Herb your enthusiasm: Tasting and matching new vermouth

13 November 2015

There’s just no stopping the tidal wave of vermouth of the last few years. Clinton Cawood joins an enthusiastic panel of bartenders as they take a look at some of the latest offerings to hit our shores


Two years ago the floodgates opened on what was, in retrospect, something of a sleepy category. Where once you had only to choose from a few major vermouths, with a couple of unusual options if you were being fancy, today there’s a massive number to go at – and the new launches aren’t showing any sign of slowing down.

How do you keep afloat in this ocean of aromatised wine, figure out which ones are best for what purpose, and steer clear of those products whose price tags outweigh the quality of what’s in the bottle?

We wanted to know too, so we called in a selection of vermouths new to the UK in the last couple of years, and pitted them against each other in a blind tasting.

Our panel found day-to-day workhorse vermouths for cocktails, some that were better suited to being sipped on their own, and more than a few curiosities along the way.

HOW IT WORKS
New vermouths that became available in the UK in roughly the past two years were eligible for this tasting. To keep numbers somewhat manageable, each brand was only able to submit two products, preferably a sweet and a dry style, as these are more commonly used in cocktails. These were evaluated blind, with tasters aware of each vermouth’s price. Each was scored out of 20, taking value for money into account. Scores were then collated to obtain a percentage score. All prices listed are RRPs.

What they really found, though, was a category that deserves way more attention than it gets – although we wouldn’t mind if the new launches slowed down for just a little while, if that’s OK…


The panel

Robbie Acres, Portside Parlour; Bliss Boyd-Lambley, Mothership Group; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Tara Garnell, Original Sin; Gus Gluck, Vinoteca; Joseph Lewis-White, American Bar at The Savoy; Roberta Mariani, Bar Termini; Edoardo Mori, Mele e Pere; Chris Tanner, Portside Parlour; Robyn Wilkie, MASH London


RESULTS

DRY, EXTRA DRY, BIANCO

75 Belsazar Dry, Germany
From a panel with particularly divergent tastes, Belsazar’s dry vermouth was able to achieve near-unanimous praise. Stonefruit was by far the dominant note on the nose, with apricot and peach joined by more tropical barbecued pineapple, as well as caramel and marzipan. The palate was fascinating and complex, with Christmas cake, canned peach syrup, grapefruitzest and apricot kernel, plus a dry, coffee-like note on the finish, not to mention a gentian-like bitterness.
One taster said that this was like ‘starting out at the shallow end of a swimming pool, and moving to the deep end – progressively better and more complex’. Another suggested that this be paired with Plymouth Gin in a wet Martini. Which would no doubt be excellent after a quick dip in the swimming pool…
£30/75cl, Axiom Brands, 020 3774 6845

74 Regal Rogue Daring Dry, Australia
Hailing from Down Under, Regal Rogue offered something different in this flight, and something that appealed to our panellists. Herbs were the name of the game, with oregano, thyme, dill and sage upfront, joined by anise, eucalyptus and frankincense, as well as some quince. One taster was getting ‘caramelised vegetables’ too.
The palate was accurately described by one taster as having ‘soave notes’. This had it all, from rich fig-like fruitiness to good acidity, with a cleansing bitterness to finish. In addition, tasters thought this had what it took to stand up to big cocktails, with one suggesting it be used in a Perfect Manhattan.
£18.99/50cl (equivalent to £28.49/75cl), Identity Drinks Brands, 07890 277 024

72 Riserva Carlo Alberto Extra Dry, Italy
A decidedly savoury entrant here, with tarragon and other herbal aromas, as well as ‘iron oxide’ and olive brine. These flavours, combined with a sweeter palate than expected, made for something of a panel divider. Some loved its vinous character, with its ‘almost manzanilla notes’ and herbaceousness, plus pleasing astringency. Others felt it was too sweet, and perhaps not quite worth the cash.
When it came to mixing, more than one panellist thought this could only do good things to a Martini.
£23.95/75cl, Emporia Brands, 01483 458700

71 Contratto Vermouth Bianco, Italy
The highest scorer out of the three non-dry vermouths in this flight, so you won’t be surprised to hear that this was described as sweet. ‘Absurdly sweet,’ in one case.
But this had plenty going for it beyond that, starting with a soft, floral nose reminiscent of Love Heart sweets, with additional apple, tropical fruit and, unexpectedly, leather. The palate had honeysuckle, poached pears, quince and an attractive dried-herb element. ‘Lends itself to a summer cocktail list,’ said one, while others thought this represented great value.
£23.20/75cl, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

