For many, Vermouth is a confusing subject with a wonky history that plays into how it is categorized. Even the producers themselves half the time don’t know what it is. Why? Because Vermouth’s history is... complicated. But hopefully this will help you figure out what to order at a bar, what to make at home or buy at a liquor store.
This is going to be a 2 part series giving a broad overview of the Vermouth category as a whole starting with a brief history in part 1 and then looking at the stylistic differences between things like Rosso and Dry Vermouth in part 2 where I’ll explain why red vermouth is not actually make from red wine and why dry vermouth isn’t actually dry.
Because the Vermouth category is not logical, I honestly feel there is a lot of misinformation about Vermouth on the internet and even incorrect information coming from new producers themselves who don’t fully understand the idiosyncrasies of the category, which in turn, further adds to this confusion about the category. But I’m not blaming anyone here - the category as a whole is a bit wishy washy, with a lot of critical information being lost in translation from Italian or French to English. However, there are some established norms that I feel are important to solidify as Vermouth and other Apéritif wines become more popular around the world.
Vermouth is the original cocktail in a bottle before cocktails were even called cocktails. Vermouth, and for that matter, the entire category of Apéritif Wines, are essentially flavoured wines with a bit of sugar and extra alcohol added as a preservative. That’s it. Just like a cocktail can be defined as simply a mixture of spirit, sugar, water and bitters, bitters being your botanical flavouring, Vermouth is fundamentally the same thing. It’s wine, sugar, botanical flavouring and spirit. It’s the original cocktail in a bottle.
In fact, historically speaking, before humans got good at making wine, it was standard practice to add herbs and botanicals to wine to make it taste good. Tree resin, for example, was often added for its antimicrobial properties; to stop wine from spoiling. Other herbs were also added to cover up off-flavours. Humans frankly used to suck at making wine, so we added other flavours to make gross wine taste good.
And of course, as it’s always said, botanicals were added to wine for their medicinal benefits. However, I can guarantee you we, as a species, added things to wine first to make it taste good before we considered what the medical benefits were. The oldest archaeological samples of wine found in China date back to 9,000 years ago. These were not just ‘wine’, but a honey and rice wine blend (so a cross between a mead and a sake basically) that was flavoured with other fruits with botanicals. Even in the Middle East and Europe 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, grape wine was either drunk immediately after fermentation and only transported within walking distance of the grapevine, or it had botanicals or tree resins added to improve it’s shelf-life and make it taste better.
It’s been hypothesized that these historical herbal wines were created because the human palate and desire for tasty food and drink, was greater than our ability to make tasty complex wine from just grapes or a single sugar source, so additional flavourings were added to make the drink more interesting and to make it last longer.
Now, I’m also using the term ‘wine’ here very broadly. Wine as a category is not just grape wine, it includes mead, cider, or other fruit wines like blueberry wine or cherry wine. Really any sugar source that isn’t grain based can be classified as a wine. Although just to confuse you, there are always exceptions like rice wine or barley wine, which are grains turned into wine as well.
This is a really important historical distinction when talking about wine because the term ‘wine’ is used very loosely in historical accounts and often doesn’t mean grape wine, yet that’s what the reader assumes. More often than not, the term wine means wine made from honey or fruits as those were a much more accessible fermentable sugar source than grapes. Sometimes it was really hard to get grapes when you had a beehive and some berries on your farm, so most folks just fermented what they had.
Herbal wines were far more common historically than just fermented grape juice. Vermouth as a category grew out of this love affair with herbal wines that humans have always had.
Before the word “Vermouth” started to be used, one of the more popular categories of herbal wines in Europe was known as Hypocras, which is a mead and grape wine blend mixed with sugar and spices, often baking spices like cinnamon. This was the drink of choice for many Europeans from the 12th century to the 19th century. It is the Hypocras that gave birth to Vermouth.
