Taste: Spirits: Vermouth Truth

The oft-maligned mixer — or is it an aperitif? — finally gets some respect

Vermouth has had a tough ride. The sweet version of the beverage was born in 18th-century Italy, when some bright bulb took cheap, nasty-tasting wine and flavored it with herbs and spices. This made it potable for those rabid consumers of cheap, nasty-tasting wine — the peasant classes — while the wealthier set scoffed. Not an auspicious beginning for vermouth, but eventually, a clever bartender — possibly Martini di Arma di Taggia — discovered that the flavor of the dry variety invented by the French mellowed out boozy, juniper-heavy gin, thereby creating one of cocktailing’s greatest innovations: the original martini.

Alas, gin’s days were numbered thanks to the onslaught of vodka, a flavorless spirit that’s easily overpowered by vermouth. Folks started drinking vodka martinis extra-extra dry—as in, no vermouth—and eventually this trend extended to the versions made with gin. Vermouth was once again off the cool list.

But with the craft-cocktail craze of the past few years, both sweet and dry vermouth are back in demand. At cocktail-centric bars like Southwark and the Franklin, you’ll find martinis made with more refined options, like the dry French import Noilly Pratt. Union Trust beverage director Xavier Mariezcurrena recently brought in another French dry vermouth, Dolin, though he says most of his customers haven’t caught up with gin yet. “Dolin is very powerful,” he explains. “You can’t really use it in a vodka martini.” If you really want to experience the power of dry vermouth, order a “50-50,” which is — get ready, vermouth haters — half gin and half dry vermouth.

On the sweet side, the vermouth of the moment is an Italian: Carpano Antica, which you’ll find at all the better bars—at least, when the short-supply stuff is available in PA. Mariezcurrena, who regularly enjoys a Carpano on the rocks or a splash of it in sparkling wine, says his customers are becoming more conscious of the stuff: “When we make a manhattan for someone with Martini & Rossi and then make one with Carpano Antica, people are totally blown away by the difference.” If you go to Union Trust, make sure you specify the Carpano, especially because it’s the same price—even though the bottle costs four times as much.