An Introduction to Vermouth
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
I want everyone to drink more vermouth.
I'll be upfront: I’m not a sommelier or an expert in the world of wine – I’m just a bartender with a nose, a mouth, and a passion for vermouth. Back in 2019 I found myself frustrated by the lack of information available both on the internet and in print on the category. I began my educational journey by making a comprehensive guide to vermouth myself.
I tasted a lot of vermouth.
I’d like people to enjoy vermouth on its own to better utilize it in cocktails, talk about it with confidence, and to gain a greater appreciation of it overall. Demystifying it is a start. While I understand tasting notes can be very subjective, vermouth is a wine-based product with added botanicals which directly flavor it. Cinnamon, orange, wormwood, cinchona, gentian - these are all ingredients you'll commonly find and consequently taste in many vermouths.
I’ve built what I hope will be a resource for beverage directors, bar managers, bartenders, servers, and enthusiasts to utilize the vermouth available to them to its fullest. This resource is not only for professionals and enthusiasts but for anyone who drinks or mixes with vermouth.
A brief introduction to vermouth
Broad strokes here: Vermouth comes from the German word wermut, which translates to wormwood, a bitter leafy plant in the Artemesia family.
Vermouth is both an aromatized and fortified wine. Aromatized wines undergo a maceration process with any number of botanicals, including flowers, roots, dried fruits, barks, or other organic, plant-based products. Fortified wines have had a distillate added to up the proof of the product.
That's the gist of it: wine flavored with botanicals and fortified with a spirit. It's a little bitter, varying degrees of sweet, and can swing between fruity, vegetal, herbaceous, confectionary, and savory in a single sip.
There are resources available both online and in print that will go into the very long and detailed history of vermouth and fortified wines. If you’re new to the world of vermouth, I recommend you start with the stellar Vermouth101 run by Martin Doudoroff. Check out the Recommended reading section below for other useful websites and books.
The European Union has strict laws that determine what can be classified as vermouth, while the United States has far fewer regulations around what is labeled “vermouth.”
Vermouth from the European Union
By EU law, vermouth must contain Artemesia. Most producers stay true to tradition by using artemisia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood.
75% of the bottled product must be wine, and the ABV (Alcohol by Volume) must clock in between 14.5% ABV and 22% ABV.
Vermouth may be fortified with any variety of distillates. It may be sweetened with various forms of grape must (crushed grape juice, skin, seeds, and stems), sugar, caramel, honey, or other natural sweeteners.
Sugar content dictates how producers categorize vermouth, from dry to sweet:
Extra Dry < 30 g/
Dry < 50 g/l
Semi-Dry 50 g/l – 90 g/l
Semi-Sweet 90 g/l – 130 g/l
Sweet >130 g/l
There is currently only one geographical designation for vermouth recognized by law: Vermouth di Torino.
Vermouth di Torino must be produced in Piedmont, Italy, using only Italian wine. It must be between 16% ABV and 22% ABV, mainly bittered with Artemesia, and its sweeteners are limited to sugar, grape must, caramel, and honey. In 2017, Vermouth di Torino Superior was written into law – at least 50% of its wine base must be grown in Piedmont as well.
The legal protection for the French Vermouth de Chambery lapsed in 2000 and is no longer recognized by EU law. Meanwhile, the Spanish recognize Vermouth de Reus as a regional style of vermouth, but the EU does not recognize either as protected designations of origin.
Vermouth from the United States
The US has vaguer laws for the production of vermouth. There is no legal requirement to include wormwood, so a lack of wormwood as a flavoring or bittering agent typically characterizes American vermouth.
The minimum ABV of the bottled product must be at least 15% with no specified maximum ABV.
Other than that, US law says that if an aperitif wine (wine base plus spirit) smells, tastes, and generally could be considered vermouth, then it can be called vermouth. As you can imagine, this loose language is a point of contention among New World and European vermouth producers.
Styles of Vermouth
Typically when we talk about vermouth, we categorize three different styles: Dry (Sec, Seco, Secco), White (Blanc, Bianco, Blanco), and Sweet (Red, Rosso, Rouge, Rojo). Vermouth can be produced anywhere in the world and often you'll find some form of aromatized wine in the wine-producing regions of the world. The majority of it is produced and consumed in Italy, France, Spain, and increasingly the US.
Historically, both dry vermouth and (sweet) white vermouth were referred to as "French," and sweet (red) vermouth was best known as "Italian." This terminology needs an update.
White vermouth is in fact a style of sweet vermouth and is generally less bitter than sweet red vermouth. In fact, sometimes white vermouths contain more sugar than what we know as sweet vermouth. Therefore, some producers (such as Giancarlo Mancino of Mancino Vermouth) have made an effort over the years to refer to white vermouth as "sweet white" and sweet vermouth as "sweet red." I have adopted these terms for my tasting guides.
While the EU has strict guidelines on sugar content, which dictates the style of vermouth by law (e.g., dry vermouth vs. extra dry vermouth), the US has no such regulations. As a result, many American vermouths have sugar content well below what traditional standards require. I've found several American vermouths that label themselves as sweet vermouth, but EU law would classify them as semi-dry or semi-sweet.
