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Solving the Sweet Vermouth Problem
The three-vermouth solution.
If you’re building a home cocktail bar, the first bottle you should buy is Rittenhouse Rye. Today, we’re going to discuss the second bottle: sweet vermouth.
Building a cocktail bar is an iterative, branching process. When it comes to classic cocktails, base liquors like whiskey, rum, and gin are typically the stars of the show. But you don’t want to build your collection out of base spirits alone. Every show needs a supporting cast — and when making cocktails, there’s no more important supporting cast member than sweet vermouth. You can’t make a great Manhattan, Negroni, Boulevardier, or Vieux Carré without it.
In the dramatic schema of cocktails, sweet vermouth is a recurring love interest for whiskey and gin, and it pairs well with rum, mezcal, and even aquavit as well. As in many movies, the love interest is often more interesting than the lead. But it’s not just about which ingredient steals the show. It’s about how the differing ingredients work together. A cocktail is a relationship; the ingredients have to get along.
Your choice of sweet vermouth can make or break a drink, and the right choice can transform a pretty good drink into an incredible one. But it can be a challenge to figure out which ingredients pair well, in part because of the huge variety of vermouths available today, even in smaller markets.
A cocktail bar has the luxury of picking exactly the right vermouth for every drink, keeping as many bottles as necessary open, chilled, and in circulation at any given time. This is a perfectly good plan when you have multiple refrigerators on site and make hundreds of drinks in an evening.
But that’s an expensive proposition for a home bartender. And there’s a bigger problem for home barkeeps: It’s not just a matter of choosing the right vermouth for the drink.
That’s because vermouth is wine, which means it rapidly degrades after you open it. An open bottle of whiskey might keep for years, perhaps even decades. But exposure to air changes wine through the process of oxidation. An open bottle sitting on your bookshelf will last a few days, a week at most.
The easiest way to slow the oxidation process is to store open bottles of vermouth in your refrigerator. This significantly extends its lifespan after opening. But even with proper storage, vermouth still has a limited shelf life.
The refrigerator solution comes with its own problems: Even if you want to explore the fringes of the category, you probably don’t really have room for a dozen bottles of vermouth in your home refrigerator. And even if your fridge technically has room, you might have a spouse or roommate who’d like to use the ice box too.
Maybe everyone in your household really loves vermouth, and you do have room for all those bottles, but even still: How much vermouth are you really going to drink over the next month or so?
For home bartenders, then, vermouth presents a somewhat unique challenge.
That’s why I think of vermouth a little like a Christopher Nolan movie — as a puzzle involving the deep complexities of time and space. But there is a solution — not a single bottle, but a rolling three-vermouth rotation.
Marriage means sharing a life with someone. Often enough, it also means sharing a refrigerator.
Today, I am lucky to have a small, dedicated fridge for cocktail ingredients. But until last year, I shared a single refrigerator with my wife. My wife is extremely generous, kind, and supportive of my cocktail making, but she is also a fairly serious home cook who likes to keep fresh stocks of veggies, sauces, creams, and other ingredients for her own kitchen projects. Which meant that refrigerator space was always at a premium.
This is how I first encountered the vermouth problem. Over the course of any given six- or eight-week period, I wanted to try recipes that called for many different vermouths. But as soon as those bottles were opened, they had to go into the fridge and stay there. And then it might be days or weeks before I ended up using them again. Eventually there would be a half a dozen or so bottles of open vermouth crammed into the door shelf.
And it wasn’t just vermouth: It was also syrups, shrubs, bottles of sherry, and other aperitifs that required refrigeration when stored. Space was limited. Cocktail ingredients couldn’t take over the entire refrigerator.
The solution I settled on was a rotation, cycling somewhere between one and three open bottles of vermouth in the refrigerator at any given time, with a trio of standards and some less frequent fill-ins. This allowed me to have a relatively consistent supply of my go-to bottles while occasionally experimenting with less commonly used ingredients.
But that, of course, meant I had to decide which bottles to keep in the main rotation.
The Most Versatile Sweet Vermouth: Dolin Rouge
If you only keep one bottle of sweet vermouth around, it should be Dolin Rouge.
Dolin Rouge is the widely agreed-upon standard for sweet vermouth. It’s light-bodied, complex without being over-the-top, sweet without being overly grape-forward or cloying like so many cheaper vermouths (I’m looking at you, Martini & Rossi). The flavor is subdued and pleasant, but it has sufficient character to hold its own in most classic cocktails. It’s the golden retriever of sweet vermouths: happy go-lucky, easy to get along with, easy to train, and quite popular as a result.
A standard bottle (750ml) costs about $15, depending on where you live, and a half-sized bottle (375ml) costs about $10. The half bottles cost more on a per-ounce basis, but since vermouth degrades after opening, they can help ensure freshness since you’ll cycle through fresh bottles more frequently.