71 Ferdinand’s Saar Dry, Germany
Our panel were generally into this new vermouth from Ferdinand’s of Riesling-infused gin fame, aside from the few that couldn’t get their heads around what others described as a compelling and very successful savoury element. This was variously described as ‘paprika and bacon’, ‘pork sausage’, and ‘schnitzel’. Rather more prosaically in comparison, one astute taster wrote: ‘Reminiscent of a nice Riesling’, which would probably come from the actual Riesling in this.
The palate ticked all the boxes here, with vinous drinkability, fresh and drying bitterness, and no shortage of interesting botanical notes. ‘Seaside vibes. This would be lovely chilled, for bottle service,’ said one taster.
£22/75cl, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840

71 Luigi Spertino ‘Belle Epoque’ Vermouth, Italy
Praise for this new entrant was near-unanimous, with only a few detractors. A prominent sweet note was variously described as ‘butterscotch’, ‘caramel sweets’, and ‘rock that you get from the seaside’. There was a well-defined fruit element here, too, starting with lemon, but filling out into tropical and stone fruit. For further complexity there was a medicinal, TCP note, rose and orange flower water, five-spice, and even roasted plantain.
‘I’d drink that with soda,’ said one taster, although at that price, would you?
£29.99/50cl (equivalent to £44.99/75cl), Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

69 Carpano Dry, Italy
Citrus was evident on the nose here – lemon zest, mainly – along with an aroma of gentian and wormwood. One taster added that there was a ‘Band-Aid with aniseed’ note. The palate offered some serious complexity, with juicy fruit notes alongside warming spice such as cloves and nutmeg on the palate, with some sweet orange notes too. A contender to add some depth to a Martini, and also for chilled bottle service. And what a price!
£17.90/100cl (equivalent to £13.43/75cl), Hi-Spirits, 01932 252100

The Walk of Shame
Sometimes, upon sampling a fine aromatised wine, the clouds part, the sun comes out, and a chorus of angels can just about be heard. Other time... Not so much. Here are some of the more colourful tasting notes from the day, with names omitted to protect the innocent.

‘Tastes like sour milk and old chow mein.’
‘Granite, wet pavement in Dalston, ginseng.’
‘Rye bread with a hint of paracetamol.’
‘Like the toilets at The Love Shake, with a suspicion of sweaty socks.’
‘Vegetal excretion – corn.’
‘Rich and lovely, in spite of the underwear note.’
‘Burnt plastic scent that is difficult to expel when tasting.’
‘Spicy notions that lead the nose, and then a disconcerting musky smell.’

65 Maidenii Dry, Australia
This inspired absolutely no consistency when it came to our panellists’ notes, with each describing an aroma wildly different to the next taster. They spotted, in no particular order: gentian, angelica, white pepper, grass, wood, orchard fruits, pickled onion, soft camomile, cucumber skin, violet and bay leaf. Let’s chalk that up to ‘complexity’, shall we?
The palate was rather less psychedelic, judging by the tasting notes, with some well-integrated sweetness, along with appealing peach fruit, as well as good acidity to finish. Some identified a musty, stale, oxidised-wine element, although even for some of those tasters this wasn’t a dealbreaker. Ultimately, this was ‘expensive but delicious,’ summarised one taster.
£30/75cl, Bohemian Brands, info@bohemianbrands.co.uk

62 Causes & Cures Semi Dry White Vermouth, Australia
This unusual vermouth elicited some of the tasting’s highest and lowest scores. Tasters consistently talked about how vinous this was, with comparisons from ice wine to Pinot Grigio. And the palate turned out to be considerably drier than the ‘semi-dry’ label suggested.
Some were violently opposed to a bittersweet element on the palate, as well as a sourdough note on the nose, and ‘a lack of sweetness and prominent grape flavour’. Its proponents were more vocal, though, describing an attractive blend of light quince, gooseberry and orange fruit, combined with nutmeg, sweet pastry and toasted brioche.
£18.99/50cl (equivalent to £28.49/75cl), Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350

62 Gancia Dry, Italy
A very distinct herbal note – sage and bay – opened things up here, with a touch of flowers too, and what one taster identified as a cucumber note. There was some satisfying bitterness on the palate, with white pepper and a good wormwood note to finish. But the most defining aspect of this vermouth was its excellent value for money. Tasters forgave a lack of complexity once they’d seen its price tag.
£12.50/100cl (£9.35/75cl), Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

