If you ever snuck a swig from that dusty bottle of vermouth in your grandfather’s liquor cabinet, you may have decided vermouth is not for you. But it’s time to give vermouth another taste. Not only is the herbaceous cocktail ingredient totally on-trend, but the low alcohol-by-volume (ABV) of vermouth makes it a low-calorie sipper to help keep your healthy new resolutions.
A fortified wine (yes, it’s a wine,) vermouth begins as red or white wine, that is then fortified with brandy. Up to 40 botanicals are also added to make each brand a unique cocktail-in-a-bottle. Botanical aromatics range from cinnamon, cardamom and anise to grapefruit floral and rhubarb.
‘Vermouth’ comes from the German word Wermut, meaning wormwood, and was originally created for its medicinal properties. Bitter, aromatic wormwood remains a signature ingredient in most vermouths, however subtle. Sipping a vermouth aperitif or digestive is popular way to enjoy it. Of course, it’s also essential in the Negroni and the gin martini – shaken, not stirred!
There are three basic categories of vermouth:
Along with the sub-category of extra-dry, dry vermouths begin as white wine and are not sweet. They often contain flavors of fresh green herbs, fennel, nutmeg, bitter orange, lemon, grapefruit and light floral. A popular brand is Noilly Prat Original Dry.
These vermouths also originate as white wines and have a touch more sweetness than dry, however, they are not sweet sippers. Blancs are aromatized with tart apple, citrus, stone fruit blossom, elderflower, thyme and toasted butter. Look for Dolin Blanc.
With beginnings as red wine, these sweeter bottles contain rich aromas of cola, cinnamon, prune, spice, licorice and vanilla toffee. Martini & Rossi’s Rosso is popular.
The perfect cocktail is usually a balance of sour, sweet, strong and mild. As a component in a drink, vermouth knits everything together. Just an ounce tames the fiery alcohol in a crafted cocktail and bridges to other ingredients such a bitters and citrus.
Vermouth is a refreshing way to cut calories too: Since the 15-20% ABV of vermouth is much lower than that of 80-90 proof liqueurs (33-35% ABV,) try replacing some of the higher-octane alcohol in your favorite drinks with flavorful vermouth. For comparison:
1.5 ounces of 16% ABV (32-proof) vermouth contains about 70 calories vs. 1.5 ounces of 45% ABV (90-proof) liquor contains about 120 calories.
Just don’t do what your grandpa did and leave that bottle to collect dust in the cabinet. Vermouth must be stored in the refrigerator. Like other wines, it oxidizes; however, not as fast, thanks to fortification. Dry vermouths last only about three weeks refrigerated, blancs about a month and reds last a little over a month. An older bottle won’t turn to vinegar, it just tastes ‘less-than-fresh;’ so use it as aromatic way to cook seafood or in sauces.
Luckily, many vermouths come in half bottles (375 mL) and quality can be found in the $10-16 per bottle price range.
Here are a few of our favorites to try with a splash of soda water and a twist of orange/lemon/grapefruit, so you can taste all the nuanced flavors:
La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Rouge ($16) French. A deep amber, red color with caramel, burnt vanilla and warm spiced notes, which evolve to a long-lasting finish. Made from a selection of 28 plants.
Vya Extra Dry ($16) Californian. Magnificent floral, with angelica and lavender herbs; sweeter than most. Begins as orange Muscat wine using old European winemaking techniques.
Serena Ball, MS, RD is a food writer and registered dietitian nutritionist. She blogs at TeaspoonOfSpice.com sharing tips and tricks to help families find healthy living shortcuts. Follow her @TspCurry on Twitter and Snapchat.