Bittersweet symphony: Tasting vermouth

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Drinks: Wines

Life as a bartender is hard. Sometimes you get locked in a room in a basement and are made to taste endless vermouths, Negronis and Manhattans. Clinton Cawood spoke to those who survived this simply terrible ordeal…


Take a look at the countries of origin in the line-up for this tasting, and it’s clear that the vermouth category has come a long way. There’s more choice than ever, and each new entrant brings with it a dramatically different flavour profile, with varying levels of sweetness and bitterness, more or less influence from the base wine and, of course, an array of botanicals.

It’s inconceivable, therefore, that you can just sub one for another when it comes to the classics. Some are perfectly suited to a Negroni, while others were born to do service in a Manhattan. Still others, some would argue, shouldn’t be interfered with at all, either perfect as they are, or too delicate or too substantial to play well with others.

To get to the bottom of this, we called in a panel of bartenders and put 10 sweet vermouths in front of them, first neat, and then in Negronis and Rye Manhattans. The result? A lot of really excellent drinks, for a start. And a lot of insight into how best to utilise all of these new and dramatically different vermouths.

How it works
We called in a selection of sweet vermouths, both old and new, from all over the world, and with a broad spectrum in terms of style – all available in the UK. Each was tasted blind first, on its own. Next, each was made into an equal-parts Negroni, with Campari and No.3 Gin, followed by a Manhattan made with Sazerac Rye, 2:1, with two dashes of Angostura Bitters. All prices are RRP, and all bottles are 75cl unless otherwise stated.

Panel
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Nick Chang, Tredwells; Gabor Fodor, Artesian;
Alastair Fraser, Opium; Harry Gerakis, Wet & Dry; Kate Jackson, The Distillery; Jackie Lai, Sager + Wilde; Luke Robinson, Super Lyan


Results
Belsazar Red Vermouth, Germany
Hailing from the Black Forest, Belsazar’s vermouths are made with a German wine base, with added botanicals, German fruit brandy and some grape must.
The sweetness from the must shone through, with tasters describing a rich blend of chocolate, demerara, coffee and toffee notes, not to mention some molasses and even cherry-liqueur chocolates on the palate.

All of that richness meant that it wasn’t exactly a team player when paired with gin and Campari in a standard-spec Negroni, dominating the cocktail, although some liked the resulting ‘Christmas Negroni’. Up against some rye whiskey in a Manhattan, however, this came into its own, and our panellists were generous in their praise. Harmonious, balanced, with good botanical character, and a ‘gateway from an Old Fashioned’ was the final result.
18% abv, £26, Axiom Brands,020 3774 6845

Bordiga Rosso di Torino, Italy
An authentic Vermouth di Torino according to the recent Geographical Indication definition, Bordiga’s entrant was unremarkable in this company when tasted neat, with panellists describing a straightforward, light, sweet vermouth, with some juicy cherry and date notes.

This made its performance in both the Negroni and the Manhattan even more noteworthy, rising dramatically in our panel’s estimations. It was decidedly capable when paired with whiskey, resulting in a cocktail that was undoubtedly on the sweet side, but balanced nevertheless, with some herbal and raisin notes emerging. It shone still brighter in a Negroni, pairing with gin and Campari to create an elegant, beautifully-balanced and complex drink.
18% abv, £25.50, Secession Wine & Spirits, 020 7240 1100

Carpano Antica Formula, Italy – Best Served Neat
A bartender favourite, Antica Formula easily lived up to expectations, ranking head and shoulders above any other vermouth when tasted neat. In addition to its Italian wine base, vanilla is a headline ingredient for Antica Formula, and this definitely shone through.

In addition, panellists described notes of tobacco, prunes, menthol, marzipan and coffee, all leading to a lingering, bittersweet finish, and described by one taster as reminiscent of ‘birthday cake’.

The trade-off for being so bold, complex and characterful was that it wasn’t ever going to make for the most harmonious and complementary ingredient in these two classic cocktails, particularly not using standard specs, although the resulting cocktails weren’t bad either. The Negroni was classic on the nose, but somewhat overpowered by vermouth on the palate.

The rye, similarly, didn’t quite stand up to this powerful vermouth. These classics could be made to work with some tweaks, but why would you when it tastes this good on its own?
16.5% abv, £14/37.5cl (equivalent to £28/75cl), Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100

Carpano Punt e Mes, Italy – Best for Negronis
Technically already a cocktail on its own – a bottled version of a drink made by combining a measure of vermouth with half a measure of bitter, hence the name Punt e Mes, was unsurprisingly well-received when tasted neat.

Panellists found it herbal and sweet, with some substantial bitterness towards the finish. There was also a smoky note, as well as some tannins.