Dolin isn’t the cheapest vermouth, but it’s significantly tastier and better-balanced than anything that costs less (sorry, Cinzano fans). It’s also far more useful than nearly any other bottle of vermouth at any price. That’s Dolin Rouge’s strength: It’s pretty good in just about any cocktail that calls for sweet vermouth without naming a brand, and in most cases it makes a tolerable substitute even when the recipe specifies something else.
The problem with Dolin Rouge is that it’s only pretty good. While it works well enough in almost any drink, it’s a little bit too light and a little bit too subdued to make a cocktail really stand out from the pack. It’s highly competent, a good value and a team player. But it’s almost never exceptional.
Rounding Out the Top Three: Cocchi di Torino and Carpano Antica
And the right vermouth really can be the difference between a perfectly decent drink and a genuinely astounding one.
That’s why I recommend keeping two other bottles in regular rotation, both of which can make for exceptional drinks: Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino (typically referred to as Cocchi di Torino) and Carpano Antica Formula.
Cocchi di Torino has a fuller body than the Dolin. It’s not syrupy, but it gives drinks a bit more heft. It also has a much richer, more complex flavor profile, with a broad bouquet of winter-spice notes: There are hints of cocoa, raisin, allspice, herbs, root, and dried citrus. It’s incredibly complex and incredibly delicious. And compared to Dolin, it makes an almost startling difference in the taste of a drink.
It’s quite good in a conventional Manhattan, and even better in a rum Manhattan. But where it really shines is in a Negroni. The spice notes create a flavor chord with the Campari that is deliciously layered and complex. There’s a depth and coherence to a Cocchi di Torino Negroni that’s unlike anything else, especially when paired with a delicate, flavorful gin like Ford’s. It also works wonders in a Vieux Carré, mixing with Benedictine to give an already wintry drink an array of new flavor layers.
Cocchi di Torino is bold, complex, and distinctive. It sings well — but it’s also quite loud. Which means that unlike Dolin, it doesn’t work with everything: The wintery spice-drawer notes don’t play particularly well in a Mezcal Negroni, for example, and the fruit flavors sometimes overtake a Boulevardier. At times it works best when blended 50/50 with Dolin; but that means you typically need to keep both around. It’s also somewhat more expensive than Dolin, running about $20-25 for a full-sized bottle, and $16 or so for a half bottle.
If you’re a diehard Manhattan fan, try the third pick: Carpano Antica Formula. This vermouth is thick-bodied and weighty, built around a massive vanilla core. It’s difficult to beat in a Manhattan, and it can also work quite well in a Boulevardier, with a spicier, higher proof whiskey like Wild Turkey 101. But it can also be overpowering, taking over a drink with its heaviness and powerful flavors. Depending on what base liquor you use, you may have to dial back the vermouth or increase the base spirit in order to re-balance the drink. A standard Manhattan calls for two ounces of rye and one ounce of vermouth; a Carpano Manhattan might call for two-and-a-half ounces of rye to keep the Carpano in check.
It’s also fairly expensive, with full sized bottles costing around $35, and half bottles priced around $20. I use Carpano sparingly, and thus generally prefer half bottles.
Light, Medium, and Heavy Vermouth
With these three bottles you can make exceptional versions of nearly any drink in the classic cocktail canon. And you’ll be fairly well prepared for most modern recipes too.
But with recipes that don’t specify a particular vermouth, you’ll still have to figure out which one to use.
One way to think about matches for this trio is by thinking in terms of flavor: Dolin is mild and gently fruity; Cocchi is bold and layered with winter spices; Carpano is brashly vanilla forward, with notes of mint and plum. Which flavors do you want in your drink?
But more often, I tend to think of them by weight — as light (Dolin), medium (Cocchi), and heavy (Carpano) vermouth. These vermouths have different flavor profiles, but they also have different bodies; they make drinks feel different.
Dolin’s lightness lends itself better to lighter, summery drinks, like a spritz. Cocchi is medium bodied and has a big personality; it pairs well with gin and rum. Carpano is thick and warming, like a winter blanket; it goes well with brooding, stirred drinks in cold weather.
Expanding the Rotation
These are my go-to bottles of sweet vermouth; I use them far more frequently than any others. But they are far from the only sweet vermouths worth trying. So as you rotate bottles in and out of your fridge, think about occasionally swapping in something else. I’ll cover more selections from the expanded sweet vermouth universe at some point in the future. But today I want to flag two as worthy of your attention.
Punt e Mes: This intense, richly aromatic vermouth pairs spicy sweetness with a bitter, amaro-like counter-flavor. In fact, the name means “point and a half,” a reference to the idea that the vermouth is made up of one part sweet and a half part bitter. At $25 or so a bottle, it’s not cheap, but it’s a must have for amaro fans, and it’s excellent in bitter, boozy drinks like the Pumpernick and the Nassau Street.
Alessio Chinato: Somewhat difficult to find and relatively pricey at about $30 for a full-sized bottle, Alessio Chinato is nonetheless one of the best-tasting vermouths I’ve ever had, with a heaviness that nearly equals Carpano’s, and a cocoa-y richness that makes a truly incredible Manhattan.