58 La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Extra Dry, France
‘Like taking a stroll through a pine forest,’ said one taster. Others spotted an abundance of rosemary, spruce, camphor, pink pepper and anise. The palate excited our panel less, who identified rye bread and butterscotch, with a menthol note on the finish. A decent vermouth, but some felt that there was maybe too much going on here. ‘Too disruptive for use in a Martini,’ one explained.
£14/75cl, Boutique Brands, 020 7371 2620

Also tasted: Sacred Extra Dry Vermouth


SWEET, ROSSO, RED, ROUGE, AMBER

76 Maidenii Sweet, Australia
The top scorer in this tasting, and almost unanimously loved by our panel, there was plenty here for everyone to enjoy. Unusually for a sweet vermouth, this is made using a red-wine base. There was a bright, light fruit component consisting of strawberries and cherries, leading to what one described as ‘blackcurrant laced with clove’. Darker fruit notes included raisins and prunes, accompanied by more spice in the form of cinnamon and cocoa, with a cigar leaf and balsamic element too, not to mention some black treacle.
The red berries made their return on the palate, ‘with a backing band of woody bitterness’, as one taster put. This was lifted by some appealing cherry acidity (cough syrup, according to some), making for a fruity, delicious vermouth, with more than enough complexity to justify that price point!
‘Very syrupy – maybe this would work as a replacement for the liqueur in a Bramble,’ suggested one taster.
£30/75cl, Bohemian Brands, info@bohemianbrands.co.uk

75 La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge, France
Shy and retiring this was not, with almost every panellist commenting on the intensity of flavour here. Aromas included some massive anise, clove, pine, spruce and lemon verbena, not to mention some hints of gentian and wormwood. Combined, this created ‘dusty ski lodge’ or ‘Dr Pepper’, depending on the taster.
The palate was similarly complex, with a ‘texture like PX, and flavours of vanilla, tonka bean, rowanberry, confected strawberry, chocolate, figs and gingerbread, leading to some wormwood to finish. Tasters were excited to see this do service in a Martinez or Manhattan.
£14/75cl, Boutique Brands, 020 7371 2620

75 Riserva Carlo Alberto Rosso, Italy
At the very worst, some tasters thought this was average, while most saw plenty to wax lyrical about. There was a savoury element (steak, according to one) that helped it to stand apart, and give it some flexibility too. This was joined by some masala spices, a heavy cinnamon element, some floral notes, and Mediterranean herbs like thyme. This was all brought together by some richness from cola, date and pecan pie notes.
The palate continued this carnival of flavour, echoing many of those aromas, and adding a soft quinine note, as well as some fruity dried cranberry and plum notes. ‘A great alternative to dessert wine – this would go nicely with cheese and chutneys,’ said one panellist.
£23.95/75cl (equivalent to £23.95/75cl), Emporia Brands, 01483 458700

74 Mancino Rosso Amaranto, Italy
The higher-rated of two Mancinos in this tasting, there was an abundance of stalky Mediterranean herbs on the nose here, combined with a sweaty note that one taster thought might have been a not-unattractive hint of brettanomyces.
The palate that followed was well structured and balanced, with caramel and dried berry fruits (as well as tinned rhubarb, according to one panellist), some dark chocolate and more of that herbal note. One taster described a buttery mouthfeel, while another thought this was ‘beautifully put together, and perfect on its own’.
£24.32/75cl, Spirit Cartel, 020 7609 4711

67 Mancino Chinato, Italy
Chinato achieved a significantly lower score than the other Mancino in the tasting, although this probably had less to do with the liquid in the bottle, and more to do with the huge jump in price. Tasters were impressed with this overall, but found it hard to justify that kind of money.
What they did find was a wine-forward vermouth, with some black pepper and black olive notes joining rich mulberry fruit and some sage and star anise. The palate was similarly fruity, with plums and cherries, plus some cinchona bark. ‘Reminiscent of port – expensive but excellent,’ one panellist summarised perfectly. Most wanted to sip this neat, with one suggesting that if it really had to be mixed, it could be used to create ‘a sort of “dirty” Negroni’.
£25.99/50cl (equivalent to £38.99/75cl), Spirit Cartel, 020 7609 4711