As good as it was on its own, this proved to be a winning combination with Campari and gin, resulting in a Negroni that was on the sweet side, but with no shortage of contrasting bitterness, all the while giving the gin’s botanicals their moment in the sun too. It was also more than capable in a Manhattan – balanced and able to highlight the rye’s spiciness – but the Negroni is undoubtedly where it’s at for Carpano Punt e Mes.
16% abv, £11.52, Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100

Cinzano 1757 Rosso, Italy
The premium, small-batch incarnation of Cinzano Rosso was among our panel’s favourites when tasted neat.
Tasters described a fresh and fruity vermouth, with everything from raspberries and citrus, to pineapple and lychee, as well as floral notes, and some cocoa and coffee, with balanced bitterness, and some lifted acidity.

This appealing combination didn’t quite stack up in a Negroni, however, with some jarring bitterness getting in the way of some of the drink’s more subtle notes. The Manhattan was decidedly better, with panellists praising the light, herbal result, with the vermouth playing a supporting role, allowing the rye to shine through.
16% abv, £17.25/100cl (equivalent to £12.94/75cl), Campari UK, 020 3100 9600

Cocchi Vermouth Di Torino, Italy – Best for Manhattans
A classic Vermouth di Torino, Cocchi was packed with spices, with tasters finding cloves, star anise, ginger and allspice, all leading to a long, pleasantly bitter finish. This, combined with a distinctive vinous note, led more than one panellist to draw parallels with mulled wine.

This made for a noteworthy Negroni, full and spicy, and best served with an orange slice and cloves, according to one panellist. More than one commented on a savoury, meaty note – ‘like ham’, insisted one taster. But if you were going to mix this with anything, it’d be rye whiskey.

The Cocchi Manhattan was a highlight, with appealing spiciness matched with some berry sweetness. ‘Complex, rich and well-balanced with the rye,’ summarised one taster.
16% abv, £22.49, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

Lacuesta Rojo, Spain
Spain’s entrant is produced by a winery in Rioja, so it’s unsurprising that wine itself played a prominent role in the flavour profile. Some thought it Muscat-like, while others thought it more like Riesling. Floral notes were dominant, as was a general herbal element, while there was some good acidity, and low levels of bitterness.

In a Negroni, wine and herbal aromas shone through, although some of the vermouth’s more subtle notes were lost against the Campari. The result had its proponents, but all agreed that this was far from a classic Negroni. The same could be said for the Manhattan – quite far removed from a standard sweet Manhattan, but an interesting, dry cocktail nevertheless. Some thought Lacuesta would be better suited to a Cobbler or a Spritz-style drink.
15% abv, £12.00, Basco Fine Foods, 01937 845767

Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino, Italy
Martini’s premium expression, Riserva Speciale Rubino, is made with Nebbiolo wine, three types of wormwood, and botanical extracts aged in oak. Tasters were generous in their praise, finding a balanced, classic vermouth, with some sweet cherry and raisin notes joined by an interesting herbal character, and some substantial bitterness.

This proved to be a beneficial combination when it came to the Negroni, with the gin being allowed to shine, particularly on the nose: a capable, if unremarkable take on the classic. Really, this was more at home in a Manhattan, with enough botanical complexity to stand up to the spiciness of the rye, while its cherry notes added some depth. A very enjoyable and approachable drink.
18% abv, £12.45, Bacardi Martini, 01962 762100

La Quintinye Rouge, France
With its base of Pineau de Charentes, and 28-strong botanical mix, it was no surprise tasters described this as packed with herbal and floral notes, and with a juicy, acidic structure.
It played well with the Campari in the Negroni, and allowed the gin’s characters to shine through, resulting in a rich, bitter, textbook version of this classic. Some thought the vermouth a touch dominant on the palate. While the Manhattan highlighted the rye whiskey, and had some appealing earthy notes, some found the overall drink on the sweet side.
16.5% abv, £22.50, Boutique Brands, [email protected]

Regal Rogue Bold Red, Australia
Probably the driest and lightest in this line up, Australia’s Regal Rogue was an interesting proposition. Tasters described a vinous aroma, some subtle sweetness, with clean, distinctive bitterness and an appealing herbal element.

This distance in flavour profile from traditional sweet vermouth meant that it didn’t create a classic Negroni or Manhattan, although the resulting drinks did have their positives. The former highlighted its wine notes, and there was good bitterness, but the sum total was decidedly light – ‘a summer Negroni’, while another thought it could be lengthened with prosecco. The Manhattan had its fans amongst the panel, with the red fruit notes complementing the rye nicely.

Ultimately, though, this vermouth was probably best suited, our tasters thought, for lighter style drinks like the Spritz, or even served with tonic.
16.5% abv, £17.99/50cl (equivalent to £26.99/75cl), Enotria&Coe, 020 8961 5161

Sacred English Spiced, UK
Tasters had nothing but praise for this local vermouth from Sacred, with wormwood from Somerset, thyme from the New Forest and English wine from Three Choirs Vineyard in Gloucestershire. They found fresh pink grapefruit and vine-tomato notes, as well as some spice, leading to appealing herbal, bitter flavours, and some berry fruit too.

