Sweet vermouth is a drink steeped in tradition. Does it matter which one you buy?
How We Tested
For years, sweet vermouth languished in American home bars, considered a quaint, old-fashioned ingredient to be dusted off and trotted out only when a Manhattan was requested. But in the last decade or so, it’s finally begun to receive the attention it deserves, both as an essential cocktail ingredient and as a wonderful drink that can be enjoyed on its own. More vermouths are now imported from Europe than ever before, and many new products are being manufactured here in the United States. With such a wealth of sweet vermouth now available to consumers, we decided to take a closer look at this beverage, tasting some of the most prominent and commonly available products from Italy, France, Spain, and the United States, priced from just about $6.00 to almost $30.00 for 750-milliliter or 1-liter bottles.
What Is Sweet Vermouth?
First, a little background. Sweet vermouth is a drink with a long and storied past. Historians say its roots lie in the Piedmont-Savoy region, an area just south of the Alps that encompasses parts of what is now northwestern Italy and southeastern France. Specifically, sweet vermouth is usually traced to Antonio Benedetto Carpano, a wine shop owner in 18th-century Turin, Italy, who sold a wine that he’d sweetened, spiked with a spirit, and infused with herbs, roots, spices, and other botanicals—including wormwood (from the German wermut), from which vermouth gets its name. Like many other drinks of its time, sweet vermouth was originally prized as much for its purported medicinal properties as for its virtues as an alcoholic beverage. Over time, however, its popularity as a drink greatly overshadowed its use as a therapeutic tonic. Vermouth became a common aperitif in France and Italy as well as in Spain, where la hora del vermut (“the hour of vermouth”) is essentially a synonym for happy hour and “Martini” refers not to the drink made with gin and olives but to the vermouth company Martini & Rossi and to sweet vermouth more generally.
Today, sweet vermouth is made very much as it was in Carpano’s time. Many European producers claim to have used the same formula for hundreds of years without making any changes, though their precise methods and ingredients are proprietary and rarely disclosed.
Regardless of its exact content or manufacturing, sweet vermouth is classified as a fortified, aromatized wine. That is, it is a wine that has been fortified (made stronger) by the addition of a spirit (usually a grain or grape alcohol) so that it reaches an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 14.5 to 22 percent. Before or after fortification, it is also aromatized (infused) with different botanicals. Sweet vermouth is often made from the same white wine as dry vermouth is, though the precise varietals differ by region and producer; in Spain, sherry, a wine that has already been fortified and aged, is sometimes aromatized instead of wine. Where sweet vermouth diverges from dry is in the blend of botanicals and the addition of caramel and sugar, which gives sweet/red vermouth its characteristic reddish-brown color, sweetness, and sometimes syrupy consistency.
Sweet Vermouth Is Characterized by Regional Differences
When tasting the sweet vermouths neat, we immediately realized how very different the products were. They were all unmistakably sweet vermouth but varied noticeably in color, body, and flavor. While each product is unique, we were able to identify some rough trends based on the regions in which the vermouths are produced.
The products we tasted that were made in Italy—historically not only the birthplace of sweet vermouth but also the center of the vermouth industry—were generally the darkest in color, ranging from amber to a deep brown. Tasters found Italian vermouths to be the sweetest of all the products in our lineup, with clear notes of caramel and burnt sugar; not surprisingly, these vermouths were also deemed the heaviest, with nearly syrupy consistencies. “Rich” and “complex,” most had flavor profiles dominated by “warm spices” such as cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. Perhaps to balance out all that sweetness or to give a nod to the amari that Italy also produces, these vermouths had a distinctly bitter finish, leaving the palate with notes that tasters described variously as “minty,” “piney,” “green,” or even “metallic.”
On the other end of the spectrum were the two French sweet vermouths, which were the lightest in both body and color, “thin” and tawny. Simply put, they tasted the most like the wine from which they were made: “bright” and “tangy,” with “noticeable grapey-ness.” Possibly because they were more acidic, the French vermouths struck tasters as slightly less sweet than the Italian vermouths we tasted, or at least “less sugary sweet.” “Floral” and “herbal” notes added some complexity.
The Spanish vermouths we tried, which were unavailable in the United States until very recently, fell somewhere in between the French and Italian products; they were medium- to light-bodied and medium to dark brown in color. Oddly enough, while only one product was actually made from a base of sherry, a fortified wine for which Spain is arguably better known, tasters found both Spanish vermouths to have sherry-like characteristics, commenting on their “nutty,” “raisiny,” “oxidized” flavors. They were fairly sweet, but like the French vermouths, they were balanced by “good acidity,” which made them particularly “drinkable” on their own.
Finally, the American sweet vermouth was a bit of a wild card. While Europe has strict standards that define vermouth, the United States does not; vermouth production here is relatively new and is not constrained as tightly by rules or established practices. By reputation and from our experience with one of the producers in our dry vermouth tasting, we know that American vermouth can often be idiosyncratic and unorthodox. Still, the sweet vermouth we tried—made by the company that produces our Best Buy dry vermouth—was fairly conventional. Most similar to the French vermouths, it was light, thin, tart, and “winey.” It was also noticeably less sweet than the other products in our lineup, with a bitter, tannic, “tea-like” dryness. Overall, tasters agreed that it was “a little one-dimensional” but still made for pleasant, “easy drinking.”
The Best Sweet Vermouth Is the One You Like
We think all the sweet vermouths we tasted are worth trying. With this in mind, we’ve chosen to forego our usual rankings. Instead, we’ve listed the vermouths by region and provided tasting notes that will help you decide which one suits your needs and preferences. Our tasting notes are not wholly representative of the vermouths produced by a region. Instead, we identified some of the general characteristics of the vermouths we tasted. Because each vermouth is distinctive and unique, we encourage you to experiment with different products to find the ones you like on their own or in the cocktails you make most often. A sweet vermouth that is great in a Manhattan made with one type of bourbon might shine less brightly in another made with a different bourbon or lose its luster entirely in a Negroni made with yet another brand of gin. It was for this reason that we decided against tasting the vermouths in cocktails; it would have told us only which vermouth paired best with a specific brand of whiskey or gin. Some bartenders even blend different sweet vermouths to get the flavor profile they want for the drinks they’re making. Another reason to try a few? Almost every product we tasted costs less than $20 and will last a long time if refrigerated after opening, making the purchase of sweet vermouth a relatively inexpensive foray into a very deep, time-honored tradition.
We held a blind tasting of nine nationally available sweet vermouths from Italy, France, Spain, and the United States, priced from about $6 to about $30 for 750-milliliter or 1-liter bottles. We tasted the vermouths neat, at room temperature. Because each vermouth is distinctive and unique, we decided against tasting the vermouths in cocktails, as this would have told us only which vermouth paired best with a specific brand of whiskey or gin. We’ve chosen to forego our usual rankings. Instead, we’ve listed the vermouths by region and provided tasting notes for each. Our tasting notes are not wholly representative of the vermouths produced by a region. Instead, we identified some of the general characteristics of the vermouths we tasted. All the vermouths were purchased in Boston-area wine and liquor shops, and the prices listed are what we paid.