Vermouth: Not just for cocktails

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI can remember my first waitressing job at a British pub. It was 2003, and I was a mere 21 years old. I barely knew anything about food, wine, cocktails, or really any of the finer things in life. I can recall the bartender telling me that vermouth (a fortified wine infused with botanicals) was disgusting, so bad that when you use it in a cocktail, you simply swirl it around in the glass and dump the rest out. Why would anyone want to add something to a drink that tasted so bad? I wrote off vermouth as something I never wanted to put in my mouth.

Years later, I learned from a bartender at Bar Agricole that vermouth should always be stored in the refrigerator. It’s wine, after all, and it oxidizes like any other wine. Most people think vermouth is disgusting because they let it sit out at room temperature for months, using a splash here and there. Even bars are guilty of leaving their vermouth out, which might be one of the reasons that a Manhattan is rarely good at a bar. Even if it’s being refrigerated, it’s going to oxidize, and you should use it up within a couple of weeks.

So I started storing my vermouth in the refrigerator. I was still buying the cheap stuff, because I was only using it in cocktails. Really, you are only using a half ounce at a time, what difference could it really make? What I came to realize is that a $5 vermouth is about as good as a $5 wine. I knew that there was good vermouth out there, as it’s a popular aperitif in Europe. People drink it straight! I couldn’t believe it, but it’s true. There is a scarcity of craft vermouth here in the states and it’s pretty difficult to find. A few people are making it, but not many, and you really have to know what you’re looking for or get really lucky to find a good one.

Well, call me lucky! I was recently at Ruby Wine in San Francisco – a great little wine shop with an unbelievable selection of wine. I noticed an odd-looking bottle at the register and asked about it. Turns out it was a white (bianco) vermouth from Piedmont, Italy. It was around $40 for the bottle and the shop owner told me a little bit about it. It was a blend of Cortese and Moscato, two Italian grape varietals commonly grown in Piedmont. I was intrigued and thought I’d give it a shot. He told me to serve it with a sprig of rosemary on the rocks.

I followed his advice and not only threw in a sprig of rosemary, but also a twist of tangelo (it’s what I had on hand, and orange/rosemary are a lovely pair) and a splash of soda water. The outcome completely changed my preconceived notions about vermouth. It was intensely complex; slightly sweet, bitter, herbaceous, fruity, refreshing – all of the elements I want in a cocktail. I can’t believe I’d been blind to this for so long. I have no regrets about spending $40 on a bottle of vermouth, it’s that delicious. I could drink this stuff every day, and I most certainly will until the bottle I bought is gone. It would be a shame to let it go to waste!

For those of you who are interested, the vermouth I bought a Mauro Vergano Vermouth Bianco NV, imported by Louis Dressner. There is still one bottle left at Ruby Wine. If you see this stuff at a store and want to give it a whirl, I highly recommend it. Make sure you also pick up some rosemary, a citrus fruit and some soda to spruce it up. You won’t be disappointed!