After decades in the doldrums, vermouth is on a roll, with new products from new places being embraced across the country, by bars and restaurants alike. Clinton Cawood looks at why it’s happening and how to make the most of them
It’s always been there in the background, doing its good work in Martinis and Manhattans, but increasingly vermouth is back in the spotlight, with this venerable aromatised wine gaining a new lease of life.
It helps, of course, that interest in all things botanical has never been greater – thanks, gin. But increasingly the public and the on-trade are looking for new and interesting lower-abv products – and finding they were there all along.
Restaurants are emerging to lead the vermouth trend because of that culinary match
Vermouth producers new and old have noticed these trends and got to work. The category has never spanned so many countries, grape varieties and botanicals.
You know something’s going on when the big players start getting involved, such as Diageo’s acquisition of German brand Belsazar last year. But Germany isn’t the only country beyond the traditional producers, Italy and France, to get in on the action. The US has its fair share of vermouths, as does Australia, in the form of Regal Rogue and a few others.
We’re developing something of a scene here in the UK too. Sacred Spirits has been at it for a while, using locally produced wine, and three wineries, Albourne Estate, Bolney Wine Estate and Rathfinney Estate launched products last year. London’s Asterley Brothers has been building up a portfolio, with an Italian-style rosso vermouth and an amaro, and most recently a fernet.
Some of the most exciting new vermouths are coming from Spain, whose historic relationship with vermouth almost rivals that of Italy and France. New to the UK for 2019, courtesy of Love Drinks, is El Bandarra, created just a few years ago. Other Spanish names to watch are new entrant Paso-Vermú, Casa Mariol and bartender favourite Lustau Vermut.
France and Italy aren’t being left behind, but for a quick reminder of vermouth’s history and tradition in these countries, you could do worse than spending some time gazing at the back bar at London’s Vermuteria, with its impressively vast collection of vintage bottles.
‘We have some bottles of Carpano from the 1940s and 1950s, which isn’t that old when you think that their history goes back to the 1700s. It puts things in perspective,’ says Vermuteria’s Michael Sodeau.
Many of those established producers are rising to the occasion, creating new expressions with contemporary drinks trends in mind. New names, like the recently resurrected Chazalettes in Italy, are beginning to emerge too.
Describing the vermouths on his entirely Spanish list, Sabor’s José Etura touches on the benefits of having so many countries and regions involved. ‘It’s based on wine, so it all depends on the region, and the grapes you use,’ he says.
Grapes are indeed an increasingly important consideration for the majority of recently launched vermouth brands, which are more likely to emphasise their base wine than an obscure botanical. In fact, many new entrants are actually coming from wineries rather than from standalone vermouth companies.
This wine-based approach sets them apart from many of the household vermouth names of the past. The wine was always there, but now provenance and specific varieties are typically a priority.
Spain’s El Bandarra, for example, employs Catalonian grape Xarel·lo for both of its variants, blending it with Macabeo for the red, and Garnacha Blanca for the white. Lustau famously makes use of sherry as a base wine.
One of the category’s strengths, even before this influx of new expressions, is its range of increasingly diverse flavour profiles. As a result, it’s not easy to pick out emerging stylistic trends.
That said, many are lighter and more approachable, more vinous than spirituous, and perhaps lower in sugar and bitterness. These might sound more suited to near-neat aperitif serves, but the result provides real versatility for cocktails too.
Category-wise, most of the new entrants can be placed within the traditional sweet, semi-sweet and dry, but boundaries are being pushed here too, with more than a few rosés, such as those from Regal Rogue and Lustau, as well as ambers.
All of this activity can only be good news for bartenders. ‘The scene has blown up, with a variety of new flavours to play with,’ says Jono McDowell of Panda & Sons.
‘Vermouth is being used for more than just classic stirred-down drinks, and can play a major role in a drink. If bitters are a bartender’s salt and pepper, vermouth is your stock.’
At Heads + Tails, vermouth is an important part of the offering. ‘I like using classic cocktails as building blocks, playing with new brands around those – drinks like the Adonis or Diplomat,’ says Chris Dennis. ‘I’m also an advocate for simple serves like a vermouth and soda with fresh citrus.’
Interestingly, the recent rise of vermouth in the UK is as much about restaurants as it is about bars. Food-focused venues like Temper, Sabor and Vermuteria are making the most of the aromatised wine trend.
If bitters are a bartender’s salt and pepper, vermouth is your stock
‘People expect cocktail bars to lead drinks trends, but now restaurants are leading trends too because of that culinary match,’ says Temper’s Chris O’Neil.
‘I’m not listing these just to have a huge number of Spanish products, but because each has a different profile,’ adds Sabor’s Etura. ‘And they’re wonderful not just to mix with spirits, but also to have on their own.’
Vermuteria doesn’t neglect cocktails, but neat serves are a priority. ‘We have cocktail bar staff, but our draught vermouth is typically poured over ice in 50ml measures,’ says Sodeau.
Those on-tap vermouths at Vermuteria are created by UK producer Asterley Brothers. It’s one of a growing number of venues to dedicate a tap to vermouth. Sabor has one from Lacuesta in Spain, and Temper Covent Garden’s got a dedicated tap too (see case study, left).
