Philip Duff: Have we won the Vermouth Wars?

Philip Duff

27 November 2017

'We fought the war for vermouth. And we God-damned won it,' was exclaimed dramatically at a recent tasting.

And that set me thinking. Have we won the Vermouth Wars? I think so. When I was but a mere stripling of a bartender in 1990s Ireland, it was easy to work out which vermouth to use. You used the stuff that was in the rail, with a pour-spout on it, more oxidised than a rusting girder on the seabed, and it didn’t matter what brand you used because there were only a couple of brands and they all seemed to be about the same.

Well, that didn’t last.

We learned it was wine (come on, who knew?) and we learned it should be treated like wine, kept chilled and sealed and used quickly.

A cocktail revolution kicked off by Dale de Groff in the US and the UK’s Dick Bradsell (RIP) championed classic cocktails, and the classics meant vermouth drinks – Manhattans and Martinis and Tuxedos and Negronis and Boulevardiers and whatnot. The cocktail books from 1862 onwards that we raced around snapping up on eBay were stuffed with vermouth drinks; first with the sweet, red ‘Italian’ variety, and then in the last 1890s the rage that was dry, ‘French’ vermouth.

Then came the neo-classics, such as Audrey Saunders’ Fitty-Fitty and the many and varied Manhattan riffs churned out by a freshly energised corps of new New York mixologists (I’m partial to a Red Hook, myself, since you ask). Suddenly, a regular 40-seat hardcore cocktail bar – PDT in New York, say, or Door 74 in Amsterdam – would be tearing through a mixed case of vermouth a week, easy, when most bars that size would struggle to sell a case in an entire year.

We learned it was wine (come on, who knew?) and we learned it should be treated like wine, kept chilled and sealed and used quickly. Carpano Antica Formula, launched in the 1990s, taught us that good vermouth could be expensive – using Antica meant the vermouth in a Manhattan often cost more than the whiskey.

A plethora of brands followed, first old brands, hastily dusted off, from traditional vermouth countries like France and Spain and Italy, then new ones from wine-loving places like the US and Australia, then even newer ones from those same old houses in France and Spain and Italy, who were equal parts baffled the youngsters were mixing vermouth-heavy cocktails again and delighted to have the business.

Anno 2017, it’s clear that vermouth is undergoing a sea-change; among the new brands, a large proportion of them tout their wine credentials, using decent, drinkable wine as a base and letting those grape varietals shine though in the finished product. This is antithetical to the canon of vermouth, which is using a frankly unpalatable high-acid white wine as a plain canvas to be painted with color and sugar and botanicals.

Then again, vermouth started off in 1786 showcasing the wines of its dual birthplaces: the earthy, rich reds of northern Italy and the sweet whites of Chambery. Maybe we’re not getting off track as much as we’re getting back on track? The behemoths of the business, the Martinis and Cinzanos, have gracefully responded to the clamour for craft, creating limited-edition flavour-forward premium vermouths that stand proud in any cocktail you’d care to name.

Now we’ve settled into a groove of renewed vermouth demand, whither the future? It looks bright. Low-alcohol is the buzz phrase of the moment (eclipsed only, perhaps, by no-alcohol) and there’s nothing as full-flavoured as a cocktail where you replace the liquor with vermouth, or flip it Freaky-Friday style so the vermouth plays the whiskey’s role and vice-versa.

A low-alcohol cocktail is a high-profit-margin cocktail, and what bar manager doesn’t love a few of those?

Low-alcohol is set to run and run because as well as responding to demand from guests who want to be able to drink without getting drunk, a low-alcohol cocktail is a high-profit-margin cocktail, and what bar manager doesn’t love a few of those? While I’d like to see more people outside continental Europe drinking a nice vermouth in a highball, with tonic or soda, or on the rocks instead of almost exclusively in fancy cocktails, I’m just glad I don’t have to reach for that oxidised, pour-spouted bottle in the speed rail anymore.

Missed Duff's series on How to start a craft liquour brand? Catch up on the series here:
Part one: Why on earth do people start them
Part two: How to find a gap in the market
Part three: How to get it off the ground 

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