Vermouth is in a prime position to be your go-to drink this summer. There are restaurants opening with dedicated vermouth lists supplementing the traditional wine list. Cocktail programs centering on (or prominently featuring) vermouth and similar imbibables like amaro are increasingly common. Even the Times is on it.
For the uninitiated, vermouth is a type of fortified wine, typically made with wormwood—yes, the very same from absinthe, though don't expect a trip while you sip—in Europe, where they have very specific ideas about what makes vermouth vermouth, whereas most American producers eschew wormwood altogether. The fortification comes from another kind of alcohol, typically a brandy, and then botanicals like roots and herbs are added to the producer's taste.
"Italian vermouths with spices inside are more typical, and similar in all Italian vermouth is clove and nutmeg," according to Michele Marzella, the mixologist at Eataly's newly revamped Manzo restaurant. Italian here refers to Italian-style, not necessarily that the vermouths are produced in Italy; same goes for French or Spanish vermouth.
"The American vermouths are different because the way to [produce] the vermouth is more open," Marzelle explains. "They're also different because American vermouths are more dry and oxidized, the acidity of the wine is more present. American vermouths are more similar to French vermouths."
American producers—like the locally-made Uncouth Vermouth and California-based Lo-Fi Aperitifs—aren't beholden to centuries-old traditions in Europe that dictate the "proper" ingredients in vermouth, like the wormwood. Lo-Fi infuses its sweet vermouth with flavors of rhubarb and wild cherry bark, while Channing Daughters on Long Island offers variations of vermouth with flavors like Thai green chili peppers or flowering basil. The permutations are as endless as the ways the vermouth itself can be used.
For the completist, read this excellent primer by Serious Eats on the different styles of aperitif wines.
Managing Partner Nate Adler pours house-made vermouth at Huertas (Nancy Borowick)
Historically, vermouth has been served as an aperitif, something to drink to boost the appetite before a meal. In the United States, most of us are familiar with vermouth's role as second fiddle to the gin in a martini. Increasingly, however, vermouth is enjoying a place alongside heavy hitting spirits like whiskies and vodkas, popping up in cocktails that go way beyond James Bond's drink of choice.
In the East Village at Huertas, which specializes in the cuisine of the Basque region, that could mean sipping their in-house-produced red or white vermouths neat or on the rocks, or a variety of Spanish vermouth mixed into a cocktail. "Vermouth makes incredibly unique cocktails," says managing partner Nate Adler. "A lot of times I'll sit down for a tasting and I'll say, 'This doesn't have anything Spanish in it, let's just add vermouth.' And it usually goes really well. It's a good supplement, for sure."
Vermouth is also the basis for many of the new cocktails at Williamsburg's Sunday In Brooklyn, where vermouth champion and Lo-Fi ambassador Claire Sprouse has created a line of vermouth-centered cocktails for the restaurant's new bar menu.
"I don't want to say we're trying to be a French aperitif bar in Paris, we want you to know where you are," Sprouse says, referencing Brooklyn's brand as a hip and trendsetting cultural center. To that end, she's pairing sweet vermouth with blanco tequila, Cappelletti Aperitivo Americano Rosso and an orange cordial ("Outlook Good") and making a cheeky riff on America's most lowbrow cocktail: the Appeltini. Sprouse's version is a clarified milk punch made with vodka, green apple juice and Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth. It's less about the intensely sweet green syrup found in most Appeltinis and more about letting the subtle wine flavors interplay with the essence of real apple.
"Outlook Good" cocktail from Sunday In Brooklyn (Nell Casey/Gothamist)
So we get it, vermouth is delicious, flexible and increasingly popular. But perhaps what makes it the best go-to for long afternoons of summer day drinking: its relatively low ABV. Vermouth is "something you can drink all day and it won't get you drunk," says Adler. Fortified and aperitif wines typically clock in between 13 and 24 percent alcohol by volume, just slightly higher than most straight wines because of the "fortification" process but significantly lower than spirits like whiskeys, which can can range from 40% ABV to skyward of 50% ABV in some cases.
Yes, a Coors Light is lower in alcohol by volume, but it's also...Coors Light (I drink Coors Light sometimes, please don't try to fight me).