67 Regal Rogue Bold Red, Australia
Let’s be clear – this is not your parents’ sweet vermouth. A glance at the colour would tell you that, but to be fully convinced, consider tasting notes that included Alpine strawberry, raspberry, cranberry sauce, rosehip, grassiness and rose petals. Perhaps more traditional were the earthy aromas, as well as the vibrant herbal notes, such
as thyme, sage and rosemary.
Those crazy fruity notes were joined by some dark chocolate and hazelnut on the palate, plus some perceptible bitterness throughout. This would do great service either on ice, or with soda, according to our panel.
£18.99/50cl (equivalent to £28.49/75cl), Identity Drinks Brands, 07890 277 024

66 Cocchi Vermouth Amaro, Italy
Cocchi’s offering drew a line in the sand, dividing our panel roughly in half. There was praise for the restrained nose, with some soft fudge elements, as well as distinct gentian, wormwood and nettle tea notes. The palate was rather bolder and more interesting, with flavours like spearmint, peanut brittle, dark toffee, smoke, dried cranberries, prunes and cough syrup. This led to an earthy, wood-sap finish, with some balanced bitterness.
Those who were unconvinced complained about a lack of complexity, particularly at that cost, while others found plenty to justify the price. One panellist wanted to see this mixed in a bourbon Manhattan.
£24.95/75cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367

66 Gancia Rosso, Italy
This one had its fans, but at that price that’s unsurprising. Gancia’s sweet vermouth was a true workhorse – ticking all the boxes, without making too much fuss. There were some traditional burnt orange, caramel, marzipan and dried cherry notes on the nose, along with some slight oakiness, and attractive dried herb notes. This herbal element continued to the palate, joined by raisins and dates, leading to a nicely balanced gentian finish.
‘This would be perfect for playing around with when ageing cocktails,’ said one taster, thinking ahead. ‘And at a price point where vermouth should be!’ they added.
£12.50/100cl (equivalent to £9.35/75cl), Catalyst Brands, 0844 822 3908

65 Belsazar Red, Germany
Right from the outset there was a lot going on with this one, with ‘a nostalgic scent of traditional sweets such as Cherry Drops and liquorice’, said one taster. Others identified some herbal, medicinal elements, but the dominant notes here were of figs, dates, honey, treacle tart and chocolate.
The palate echoed these aromas, with rich, fruity stewed plums, for example, as well as dates, anise spice and a nuttiness too. ‘Toasted almonds soaked in molasses’ was one taster’s summary. This led to a brief finish, with
a little wormwood in evidence.
£30/75cl, Axiom Brands, 020 3774 6845

64 Martínez Lacuesta Rojo, Spain
In the Spanish corner, fighting in the entry-level category, was Martínez Lacuesta, with a shy, retiring aroma in its Rojo at first. It eventually started to reveal its true colours – vanilla, butter, warm spices, angelica and molasses, lifted by some dried grapefruit peel and fresh lemon.
The palate revealed a wider range of flavours, such as passion fruit, apricot and a golden syrup note, as well as some great viscosity. ‘Like an oxidised Sauternes,’ described one. ‘Could maybe do with being more assertive,’ said another.
£11.50/75cl, Grey’s Fine Foods, 01937 845767

62 Martínez Lacuesta Reserva, Spain
Lacuesta Rojo’s big brother elicited glowing praise from some of our panellists, and a lukewarm response from others (rather than any outrage, at least), resulting in this middle-of-the-field placing. Those in favour described an attractive oxidised wine – almost sherry-like – with balanced sweetness and a nuttiness too, as well as some cherry and strawberry fruit. The palate continued with that fruitiness, with some added sweet chocolate notes. This overall Christmas-cake character led more than one taster to identity this as a sipper. And all at a very reasonable price.
£17.5/75cl, Grey’s Fine Foods, 01937 845767

61 Sacred English Amber Vermouth, England
Amongst our panel, Sacred’s amber entry had everything: fans, haters, the indifferent. But what they all described was unquestionably fascinating. Oleo saccharum, teak oil, greengage, quince, bay leaf, and what one taster could only describe as ‘hay bales and cream’ featured on the highly unusual nose. The palate reminded one taster of spiced calvados, with marmalade, candied citrus, dried papaya and stewed tropical fruits, with some bright gentian on the finish. A very well-balanced vermouth, and with all of that complexity, one that would have undoubtedly scored higher if it weren’t for that price point.
£32.95/75cl, Sacred Spirits Company, 020 8340 0992