Every region and individual producer will define these styles differently. Generally, though, expect dry vermouth to be dry, while white vermouth and red vermouth will be sweet.
Rose and Ambratto vermouths are category outliers, but will typically be sweet – sometimes sweeter than either white or red.
How to care for your vermouth
Once opened, your vermouth will begin oxidizing. Most brands add sulphur dioxide to minimize this, but wine is wine – it will go bad over time.
I've found that most bottles open up after 24 to 48 hours, and many will show signs of oxidation after the first week. The flavors won't pop, the body will go limp, and the vermouth will taste flat. After being open anywhere from 4-8 weeks, most vermouths, especially those with lower sugar content, will die. You may continue mixing with and drinking your zombie vermouth, but know that you are working with an inferior product and proceed accordingly.
To slow this process, always keep your vermouth sealed and refrigerated. Many brands sell 375ml bottles – so if your primary use for vermouth requires an ounce or less at a time in cocktails, you may consider opting for the smaller size to prevent waste. But really, 99% of vermouth is delicious on its own, so just drink it.
Be sure to date your vermouth, and taste it before using it if you know you've been sitting on it for a while.
Vermouth guide organization
My guide aims to compare most, if not all, of the vermouth brands commonly available in the US to offer a better understanding of vermouth on the market.
For the sake of making this information more digestible, I've broken articles for this guide into Dry, Sweet White, and Sweet Red categories, and then further by region of production. I focus on the primary areas of production (Italy, France, Spain, and the USA), but there are plenty of outliers.
This is a living guide, one that I will update as new information becomes available to me.
Ingredients: vermouth base wines and botanicals
Whenever possible, I've noted the grapes used for the base wine in each vermouth, as well as any known botanicals used during infusion or distillation.
Because EU law requires vermouth to include some form of wormwood, it's safe to assume bottles from the EU do contain artemisia botanicals. However, this guide only lists additional botanicals if I've found a resource stating a specific botanical is used.
While these ingredients are not always indicative of a vermouth's flavor profile, they can provide useful insight. I've compiled personal tasting notes for each vermouth and have cross-referenced them with producer notes, distributer notes, and the trusted palates of various bartenders. These are not definitive tasting notes by any means, but they should be a great starting point.
A note on sugar
Whenever possible, I've indicated the sugar content of each bottle in grams per liter. This information tends to be as guarded as any other aspect of production, but I do believe it is important enough to include. The amount of sugar in a bottle of vermouth will determine not only perceived sweetness but will also affect the body and mouthfeel. These are essential factors to consider when mixing cocktails.
Some producer notes will provide a range for their sugar content while some provide exact numbers. These numbers often differ slightly from independent lab testing.
I've seen different bottles of the same vermouth differ by as much as 15 g/l, which is due to the nature of vermouth production. The flavor of a grape varietal can vary wildly from harvest to harvest based on several environmental factors. The same is true for every one of the natural botanicals used in the maceration process.
Batch to batch, producers need to adjust sugar content for variances in grape acidity or the bitterness of the botanicals. These variances are designed to ensure a consistent product.
The language is important - just because a vermouth is red, doesn't mean it is sweet by definition (> 130 g/l).
If you’re just beginning to learn about the wonderful world of vermouth, I highly recommend the following books and online resources.
Recommended vermouth books
The Book of Vermouth by Shaun Byrne and Gilles Lapalus
The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Aperitifs by Jared McDaniel Brown and Anistatia Renard Miller
Strong, Sweet and Dry: A Guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala by Becky Sue Epstein
A Spirited Guide to Vermouth by Jack Adair Bevan
El Gran Libro del Vermut by Francois Monti
Great online resources
You may also want to dig into the producer's websites for various brands in this guide. Some brands don't have official websites, just the sites for their distributors. Some are full of pretty pictures and little else, while some give detailed information on production and even nutrition facts. I list brand websites in the individual tasting guides where applicable.
Want to see more bottles in the guide?
Please note that for the sake of getting this guide off the ground, I’ve left out many artisanal and boutique vermouths. I will update this as often as I can get my hands on new products, but the focus will remain a resource for US market brands rather than an all-encompassing guide to the world's vermouth.
If bottles are missing from this guide, I would love a little help tracking them down. This research was funded entirely out of pocket without any brand sponsorships or donations. I've done my best to collect what I can, but I've already spent well over $3,000 on 100+ bottles for this passion project. So, yes, donations are most certainly welcome, especially if you’d like to sponsor adding a new bottle to this guide.
Check the individual regional Vermouth guides for more detailed information on regional styles and recommended bottles:
The Complete Guide to Dry Vermouth
Sweet White Vermouth
The Complete Guide to Sweet White Vermouth
Sweet Red Vermouth
The Complete Guide to Sweet Red Vermouth
Quinquina and Americano
The Complete Guide to Quinquina and Americano
Please send any updates or corrections to email@example.com.