Your Negroni, your martini, your Manhattan and many more would fall perilously short without vermouth. A backbone to heavyweight and newcomer cocktails alike, vermouth doesn’t exist solely to amplify others. Rather, the fortified, aromatized wine is a complex, complete pour all on its own.
Begin with the three traditional styles: sweet, dry and blanc, also called bianco. Each starts with a neutral wine base that is flavored, or aromatized, with an often-secret blend of herbs, barks and spices, and fortified with a strong, neutral spirit.
Sweet vermouth sits at the top of the supposed family tree. Rich in color and flavor, spiced and pleasantly sweet, it originated in Northern Italy and is sometimes referred to as rosso or Italian vermouth. Dry vermouth, born across the border in France, is in blunt contrast to its predecessor: light in color, slightly herbal and dry. Blanc is the sweetest with heady floral, citrus and vanilla notes. It’s also the youngest, entering the market in the late 19th century.
While each can mingle happily in a mixed drink, their unique, often robust mix of botanicals afford them stature as a stand-alone apéritif — and they are commonly seen served across Europe as such.
Deciding which vermouth to sip solo depends on the drinker’s preference. Lauren Corriveau, Proprietors LLC, the consulting arm of the cocktail bar Death & Co., suggests considering how you take your tea. If you like it black, skew toward a dry vermouth. If you doctor yours with honey or sugar or milk, you’ll probably prefer the body, texture and sweetness of sweet or blanc vermouth.
Most European vermouths get their bitter flavor from wormwood, the medicinal herb from the species artemisia that lends vermouth its name (from the German “wermut”). Aficionados argue as to the importance of wormwood in vermouth, and many contemporary non-European bottles often skip it in favor of alternative bittering agents.
Drinking vermouth can be as uncomplicated as chilling the bottle and pouring a few fingers. Try it as is or add a salty green olive or a twist or slice of whatever citrus you have in the house. You can also add an ice cube or a mixer. While her go-to is a dry tonic, Ms. Corriveau reaches for anything bubbly: Seltzer or sparkling wine also work.
If you’re keen to mix a drink but want keep it simple and low-A.B.V., combine vermouths in equal proportions or with sherry in an Adonis. For an A.B.V.-bolstered drink that’s still an easy pour, make a 50-50 martini. If you’re using vermouth in a mixed drink, reach for a traditional style. Experiment with incorporating newer styles and brands at will, keeping in mind that many modern vermouth styles tend to be stronger and may be prone to overtake the flavors in a cocktail.
Despite its versatility, vermouth is often relegated to dark, dusty corners of the bar. Left to sit — and inadvertently spoil — at room temperature for months or even years, neglected bottles can ruin an otherwise lovely drink and give drinkers the misconception that vermouth isn’t to their taste. No more. Treat vermouth like the wine you opened and didn’t finish, and store it capped or recorked in the refrigerator.
Properly refrigerated vermouth is best consumed within one month, no more than three.
“It won’t be as vibrant past that month mark,” Ms. Corriveau said. “So, you know, get to drinking.”
She employs a trick many in the bar and restaurant industry know well: labeling the bottle with the date you opened it. “Then there’s no guessing,” she said.
Finally, if your bar is threadbare or if you have to replace your spoiled bottle, consider a swap. If a recipe calls for sweet vermouth, Ms. Corriveau often reaches for an amaro, blending it with a bit of still red wine if the amaro alone feels a little heavy. Or she’ll deploy a sherry. (For dry vermouth, she substitutes in dry fino sherry.) You could also swap in Lillet Blanc, Cocchi Americano or even white port for vermouth in a pinch.
Whichever vermouth you choose, it’s bound to be a multifaceted, satisfying bottle in its own right. Even if you end up mixing it into a cocktail, take a few moments to pour yourself a short or long glass and enjoy.