Since vermouth has typically been consumed before a meal, one wouldn't want to get plastered on an empty stomach. Now that people are drinking cocktails throughout a meal, mixologists like Sprouse are finding ways to balance out higher proof alcohols with lower proof alcohols—like vermouth—to get someone further into a meal without feeling too many of alcohol's effects. Or if someone's coming in just to have an afternoon cocktail, people like Sprouse want them "not to need a power nap" afterwards.
Are you ready to start your journey into aperitif wines? The best part about vermouth is that, for the most part, any bar or restaurant you're drinking at will likely have some kind of vermouth behind the stick. But be warned: not all will be as diligent about storage (vermouth needs to be refrigerated after opening), so you're better off sticking to places that really know their stuff. Here are a few options to get you started in NYC:
"Lady Nuvolari" at Eataly's Manzo (Tanya Maithai)
MANZO AT EATALY The fine dining restaurant at Batali and Bastianich's original Flatiron market offers up dozens of vermouths, predominantly from Italy but with a strong representation of domestically-produced vermouths as well. For the uninitiated, vermouth expert Davide Pinto—along with Michele Marzella and Beverage Director Heidi Singer—have helpfully offered tasting notes to guide drinkers to their desired flavor profile. Opt for traditional flavors of black cherry, raisin and chocolate (Mancino Vecchio) or the American-made producers infusing their base wines with flavors of watermelon, shiitake mushroom, carrot and mint (Channing Daughters Winery, Vervino, Vermouth Variation Four). 200 5th Avenue, 212-937-8910; eataly.com
ORTZI Chef Jose Garces's latest near Bryant Park offers an overview of the three main European producers of vermouth: France, Italy, and Spain. There are a few more options for Spanish vermouth, including Yzaguirre Vermouth Rojo Reserva, which is aged in oak barrels, and the Miro Vermut de Reus Extra Seco, a super-dry vermouth from the Catalan region of Spain. It's also a great opportunity to sample classic French vermouths like Noilly Prat, France's oldest vermouth. 120 West 41 Street, 212-730-8900; ortzirestaurant.com
LEYENDA Helmed by one of the most respected mixologists in the business, this Cobble Hill cocktail bar offers several fine vermouth options, in addition to some excellent cocktails that employ vermouth either as a base or a supporting player. Take the Quinceanera ($12), with a base of Gentian amaro vermouth with Cochi Rosa, blanco tequila, raspberry brandy, cherry liqueur and sparkling rose. To truly appreciate the unique botanicals in aromatized and fortified wines, opt for a neat or rocks pour of Dolin Dry or the sweeter Dolin Blanc ($9). 221 Smith Street, 347-987-3260; leyendabk.com
"Champagne Problems" from Sunday In Brooklyn (Nell Casey/Gothamist)
SUNDAY IN BROOKLYN Claire Sprouse's cocktails definitely defy any kind of "tradition" that binds vermouth to certain applications. There's the aforementioned vermouth "Appeltini" and the "Champagne Problems" cocktail, pictured above, that fuses gentian amaro with prosecco and vibrant fresh beet juice. The restaurant carries both American and European vermouths, including the more common Dolin Dry—good for martinis, says Sprouse— and Matthiasson, a rare and expensive sweet vermouth made in the Napa Valley. 348 Wythe Avenue, 347-222-6722; sundayinbrooklyn.com
HUERTAS "This perfect daytime experience of drinking vermouth and eating tortilla espanola really inspired me to want to come home and make it myself," Adler says, and thus the house-made vermouth program at the restaurant was born. The staff make two different varieties of Spanish-inspired vermouth, including a blanco with a more botanical essence and a tinto with a bit more oomph and sweetness (both $12 by the glass and the restaurant is gratuity-free). Many of their cocktails also feature vermouth and fortified wine, including the excellent Playa Rosa, a mezcal-based cocktail with St. George Bruto Americano, a smoked version of their house vermouth, and grapefruit.
LOCANDA VINI E OLLI Like Huertas, this Clinton Hill eatery makes its own proprietary vermouths in both red and white bases, which it's infusing with things like rhubarb, gentian and the traditional wormwood. They'll also happily pour glasses of Italian vermouths and aperitifs including Cocchi Vermouth di Torino with notes of citrus and red fruits, and the more bitter Alessio Vermouth di Torino Rosso, with spiced raison flavors, which they use in their rye Manhattan ($12).