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A Whiskey Lover’s Guide to Vermouth

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Vermouth lab - bottles of vermouth on a round tray

Every great bar has quality vermouth, but what is vermouth, and what are some popular whiskey and vermouth cocktails? Let’s set the record straight so you know what vermouth is, how it’s used in cocktails, and most importantly, how it works so well with whiskey (because you know I love talking about a great Manhattan cocktail).

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What is Vermouth?

Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine. The wine base (which can be white, red or any type in between) has brandy or spirits added to it to increase the proof. In addition, botanicals like roots, herbs, and spices are added to boost flavor – they may be macerated with the wine or added to the stills like a tea bag sitting in hot water in a tea kettle. 

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

Types of botanicals added range from citrus elements (citrus peels from oranges, lemons, etc.), bitters (usually barks and roots like cinchona bark, sasparilla, oris root, etc.), spices (like clove, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla, nutmeg, etc.) and herbs (chamomille, rose, lavender, oregano, ginger, sage, etc.).

In addition to adding a spirit like brandy to increase the proof. Vermouth often has sugar or sweet grape juice added to it. However, to be called vermouth, it must remain 75% wine. 

Types of Vermouth

Vermouth lab - bottles of vermouth on a round tray

There are three main types of vermouth: sweet/red, dry (white), and blanc/blanco.

Sweet/Red/Rosso Vermouth

Sweet or red vermouth (sometimes called rosso vermouth) is made from red wine and is the type of vermouth most often used in Manhattans. It’s rather sweet, and usually has great baking spice and vanilla notes in it. Because of its sweeter flavor profile, and the particular botanicals in it, it makes a great flavor pairing for whiskey cocktails like the Manhattan.

Dry/White Vermouth

This type of vermouth is most famous as an ingredient in Martinis. It’s less sweet, has a white wine base, and typically has more savory and herbal components in it than sweet vermouth. It also makes an appearance in the classic cocktail the Perfect Manhattan.

Blanc/Blanco Vermouth

The blanco vermouth sits between sweet and dry vermouths in terms of flavor. Its sweetness is between the two, and it’s often made from a white wine base.

Flavors in a Vermouth

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

For a whiskey drinker any vermouth will taste sour, but both sweet vermouth and blanc vermouth will also taste rather sweet. Underneath that sweetness and slightly sour wine taste, 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.

The Vermouth Lab: How to Taste Vermouth (Three Ways)

Vermouth lab - three wine glasses with vermouth surrounded by vermouth bottles
Vermouth Tasting

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.

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.

With Soda

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

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


The same vermouth tastes drastically different these three ways and if you have a specific serving that appealed to you can gather serving and cocktail ideas

If you preferred the vermouth neat, you probably prefer a vermouth forward cocktail or just vermouth sipped neat. But, if you enjoyed the vermouth over ice best, try a Manhattan or Martini. If you thought the vermouth with soda tasted the best look for some great spritz recipes with a vermouth base or component.

Whiskey and Vermouth

Once vermouth made it to the United States, bartenders immediately added it to cocktails, the most famous of which is the Manhattan. If you’d like more on the history of the Manhattan and how to perfect it for your palate go to How to Make a Classic Manhattan.

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 favorite vermouths to pair with whiskey in Manhattans and all their variations:

Other vermouth brands to try:

Four Basic Whiskey and Vermouth Cocktails

manhattan cocktail with orange leaf cutout garnish
Leslie’s Kick Ass Manhattan

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.

Manhattan

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

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • 1 oz sweet 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.

Perfect Manhattan

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

Brooklyn

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.

Boulevardier

This 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! For more on the Boulevardier, head to How to Make Your Boulevardier Perfect.

  • 1.5 oz bourbon whiskey
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth
  • ¾ oz Campari
  • Garnish: orange peel

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

Other Cocktails You Might Enjoy

Wrapping Up Whiskey and Vermouth

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, make sure you use vermouth you love.

And if you have a set of friends who love cocktails, have a Manhattan party where each person brings a different brand of vermouth. Taste test your way through the vermouths, then build Manhattans with them to find which ones pull flavors you love from your preferred Manhattan whiskey.

By on October 23rd, 2021

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey enthusiast (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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