54 Contratto Rosso, Italy
There was a funky, musty note here that distracted a number of tasters, decribing sweaty socks and cabbage. Those who could get past that were rewarded with what was quite an accomplished, appealing vermouth, with ‘an intense burst of oregano’, banana peel, cinnamon, juicy berry fruit, and a floral note. It was compared with port, and praise was given for the excellent balance when it came to sweetness.
£23.20/75cl, Amathus Drinks, 020 8951 9840


CONCLUSIONS

- There’s nothing predictable or conventional about the new face of the vermouth category. This tasting hit every style, flavour profile and price point.
- One result of this diversity is that there was seldom consensus amongst our tasters – who also weren’t afraid to mark something down when it wasn’t doing it for them, or wasn’t doing enough to justify its price. As a result, many products received both very high and very low scores, and for a vermouth to be rated highly here, it really needed to be exceptional.
- The total average score was 66%, with the sweet/red vermouths coming out slightly ahead with an average of 67%.
If there was any doubt the world of vermouth has changed dramatically, just look at the countries of origin. Gone are the days of dominance by Italy and France. The new entrants came from as far as Australia, not to mention three German entries.


PANEL COMMENTS

Robbie Acres, Portside Parlour
‘For a category that has had a significant resurgence recently and a lot of boutique producers coming out of the woodwork, the range is quite polarising and it is fairly easy to distinguish from the good and bad quickly. Vermouths are grouped on the same pedestal as sherry for me. The ones that love it (me) preach the gospel, but it still has quite a way before you see that enthusiasm passed to consumers.’

Bliss Boyd-Lambley, Mothership Group
‘I would suggest from this tasting that the market is bursting with some great lower-priced and mid-range vermouths. I was pleasantly surprised by many of the cheaper bottles. Vermouth can run the risk of being a bartender’s drink. Hopefully with this new generation we’ll see it fly back into fashion, with more options becoming available for relaxed sipping and not just an ingredient for Negronis and Manhattans!’

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘This was proof that we’ve got no shortage of wonderful vermouths available in the UK. Actually getting these into the hands of consumers is the next trick though. Cocktails might account for some volume, but there’s no reason why many of these shouldn’t be served chilled, neat, by the glass or the bottle.’

Tara Garnell, Original Sin
‘In an era when consumers and bartenders are waking up to low-abv drinks, the expansion of this category can only be positive. With such a wide range of elegant spirits available, my preference is toward lighter, brighter styles of sweet vermouth which help lift the base alcohol. Some of the products were creeping up close to £30 per bottle – I wish producers would consider small format bottles to allow a smaller investment.’

Gus Gluck, Vinoteca
‘This is such an awesome category. I approach vermouths from a sipping perspective, not a mixing one, so some were marked down for being overly generic. The ones that I really liked had clear, distinct flavours.’

Joseph Lewis-White, American Bar at The Savoy
‘It’s a pleasure to see this category blowing up. The ones that stood out for me were those that managed to achieve a balance between the base wine and the botanicals used, all the while offering value for money.’

Roberta Mariani, Bar Termini
‘Trends are pushing brands to infuse their vermouths with a range of weird elements, but what we really need as bartenders are easy, well-balanced products. Also, sweetness is not the opposite of bitterness – there are many ways to neutralise bitter taste without pushing up sugar content.’

Edoardo Mori, Mele e Pere
‘This was an incredible array of vermouths. The range shows the improvement made within the vermouth world. It’s creative and innovative. What a superbly versatile drink!’

Chris Tanner, Portside Parlour
‘What was amazing to see was you didn’t need to spend a lot to get a product that really stood out. It’s important to maintain diversity in flavour profiles as it encourages us to think about the aromatic wines we are using, and only aids to increase our vocabulary behind the bar.’

Robyn Wilkie, MASH London
‘The vermouths we tasted today were good value for money overall, with the exception of one or two. The most fascinating part for me was tasting vermouths that I thought I liked, which actually turned out to be some of my lowest rated.’


Many thanks to the team at Portside Parlour for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day. Photos: Steve Ryan

Related articles

Wine

Bittersweet symphony: Tasting vermouth

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.

Mixers & More

Tasting and matching 2015: a year in review

As 2015 draws to a close, we're looking back on a year punctuated by a number of top-notch Imbibe panel tastings, with everything from beer and curry,

Wine

Tasting and Matching: Iberian Peninsula

Spain and Portugal are making some of the best – and best-priced – wines in the world at the moment.

Spirits & Cocktails

Gin crazy: tasting & matching new gins

In the time it takes you to read this, four new gins will have launched. Fact.