Sweet or dry, vermouth is rarely considered more than a secondary element in classic drinks like a martini or Manhattan, but the aromatic, fortified wine is now being featured more prominently in American cocktails.
“The first time I encountered vermouth to drink on its own was in Barcelona,” says Leo Robitschek, the bar manager at NoMad, Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm’s newest restaurant in New York City. “They have vermouth on tap. It’s what a lot of people drink.” A far cry from astringent, mass-produced vermouths, European vermouths and new craft vermouths being produced in the US are herbaceous and complex.
“Vermouth is a very versatile ingredient,” Robitschek says. “I like to use a Mr. Potato Head method when creating cocktails: There’s a bitter slot, there’s a sweet slot, there’s an alcohol slot...What’s interesting about vermouth is that it fills a few of those.”
While many of Robitschek’s drinks at NoMad contain vermouth, the Star and Garter uses Dolin Blanc de Chambéry—a French vermouth flavored with local alpine botanicals—as a primary ingredient. It's infused with cardamom and mixed with Champagne and a touch of Dolin Dry. Aside from Dolin, NoMad’s collection also includes robust Noilly Prat from Marseilles; Carpano Antica, a dark, rich vermouth from Italy; and Carpano Punt es Mes, which Robitschek describes as “vermouth with an identity issue. I’d say it’s two parts vermouth, one part bitter.”
Robitschek attributes the new emphasis on quality vermouths to the dogged interest in perfecting classic cocktails. “If you look at any books from the late 1800s, early 1900s, a majority of cocktails had vermouth in them. I think that wanting to re-create a lot of the old cocktails, we were making them with inferior products that were being brought into the States and they just weren’t tasting as good.” So beverage companies started importing better products, or, in the case of craft vermouths like California’s Vya or Portland’s Imbue, creating them in the US.
To experiment with different brands, Robitschek recommends using a Manhattan as a vehicle: “You can really taste differences between each vermouth.”
Wo Hing General Store, San Francisco Sutton Cellars, a Sonoma County–based winery, makes their Brown Label vermouth with white wine, unaged brandy and 17 botanicals. Wo Hing uses the fresh, tea-scented vermouth in a Sparkling Chrysanthemum, which also combines Benedictine (an herbal French liqueur), absinthe, orange bitters and sparkling wine.
Ada Street, Chicago Named for a Marlene Dietrich song, the Falling in Love Again served at the recently opened Ada Street is a clean-tasting and simple drink: Riesling, lemon juice and Imbue Bittersweet vermouth, an Oregon product with a base of Pinot Gris that's infused with botanicals and fortified with a local brandy.
Pour Vous, Los Angeles The Belle Epoch–style cocktail bar serves the Eau de Chambéry as an ode to French drinking culture. Inspired by the common practice in France of mixing vermouth with bitters, bartender Lindsay Nader mixed Chambéry vermouth with bitters and maraschino liqueur to make it more suited to American tastes.
Restaurant Bea, Seattle Bartender Craig Schoen pairs light and floral Dolin Blanc with tequila in The Frankie to complement tequila’s vegetal notes. Also in the vibrant cocktail: rhubarb shrub (a vinegar-based syrup) and Tasmanian peppercorn.
Branch, Portland OR The signature drink at this neighborhood whiskey bar is the Branchhattan, made with Old Overholt rye whiskey, angostura bitters, orange bitters and Vya Sweet vermouth, a warm and spicy California vermouth made by Quady Winery.