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The Vermouth Renaissance

By Amanda Reed

A gal walks into a bar and orders a Manhattan. The bartender asks, "do you have a whiskey preference?" When she asks for a recommendation, the bartender provides her with tastes of a few of his favorite premium whiskies. She selects one that is spicy and smooth. The bartender meticulously measures the ingredients, then gently stirs the drink. "What type of vermouth did you use?" asks the woman; "Cinzano is our well," he replies.

Heartwood Provisions bar where you have vermouth options

This is a common tale, in which a $20 call cocktail may have been downgraded with the addition of cheap vermouth. Although vermouth is a primary ingredient in some of the most popular classic cocktails, it has long been an afterthought. It's usually easy to request an upgrade to, say, Carpano Antica or Cocchi Torino, but the average consumer does not understand that there are so many more options than there were just a few years ago. As we move toward the next wave of cocktail culture, I'm looking forward to seeing more serious vermouth programs in quality bars and restaurants.

Vermouth is a category of aromatized, fortified wine. It takes its name from the German word "wermut", which translates to wormwood, an ingredient that is sometimes present in vermouth's complex blend of botanicals. Vermouth starts its life as white wine, usually made from neutral flavored field grapes. Sugar is added to the base wine in varying degrees, depending on the style being produced. The wine is then fortified, usually with a neutral grape-based spirit and infused with a mix of herbs, roots, spices, flowers, and dried citrus peels.

There are a number of styles and a plethora of producers around the world; it is a truly dynamic category. Dry vermouth, as the name implies, is dry with only a touch of sweetness, displaying soft, floral and citrusy flavors. Dry vermouth makes its way into every bartender's well since it's a main ingredient in the ever-so-famous Martini. The less common, blanc/bianco vermouth has a similar profile to its dry counterpart, but with much more residual sugar. Red vermouth, or sweet vermouth, is darker in color, due to caramelized sugar, and a robust flavor profile, with notes of dark fruit and dried herbs, finishing bitter and earthy. Sweet vermouth is your standard for such classics as the Manhattan, Negroni, and Blood and Sand.

Like so many other historical libations, vermouth was first created by the Europeans for medicinal purposes. Throughout the 19th century, it became a trendy aperitif beverage in French and Italian cafes, making its way to the U.S. toward the end of the century and becoming an important ingredient in the budding cocktail scene. Due to its presence in a number of pre-prohibition cocktails, vermouth is a necessary ingredient for any cocktail bar.

Many vermouth  options

Where does that leave vermouth in today's cocktail culture? As the cocktail scene evolves, the trend toward lower-proof libations is on the rise. The alcohol content of vermouth usually ranges from 15%-20% alcohol, unlike spirits that sit at minimum of 40% alcohol, making it an excellent low-proof ingredient.

At my restaurant, Heartwood Provisions, we specialize in pairing cocktails with food. Since it is my personal belief that full-proof cocktails tend to be too powerful to pair, I create lower-proof libations, which I believe are better suited to accentuate the delicate flavors in our beautiful food. Therefore, vermouth is present in nearly every pairing drink I create. I can easily use vermouth to lengthen a drink, while adding sprits in small portions, alongside liqueurs and other cocktail building ingredients. The results are often delicate, savory and complex, making it an easy (and affordable) pairing ingredient.

When it comes to building classics, I am also of the mindset that specific drinks call for specific vermouths. You can find a number of high quality options in my well, I actively use and offer around 20 of them. I also provide a "house blended red" that consists of three brands of sweet vermouths that I feel create a perfectly balanced mix of delicate, floral, spicy and bitter.

Never has there been a better time to be a vermouth geek. Beyond the standards, there are a number of old, classic recipes are being revived, historic brands that have recently entered the American market, and a wave of new school vermouths that have recently become available. Both wineries and craft distilleries are getting into the vermouth game. No longer an afterthought, the vermouth renaissance has arrived!

September 2019


Amanda Reed is the Beverage Director at Heartwood Provisions in downtown Seattle. She has been creating cocktails and developing menus since 2005 in San Francisco and Seattle (RN74, Tavern Law, Needle and Thread). At Heartwood, beverages are seasonally-inspired using house-made syrups, tinctures, and shrubs. Each beverage is designed to complete and enhance the flavors of its paired menu item.


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