As time went on, these general ‘spices’ in a Hypocras became more and more defined into specific styles. One of the styles that emerged was a wormwood wine. Wormwood is an incredibly bitter herb with some lovely aroma and flavour. It is also a dominant ingredient found in absinthe. The first known recipe for Wormwood Wine to emerge was from the Spanish doctor and alchemist, Arnald of Villanova, in the latter half of the 13th century, Arnald is known to have written the earliest printed book on wine, most of which were all wines with various herbs added to them. As the popularity of this wormwood wine grew across Europe, the German word for Wormwood, “Wermut” was mixed up with some French and English and became Vermouth.
In summery, Vermouth is a herbal wine that is bittered with Wormwood. In fact, you can categorize all Aperitif wines, by their bittering agent. For example, Vermouth is bittered with Wormwood, Quinquina, also known as Tonic Wine or Kina, is bittered with Quinine, and Americano wines are bittered with Gentian. If any other bittering herb is used outside of those, it falls into the broad category of Vino Amaro, which means, bitter wine in Italian.
However, despite these categorization, in the last decade, Vermouth has begun to become a blanket term for all these Aperitif Wine categories as a whole, and I think that’s a mistake. Doing so confuses drinkers when they buy a vermouth that doesn’t taste like vermouth. That confusion makes it intimidating to talk and learn about.
I think this has largely happened because some, but not all, modern producers who are making Apéritif Wines, and just call their product Vermouth, when their drink does not contain any wormwood and stylistically tastes nothing like Vermouth. If it doesn’t taste like a Vermouth and doesn’t contain Wormwood, then it’s just not Vermouth.
This is why I think it’s critically important that these producers adopt the actually definitions of these categories so that when you, the customer, are in a store buying a bottle of Vermouth, you can purchase with a certain level of confidence, knowing that what your buying, will taste like vermouth and will make a good Martini and not something you’ll be upset or disappointed in. Not because it tastes bad, but because it didn’t meet your expectation of what you purchased.
For example, Lillet or Dubonnet is often called a Vermouth, and that just simply isn’t what they are. While, like Vermouth, they are both broadly Aperitif wines, those two brands specifically fall into the category of Quinquinas. They are bittered with quinine, and while sure, nobody is going to stop you from using either one of those in a Negroni, it frankly is just not going to taste like a classic negroni made with Rosso Vermouth. It will be a fundamentally different drink.
It’s kind of like calling an aged tequila, a whisky. Sure, they are both aged spirits and you can use them in many of the same ways in cocktails, like an old fashioned, but they will fundamentally change the nature of your drink, and if you wanted a whisky old fashioned but got tequila, you might be a little upset, because that wasn’t what was desired. Same thing goes for Aperitif Wines. They are fundamentally different products.
I will admit though, any of these subcategories of apéritif wines, have a gigantic range of flavour that is dramatically different from brand to brand. So keep that in mind, but at least having some kind of framework like this should help you get an idea of what might be in the bottle.
So now that we’ve defined Vermouth as a wine flavoured with wormwood and other botanicals it’s now time to talk a little bit about sugar and spirit. Vermouth is not just wine and herbs, it also has sugar and distilled alcohol added to it.
Sugar is added to the Vermouth to make all those weird herbs more palatable and balanced. Sugar not only adds sweetness, but it balances out bitterness and just like salt, it can highlight and bring out other unique flavours you might not taste without it. But the problem with wine, especially historically before we got good at making it, is that it actually isn’t very shelf-stable. It will oxidize, it really likes turning into vinegar, or any other number of other things. Especially if you add a bacterial food source, like sugar. After fermentation is complete, If you don't somehow stabilize the wine before adding sugar to it, that sucker is going to grow something weird or referment and bottles are gonna start exploding.
Thankfully though, yeast and bacteria generally have an alcohol level that they like to grow in, if you go beyond a yeast’s alcohol tolerance, they die or go to sleep. Broadly, that tolerance is 18% ABV. Historically, this is why Vermouth, Port, Sherry or any wine that has had sugar added, will generally be fortified, meaning it has had more alcohol added to it to bring the ABV up. This additional alcohol has not been added for flavour, but as a preservative to make the drink shelf-stable for a long period of time.
That is a brief overview of Vermouth, and coming up in part 2 of this series we’re going to dive a little deeper into the sub-categories like what is the difference between Dry, Sweet, Rosso and Bianco Vermouths.