For restaurants, food friendliness is a factor. ‘A red vermouth like Lacuesta goes well with our pintxo moruno, a lamb skewer marinated with spices and chargrilled. And fried prawns pair amazingly with Lustau Blanco,’ confirms Sabor’s Etura.
A sign of the times
But the suitability of aromatised wines to restaurant settings isn’t what solely sparked the category’s rise.
‘The gin craze definitely helped the vermouth boom, as did the low-abv trend,’ says Panda & Sons’ McDowell.
Lighter serves are leading many to vermouth and similar products, as Bon Vivant Group’s Will Cox confirms. ‘A lot of the renewed interest comes from guests who wish to experiment with low-abv drinks. At Lady Libertine we wanted to create a light and vibrant menu with an aperitif style, so our go-to was vermouth.’
Adam McGurk, Belsazar ambassador, agrees that low-abv serves have helped vermouth, but thinks this originated behind the bar rather than in front. ‘When I started bartending, bartenders didn’t look after themselves, but we’ve started to be more health conscious, reaching for the fortified instead of the navy strength.
So we recommend with conviction the delicious low-alcohol thing we’re currently into.’
But this time it’s more than just what we’re currently into. There are still vast amounts to discover within this broad category, not to mention related products like aperitifs and amaros.
Besides, take another look at that back bar filled with vintage bottles. Vermouth might be back, but in all honesty, it never really went away.
Case study: Temper Covent Garden, London
Temper’s three restaurant openings have proven to be a good barometer of what’s hot in drinks, with each focusing on a different on-trend category. When Temper Soho launched in 2016 it was all about agave spirits, followed by a new site in the City the following year, which joined the rest of the world in its collective gin obsession. At the third Temper, which opened its doors in Covent Garden in 2018, it’s all about vermouth.
‘We wanted to champion how many different styles of vermouth there are, and how versatile it can be, serving it by itself, or with a mixer, like a substitute for a G&T,’ explains Temper bar manager Chris O’Neil.
This was a response, he says, to growing demand for lower-alcohol serves, as well as rising interest in the vermouth category in general. ‘We wanted to be one of the leading venues to champion this great liquid,’ he says.
Taking inspiration from Neil Rankin’s food, O’Neil set about putting together a list. ‘Neil gets influences from everywhere, tying them together to make something exceptional,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to do the same with the vermouth list.’
The result covers both traditional and contemporary producers around the world. ‘It’s about where vermouth has been, as well as where it’s going, which is why we champion newer brands like Belsazar and Regal Rogue,’ says O’Neil.
For a glimpse of the contemporary face of the category, it’s hard to beat a bespoke Spanish vermouth on tap. ‘It’s made from the Macabeo grape, has minimal intervention, not too much wormwood, lots of citrus peel and some native Spanish thyme. We have it on KeyKeg. The same producer, Bernardo Farina, makes our house wines.’
The list has brought vermouth fans to the restaurant, while introducing new drinkers too. ‘We have seating along the bar where guests can have a drink while waiting for a table, and often they’ll get a sample of our Temper house vermouth,’ he explains. ‘The vermouth is a talking point between the bar team and our guests, and it opens their eyes to something they might not have tried before.’
Discarded Sweet Cascara Vermouth, Scotland
‘I recently tasted this vermouth from William Grant. It has this mocha feel to it. We’re going to use it in a spritz and in a Negroni too. And its minimal-waste approach is something we feel strongly about at Temper too.’
21% abv, £18.99/50cl, William Grant & Sons, williamgrant.com
Lustau Vermut Blanco, Spain
‘An amazing white vermouth made with fino sherry, so it’s a beautiful aperitif. It’s like when you go into a bar and have sherry with some jamón, but with the vermouth’s herbs and spices too. It’s a perfect drink on its own. Lustau’s sweet vermouth, made with Pedro Ximénez, is what I always give to people who haven’t tried vermouth.’
15% abv, £18.95/75cl, Fields, Morris & Verdin, fmv.co.uk
LN Mattei Cap Corse Blanc, France
‘Technically this falls under the quinquina camp, but at Lady Libertine we have been using it for everything we can think of. It’s beautifully vegetal – and actually a bit weird – but it makes a great Corpse Reviver No 2, and it works really well with sparkling wine too.’
17% abv, £24.44/75cl, Amathus Drinks, amathusdrinks.com
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Italy
‘In a classic Negroni this marries really well with a traditional London dry gin, and with the bitterness of the Campari. Cocchi products in general are my go-to when it comes to vermouth, as their base wine is incredible, and their attention to detail in terms of their botanicals is second to none.’
16% abv, £22.95/75cl, Speciality Brands, specialitybrands.com
La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Extra Dry, France
‘French Vermouth La Quintinye uses Pineau des Charentes as its wine base. The Extra Dry is very lemony, zesty and herbal, with a peppery finish. It works well in a Martini, but really shines in a Bamboo Cocktail, with fino sherry, Angostura and orange bitters.’
16% abv, £19/75cl, Paragon Brands, paragonbrands.co.uk