testing, so many American vermouth producers opt for alternative botanicals as bittering agents. US law vaguely states that as long as vermouth generally tastes like vermouth, it can be sold and marketed as such. As one can imagine, this is a point of contention between European and American producers.
Additionally, there is nothing that designates sugar content in American sweet vermouths. Many American sweet vermouths are very light in sugar (sometimes as low as 100 g/l), which EU law would not classify as sweet vermouth – instead, it would be classified as semi-sweet or semi-dry.
Some American producers go out of their way to insist that, even though the origins of the word vermouth translate to "wormwood," vermouth may or may not have ever historically been defined by its wormwood. In an attempt to sidestep the entire debate, many opt to draw attention to their complex wine bases, non-traditional botanicals, and resulting flavor profiles.
I believe many American vermouth producers are certainly making aromatized wines but fall back on the “vermouth” labeling to secure shelf space and distribution in a crowded market. This has turned out to be a double-edged sword. Some American producers (like Vya) make vermouth that fits neatly into marketing expectations – these vermouths have stood the test of time as a result. However, I feel many other producers would find more success by defining their product as a new category of aromatized wine rather than insisting that laws are loose enough to get away with calling their product vermouth.
Americans don't tend to drink vermouth as the Europeans do – Americans are usually using vermouth in bar and cocktail programs. While some American vermouths may adhere to expectations, many do not – these unfortunately have little to offer most beverage programs. And since most American vermouths have such a strong focus on their wine bases, many are exorbitantly expensive for use in bar programs or home use and have inconsistent distribution. As a result of this, I have yet to taste several American vermouths and honestly can't tell if some of them are still on the market.
That said, Vya and Little City make a great, mostly traditional products enjoyable on their own or in cocktails. Lo-Fi and Rockwell also makes delicious, somewhat non-traditional alternatives.
At all costs, avoid Gallo Sweet Vermouth and Tribuno Sweet Vermouth.
If you're new to the world of vermouth, check out my Introduction to Vermouth post to learn some basics, introduce yourself to some of the terminology used, and get a general overview of how these guides are structured (and why). Then join me back here to get into the details!
Gallo Sweet Vermouth
Producer: E&J Gallo
Wine Base: N/A
Known Botanicals: N/A
Sugar: 135 g/l
Nose: cherry, menthol, caramel, prune
Palate: raisin, gentian, grapefruit, menthol, cinchona, cinnamon, nutmeg
Finish: raisin, lemon, grapefruit, cherry, nutmeg
Additional Notes: For a company that buys 2/3 of California's grapes (E&J Gallo) for its wines and uses them to produce such gems as Carlo Rossi wine jugs, boxes of Vella, Boone's Farm, and Barefoot, little is known about the actual production methods. In this case, we probably don't really want to know how the sausage is made. Drinks more like a child's grape juice than a vermouth.
Little City Sweet
Producer: Little City
Wine Base: Cayuga White
Known Botanicals: 53 total
Sugar Content: N/A
Nose: tobacco, bay leaf, star anise, white grape, cedar, white pepper, raisin, sweet potato
Palate: black cherry, cinchona, cedar, cinnamon, orange, licorice root, myrhh, banana
Finish: black cherry, cinnamon, star anise, ash, white pepper, cedar
Additional Notes: Batch 10 bottling. Red tinted cola brown color. Medium-light body. Warming and spicy with some charred notes.
Lo-Fi Sweet Vermouth
Producer: Lo-Fi Aperitifs
Wine Base: Muscat Canelli, Chardonnay
Known Botanicals: at least 12, rhubarb, cocoa, clove, coriander, cardamom, orange oil, vanilla, gentian root, cherry bark, anise, coconut, dried fruit (listed on bottle, fruit unknown)
Nose: licorice, fennel, rhubarb, vanilla
Palate: rhubarb, cocoa, vanilla, cherry, coconut, nutty
Finish: oak, gentian bitterness, orange oil, cherry
Additional Notes: Pale yellow/orange color. No caramel coloring. Wine sourced from E&J Gallo. Cream sherry added and presumably also sourced from E&J Gallo. A little harder to mix with due to its extremely light body/low sugar content, but the flavor always finds a way to come through.
Producer: Rockwell Vermouth Co.
Wine Base: Symphony
Known Botanicals: California sagebrush, mission fig
Sugar Content: 155-160 g/l
Nose: caramelized banana, sea salt, sweet potato, cola, sour cherry, tobacco, mint, strawberry
Palate: maple, cinnamon, nutmeg, fig, cherry, banana, raisin, toasted rice, honey, marzipan, mugwort
Finish: cinnamon, nutmeg, raisin, orange, mint, banana, honey, sage, almond, mugwort
Additional Notes: Lot 1 bottling. Somewhere between amber and ruby in color. Medium-light body. Pleasantly dry on the palate for a sweet vermouth. Dilution draws the bitter notes out. Its incredibly unique profile can be a double-edged sword when mixing cocktails – it may not be a 1:1 swap for your go-to sweet red vermouth, but it's an exciting expression and a fine example of an American vermouth. Primarily bittered with Artemesia Californica.
Tribuno Sweet Vermouth
Wine Base: N/A
Known Botanicals: N/A
Nose: candied peach, concord grape, raisin, salt, flour, white glue
Palate: grape juice, plum, lemon, cinchona, currant
Finish: peach, grape, prune, sea salt, nutmeg, strawberry
Additional Notes: Reddish brown color. Smells and tastes incredibly artificial through and through. Smells exactly like a peach ring gummy candy and tastes exactly like welch's grape juice. Cloying.
Vya Sweet Vermouth
Producer: Quadry Winery
Wine Base: Orange Muscat, Colambard, Valdepenas (manufacturer lists variable wine base, changes semi-regularly?)
Known Botanicals: at least 17, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, clove, galangal, quassia bark
Sugar: 156 g/l
Nose: blackberry, orange, cinnamon, clove, gentian, cola, pine
Palate: clove, cinnamon, cranberry, ginger, cherry, lemon, sarsaparilla, pear
Finish: dried apricot, clove, orange, cinnamon, red currant, vanilla, chocolate, lemon
Additional Notes: Dark bronze color. The roots of the botanicals are used in the maceration. The flowers and leaves of the plants are used for the Extra Dry expression. Tastes like pie. Hard to place the bitter notes.
Notably missing: Atsby Armadillo Cake, Brovo Jammy Sweet, Brovo Pink Rose, Hammer and Tongs L'Afrique, Kedem Sweet, Ransom Sweet. Will accept donations of any missing vermouths.
Check the individual regional Vermouth guides for more detailed information on regional styles and recommended bottles:
Sweet White Vermouth
Sweet Red Vermouth
Quinquina and Americano
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