In a standard-spec Negroni this bold and flavourful vermouth overpowered the other ingredients to some extent, although there were some on the panel who appreciated this sweet, spicy version of the classic, with appealing savoury aromas. The rye proved a better foil, resulting in a Manhattan that was packed with anise and cinnamon spice, and beautifully balanced overall.
18% abv, £32.95, Sacred Spirits Company, 020 8340 0992

Vya Sweet Vermouth, US – Best All Rounder
Hailing from Quady Winery in California, Vya’s base wine includes Orange Muscat and Tinta Roriz, as well as a quantity of the winery’s port-style wine. The warming, wintery result drew praise from our panel, who approved of its redcurrant fruit, mulled-wine spices and significant but well-balanced bitterness.

If tasters were enthusiastic about this on its own, it was nothing compared to their praise when this made it into the two cocktails. It brought just enough of its own unique character to the Negroni, while not straying too far from the classic flavour profile, and resulted in an excellent, balanced drink, with a slightly savoury note, and lots of fruit. The Manhattan was just as popular, being easy-drinking, with abundant spice from both the vermouth and the rye.
16% abv, £23.49, Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines, 01582 722538


Conclusions

There’s a lot to consider when evaluating these, with fruit, spice, bitterness, sweetness and acidity to take into account. Big spice notes tended to work well in a Manhattan, while balance of sweetness and bitterness was important for the Negroni.

While there’s a standard spec for these two classics, this tasting made it clear that it’s not as simple as just substituting one vermouth for another. While most of the vermouths worked well in both cocktails, some tweaking was usually necessary to achieve optimum expression.

Panellists agreed that there was enough diversity and variety in this flight to tackle most situations, whether it’s a neat serve, a light aperitif-style cocktail, or one of these two classics.
Although some of the examples here were quite pricey, this was not a cause for concern for our panel, who considered the effect on GP to be minimal, and in most cases worth it.


Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘Proof, if any was needed, that any single vermouth isn’t going to cover all the bases, and it’s worth keeping a few different styles for different applications. While these two classic cocktails are the benchmark for sweet vermouth, some of the examples in this line-up would be better off in different drinks, or just served neat.’

Nick Chang, Tredwells
‘Some shone through when neat, while others performed better in cocktails. It very much depends what you would like the vermouth to do. In a Manhattan, I want it to be a supporting actor, to let the rye or bourbon present itself. In a Negroni I’m much happier for the vermouth to have a more dominant role. ‘Overall, this tasting showed me the need to stock more varieties to offer customers the right product for their particular drink, but due to the bottle sizes I fear that this would create
a lot of wastage.’

Gabor Fodor, Artesian
‘The more character the vermouth had, the harder it was to work it into cocktails. In a standard bar a less characterful vermouth would not only work with a Negroni and a Manhattan, but with many styles and classics. That said, by fine tuning the ingredients, every vermouth could be made to balance out.’

Alastair Fraser, Opium
‘It’s a shame that in seven or eight years in the industry I’ve only had one training on vermouth – no one’s doing it. It’s not only the brands’ fault either. As bartenders we focus so much on the differences in the spirits that go into our cocktails, and we don’t think twice about the fortified wines or the vermouths. How can you educate consumers when lots of bartenders don’t know enough about the category?’

Harry Gerakis, Wet & Dry
‘This is a category that is both vibrant and on the rise. The number of sweet vermouths you stock in a bar should have a direct correlation to their usage and your ability to preserve them. How many vermouth-heavy cocktails are you selling? Do they differ between classic cocktails and your house cocktails? And how much space do you have in your fridge to keep them? There’s nothing worse than an oxidised vermouth!’

Kate Jackson, The Distillery
‘When matching these with cocktails, they need to complement. If I wanted to make a Negroni, I’d lean towards a herbal flavour profile from the vermouth, to complement the gin and make sure it wasn’t overpowered. For a Manhattan I’d go for a deeper, stone-fruit vermouth, which I think complements the depth of whisky. Overall, it’s a difficult category. There’s not much brand awareness as these tend to be used as a complement, and not the main ingredient.’

Jackie Lai, Sager + Wilde
‘Bitterness is important, but it’s really about getting the balance between those bitter and herbal flavours, as well as the sugar, right. Then you will have something beautiful to consume on its own, and great for cocktails as well. Vermouth is definitely gaining more attention from the industry. Bartenders are always searching for new flavours and they are also definitely making their own infusions with vermouths.‘

Luke Robinson, Super Lyan
‘To balance a delicate London dry gin, a sweet bitter like Campari and a vermouth is much harder than you may think. ‘Some vermouths are very rich and complex, which will take over a cocktail, while others are too delicate. Tasting these with a rye whiskey was also a good test, as the rye has spice that really came through in some Manhattans but was lost in others.’


Many thanks to the team at The Holy Birds for hosting the tasting and for all their help on the day. Thanks also to Hi-Spirits, Campari UK and Berry Bros & Rudd for providing any additional cocktail ingredients.

About Author

Clinton Cawood

Clinton has been writing about drinks since landing in the UK in 2006 from his native South Africa. He's partial to all things agave, and is dependent on good coffee. He's still not a morning person. Follow him on @clintc.

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