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When it comes to the contest for “least respected, most versatile alcohol in the world,” there’s no question that vermouth has a fair shot at the prize. Without it, there would be no Manhattans, no martinis, and (as if things could get any worse) no Negronis—the latter somehow having become the cool-kid cocktail of the season, in addition to being just plain great.
Cocktails aside, good vermouth can also be delicious poured straight over an ice-cube or two. But what is the stuff, actually? The first clue comes from the name, vermouth, a French bastardization of the Old High German wermuota, or wormwood, an aromatic ingredient once used to flavor it (and absinthe, too).
There are two main styles, sweet (originally Italian) and dry (originally French). Both are made with wine that has been infused with herbs, roots, spices and other botanical ingredients; the specific recipes are usually secret. These days most brands make both styles. Because vermouth is wine-based, it should be kept in the refrigerator after it is opened, and will last for two to three months before losing its character (use what’s left for cooking).
Noilly Prat and Martini & Rossi tend to dominate store shelves, along with Cinzano. All are fine for everyday use. Recently, though, there’s been an explosion of new brands, as well as higher-end offerings from the big names, some of which are extraordinarily good. Here are five great bottles.
Dolin Dry ($17) Jim Meehan, bartender extraordinaire and founder of the Manhattan cocktail mecca PDT, uses Dolin Dry as his go-to dry vermouth. No wonder: It’s light-bodied and remarkably subtle—up to 54 different plants are used in the recipe—and comes from the last producer left in the French town of Chambéry, the original home of dry vermouth production. Excellent for those who like their Martinis so dry you can hear their bones creaking.
Maurin Dry Vermouth ($24) Much more full-bodied and substantial than Dolin, Maurin’s dry vermouth has a distinctive orange/tangerine flavor and a touch of sweetness before finishing on a lightly bitter herbal note. It’s a dry vermouth you could easily drink chilled on its own; it’s also extremely good in a very old school—pre-Prohibition, that is—fifty-fifty martini: half vermouth and half gin. (And, if you like, a dash of orange bitters.)
Contratto Rosso ($29) Now owned by top Barolo producer Giorgio Rivetti, this Piedmontese producer was founded in 1867. It ceased vermouth production in the 1960s, but Rivetti revived the historic recipe a couple of years ago. The Rosso, particularly, is intriguingly complex (its aromatic ingredients include coriander seeds, bay laurel leaves, cinnamon, angelica root, nutmeg, bitter orange peel, carob-tree pods, rhubarb roots, sage, lemon peel, sweet orange peel, licorice, sandalwood and 18 others). It balances sweetness with a light citrus zest note—serve it chilled with a twist, or in a rye Manhattan, I’d say.
Martini Gran Lusso ($30) The name of this limited-edition offering from Martini, released this past summer, translates as “grand luxury.” The heart of its flavor comes from a 1904 botanical extract recipe that’s aged eight years in wood; unusually for vermouth, Gran Lusso is also partly made using red wine, specifically Barbera from Piedmont. Its bittersweet, spicy character shows off well in a classic Vieux Carré; it’s oddly good for Scotch-based drinks (like a Rob Roy or a Blood & Sand); and it’s excellent on its own.
Carpano Antica Formula ($32) The original inventor of the sweet vermouth style, Carpano makes vermouths that are across-the-board impressive. The best, though, is this sweet, complex, vanilla-scented bottling based on, appropriately, an antique recipe. It’s great in a Manhattan (cut back the vermouth proportion a bit), but possibly at its best when served solo on the rocks with a twist.