Mini Manhattans, Three Ways
Speaking of Manhattans, the best way to compare sweet vermouths in cocktails is to make three half-sized Manhattans, each with the same rye but a different vermouth. Taste them against each other, ideally with at least one other person (which I understand might be difficult these days) to help calibrate your experience. Taste tests are always more fun with other people.
Normally, you should garnish Manhattans with a Maraschino cherry. For these half-sized comparison versions, however, leave the garnish out, as it will distract from the taste of the vermouth.
1 dash Angostura bitters
½ ounce sweet vermouth
1 ounce Rittenhouse rye
Finally, Some Cocktail Nerd Heresy
If you spend time reading about vermouth and vermouth cocktails, you will find plenty of people obsessing over freshness and open dates. Even stored in the fridge, some will say, bottles lose their luster after a week or two. Cocktails should never be made with vermouth more than a few days old! Only use vermouth you’ve opened that day! Never buy a full-sized bottle of vermouth!
Vermouth really does lose its flavor and complexity over time. You really do need to refrigerate it immediately after opening. And as with all perishable ingredients, you really do need to date the back of your bottle the day you open it. (Always keep a Sharpie near your liquor collection.)
But at the risk of committing cocktail nerd heresy, I think you can take these vermouth storage obsessions too far. If you seal a bottle of vermouth tightly and immediately store it in your refrigerator, and only pull it out occasionally, there’s a good chance it will last quite a bit longer than you think. Conventional wisdom typically says vermouth lasts about three to four weeks in the fridge, but I think you can go three or even four months without an unforgivable drop-off in quality.
Will a three-month-old, sealed-and-refrigerated vermouth taste exactly like it did the day you opened it? Of course not. It will be a little less complex, a little more sugary, and a little more blandly grape-y. It will lack a certain pop of aromatic freshness. But in my experience, it will still work reasonably well in a homemade Thursday-night Manhattan.
You can test this out for yourself as part of your vermouth rotation. Open a bottle of vermouth, make a few drinks, then put it in the fridge. Use the bottle for a few months, and see how the drinks come out, and how the taste changes.
But don’t just rely on your memory. When you’re down to about an ounce left in the bottle, buy a new bottle of the same vermouth. Open it, then pour small sips from both the old bottle and the fresh one, then taste and compare.
The old bottle will certainly taste different, but the difference may be smaller than you imagine. This experiment will help you learn what vermouth tastes like, and what it tastes like after experiencing the effects of age. It will also help you decide how fanatical you want to be about vermouth. I typically keep my main rotation bottles for five or six weeks. But sometimes it’s seven or eight. And for other, more obscure vermouths, it can be even longer. I don’t want to throw out ingredients that might still be useful.
This comes back to the difference between good cocktail bars and home cocktail enthusiasts: dedicated resources and throughput. A bar almost certainly has more refrigerator space than you. And, at least in the Before Times, even a tiny cocktail bar might serve hundreds of drinks in a night.
But home bartenders almost always have less space than cocktail bars, and even if you’re throwing a big party (remember those?) you’re almost certainly making far fewer drinks in an evening.
A cocktail bar has no excuse for using anything but the freshest vermouth. You are not running a cocktail bar. You have an excuse. I’m not saying you have to keep your (refrigerated) vermouth in circulation for months. But I won’t judge you if you do.
Let’s Make Some Drinks!
Finally, some recipes.
A dark, strong Negroni for bitter rum fanatics, this is one of my favorite cold-weather variations on the three ingredient formula. It pairs overproof, almost brutishly funky Smith & Cross rum with Carpano. Both are powerful, almost over-the-top bottles, but the sheer strength of each one balances out the other. For an added pop of flavor, and a slightly less bitter drink, sprinkle a tiny bit of salt on the top.
1 ounce Carpano Antica
1 ounce Smith & Cross rum
1 ounce Campari
An easy, smoky riff on the gin favorite, this is a great drink to serve someone who should like Negronis but doesn’t like gin.
1 ounce Dolin Rouge
1 ounce Del Maguey Via Mezcal
1 ounce Campari
I’ve mentioned this recipe before, but I’m returning to it because it’s such a great showcase for Cocchi di Torino.
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
¼ ounce Benedictine
1 ounce Cocchi di Torino
1 ounce cognac, preferably Pierre Ferrand 1840
1 ounce Rittenhouse rye
This sherry-vermouth combo dates back to the late 1800s. It’s sweet, rich, and relatively low in alcohol, which makes it a wonderful nightcap. The simple construction also makes it a great showcase for any vermouth, especially one as decadently layered as Cocchi di Torino. But try it with Carpano too.
2 dashes orange bitters
1 1/2 ounce Manzanilla Sherry
1 1/2 ounce Cocchi di Torino
Cocktail Library: The Book of Vermouth: A Bartender and a Winemaker Celebrate the World's Greatest Aperitif, by Shaun Byrne and Gilles Lapalus: Everything you ever wanted to know about the history, production, and regional variations of vermouth, plus a large collection of recipes, many of which are cleverly divided by season.
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