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What is Vermouth? A Whiskey Lover’s Guide

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Last Updated on January 29, 2023 by Heather Wibbels

To make a great cocktail, it’s important to understand what vermouth is (and isn’t). More importantly, what does vermouth taste like, and how do you pair it with whiskey to make fabulous cocktails? Keep reading to find out!

Bottles of vermouth on a round tray

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What is Vermouth?

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine. Most people use it as a mixer in cocktails, but it can also be enjoyed neat.

What’s in the Bottle

The wine base (which can be white, red or any type in between) includes brandy or spirits to increase the proof.

In addition, botanicals like roots, herbs, and spices are added to boost the flavor. They are either macerated with the wine, or they’re put into the stills, like a tea bag sitting in a kettle of hot water. 

Flavor Profile

Each vermouth maker has their own secret recipe of herbs, roots, flowers and other ingredients used to create the flavor profile of their particular brand. So, what does vermouth taste like? Well, it depends on if you’re drinking sweet vermouth or dry.

You’ll notice variations if you taste test different vermouths side by side. Some have more bitterness, others may be more floral, or have specific botanical components you can detect,

Popular botanicals can include:

  • Citrus – Citrus peels from oranges, lemons, limes, etc.)
  • Barks and Roots – This bitter component of vermouth can include ingredients like cinchona bark, sarsaparilla, and oris root.
  • Spices – Warm spices like clove, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg are popular, as are herbs and floral components like chamomile, rose, lavender, oregano, ginger, sage, and vanilla.

In addition to adding a spirit like brandy to increase the proof. Vermouth often has sugar or sweet grape juice added to it.

Regardless of which other ingredients are chosen, to be called vermouth, it must remain 75% wine. 

Varieties and What Vermouth Tastes Like

Bottles of fortified wine on a round table.

The taste of vermouth can be sweet, dry, or in between the two. Sweet varieties have a base of red wine, while the dry varieties start with white wine.


A sweet or red vermouth (sometimes called rosso vermouth) is made from red wine. The sweetness pairs really well with whiskey, so it appears often in cocktails like the Manhattan.


This type of vermouth is most famous as an ingredient in a classic martini. It’s less sweet, has a white wine base, and typically has more savory and herbal components in it than sweet vermouth.


The blanco vermouth sits between sweet and dry vermouths in terms of flavor. It’s a sweeter tasting variety that is often made from a white wine base.

Taste Testing Vermouth (3 Ways)

Ever wonder what vermouth tastes like on its own? Take a few minutes to taste test what you have at home. 

Most whiskey drinkers will notice a sour flavor, but the red varieties also have sweetness. Underneath that sweet and slightly sour flavor, you’ll evaluate the botanicals on the nose and by taste. 

I like to nose and taste the vermouth before I look up the botanicals used in it to see what I perceive. I reexamine the flavor once I have a list of the common botanicals used in the creation of particular vermouths.

Glasses and bottles set up on a bar for a vermouth tasting

Sipping Options

  1. Neat

Pour a small amount in a wine glass. Nose the wine to detect hints for herbal, spice and bitter botanicals. Sip a bit to taste the sweetness, bitterness and flavors of the vermouth. 

At room temperature more of the flavors will pop out from the fortified wine, but chilled, both bitterness and sweetness will lessen, making it harder to detect some flavors. However, this gives you a better idea of how the vermouth will perform in a cocktail since you’ll stir ingredients over ice.

  1. Over Ice

Add some ice cubes to your wine glass and stir for just a few seconds. As you nose and sip the vermouth, you’ll find both the flavors and the aromas more muted, and different botanicals will become apparent on the palate.

  1. With Soda

Finally, add some soda water to a wine glass with ice and the alcohol. Congratulations – you’ve just made one of the easiest vermouth cocktails, vermouth and soda (very popular in Italy). 

Nosing and tasting vermouth chilled with soda further dilutes the alcohol. The addition of water (even though it’s in carbonated form) allows some of the sweeter and floral notes to rise to the top. 

Pairing Whiskey and Vermouth

Whiskey and vermouth pair well together because the slight sourness of vermouth balances the sweet and spicy flavors of bourbon and rye. In addition, those botanicals often bring out more subtle notes from the whiskey itself, adding to the cocktail’s complexity and the whiskey’s finish on the palate.

My favorites:

Other vermouth brands to try:

Four Basic Whiskey Vermouth Cocktails

manhattan cocktail with orange leaf cutout garnish

While vermouth is used in many whiskey cocktails, these are the four you’re most likely to see on a cocktail menu or while reading about whiskey. The flavor profile of each will appeal to different drinkers. Some are sweeter, some more dry, and some have a more pronounced bitter aspect.


Classic Manhattan

The Manhattan’s bold flavor and careful balance make it a whiskey vermouth cocktail for true whiskey lovers. A great whiskey Manhattan should highlight and celebrate the whiskey, not hide it.

Perfect Manhattan

The term perfect in this recipe refers to the fact that the drink has equal parts of dry and sweet vermouth in it. It’s a Manhattan for whiskey lovers who find the classic a bit too sweet.

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • ½ oz sweet vermouth
  • ½ oz dry vermouth
  • 3 dashes bitters
  • Garnish: cocktail cherry or orange peel

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe, and garnish.


For the Brooklyn cocktail, add a bit of Amer Picon to stand in for bitters and balance that with a splash of sweet maraschino cherry liqueur. It’s a refreshing riff on the Manhattan that stays true to the character of the original.

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 oz dry vermouth
  • ¼ oz maraschino liqueur
  • ¼ oz Amer Picon
  • Garnish: cocktail cherry

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir for 30 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe, and garnish.


The Boulevardier is a bourbon-ified whiskey Negroni swaps out bourbon for gin and adjusts the ratios to let the bourbon soar over the assertive flavors of Campari. It’s easy to batch and to sip!

Wrapping Up

The next time you order a Manhattan you love at a bar, find out the whiskey and vermouth they’re using. Since vermouth makes up about a third of the cocktail, be sure you use a variety you love.

And if you have questions about the basics of putting your bar together at home, and how and why to select other spirits besides vermouth head to this guide: Building and Stocking a Bar at Home.

This post, originally published in October 2021, was last updated with new content in January 2023.

By on October 23rd, 2021
Picture of Heather Wibbels, Cocktail Contessa, pouring a cocktail

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey and cocktail author (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location.

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