The hot new hooch: American vermouth

You couldn’t be blamed for thinking vermouth is made only by Martini & Rossi and sequestered to chorus-girl status as the swirl in a Manhattan or a martini.

But Vermouth, the wine-based, fortified, herb-laden aperitif, is having its day. And you might be surprised to find yourself wanting to sip some solo, instead shaken and stirred.

“No one wants old vermouth in a drink. Fresh vermouth on the other hand is the life and complexity of the martini, Manhattan, and any other vermouth drink.” 

— Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, authors of Mixellany Guide to Vermouth and Other Aperitifs

While Italian and French companies make most of the world’s vermouth, several U.S. producers are making this 18th century drink hot and hip, especially among younger drinkers: Producers like Astby, Uncouth Vermouth and Channing Daughters in New York, Imbue and Ransom in Oregon and Vya and Sutton Cellars in California.

Some bartenders, like Stephanie Griber of Shoo-Fly Diner in Baltimore, are taking it upon themselves to make their own “house” versions and are introducing the flavor-packed drink to a whole new generation of imbibers.

Vermouth’s comeback has been a long time coming, and it’s not just Millennials who are developing a taste for it. European labels were popular with Americans back in the 1800s, and American vermouth production dates back to the 1890s, but the drink’s popularity waned after Prohibition kicked many fine European producers’ bottles to the curb.

“During Prohibition there was very little vermouth consumption in the U.S. By the time it returned to American shores a fundamental understanding was lost and bartenders began to treat this wine like a spirit,” offer Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, authors of Mixellany Guide to Vermouth and Other Aperitifs.

There’s another reason vermouth’s status was demoted to a cocktail add-on. Brown and Miller say its shelf life is similar to that of a wine. High alcohol content acts as a preservative in spirits, but wine and wine-based vermouth, which tends to hover at around 13 to 18 percent, won’t last indefinitely. Vermouth tastes best for about a month, and then you should throw it out. (After you open it, you should always store the bottle in the refrigerator.) But how often have you seen bottles of vermouth languishing on bar shelves or at home?

Chances are you’ve been drinking spoiled stuff all along, say Brown and Miller.  “No one wants old vermouth in a drink. Fresh vermouth on the other hand is the life and complexity of the martini, Manhattan, and any other vermouth drink.”

But there is a major component when choosing between an Old World and New World vermouth: a bittering agent made from a plant from the Artemisia family called wormwood.

“Wormwood must legally be included in European vermouths. Here in the U.S., it is not a necessary ingredient,” says Griber, who was inspired to make her own vermouth from the drink’s subtle and complex flavors.

As long as the product still tastes and smells like vermouth, it can be called vermouth, and that has allowed American producers to play with different ingredients to give the drink its bitter flavor.

“Wormwood is an intense bittering agent, and if not used with a trained hand can ruin a batch of vermouth,” says Adam Ford of Atsby, who is working on a book on the revival of American vermouth.  He eschews the use of wormwood for a more complex mix of ingredients to tease out the delicious flavors in his duo of vermouths.

“American vermouth producers pride themselves on being innovators, on creating new styles and flavors of vermouths that break the old rules. American producers use higher-quality base wine and fortifying spirits, and we use a much broader botanical pallet, and more natural sweeteners.  We also all avoid using any flavoring agents or extracts or oils, so we are all producing very high-quality, natural vermouths. “ 

But Griber says there are other flavor differences between European and American vermouth that aren't as cut and dried as the taste of wormwood.

“Just as one can taste the difference in Old World wine and American wine, for the most part, so it is with vermouth. Vermouth is wine-based and, thusly, terroir based. For me, I use Vya (American) sweet vermouth when I want a bold, juicy, sweet vermouth and I use Dolin's Rouge (European) when I want a more subtle, herbal, spiced, semi-sweet flavor profile.”

Most exciting about American vermouth’s rebirth is the sky’s-the-limit approach by producers.

“I am sure that someone's Nona or Babu or any iteration of an Old World grandma has been making her own vermouth for over 80 years in a jar,” Griber says, laughing. “For me, and my co-bartenders, we just keep trying to up the ante.”

And of course, offers Ford, “Everyone loves a comeback.”