Oeno Files 1 — Sweet, Sweet Vermouth

A surprising number of drink mixers are some form of wine.  So today we’ll launch a series that’ll periodically visit this family and dissect one of its members for the purpose of better drinking.  Let’s start with sweet vermouth.

I assume most of you know that vermouth is a fortified wine flavored with some dry herbs, primarily wormwood.  There are two main types of vermouth: Dry (or French) vermouth is white like Chardonnay.  And sweet (or Italian)vermouth is red like Chianti.  Dry, of course originated in France, sweet in Italy. 

 Both types have between 15% and 20% alcohol content.  Because they’re fortified with  distilled alcohol they have a long shelf life, so many people use them for cooking wines.  When I’m cooking, I prefer to use a little of the wine I’m drinking with that particular meal.  But to each his own…


1-1/2 oz Campari

1-1/2 oz sweet vermouth

1-1/2 – 4 oz club soda

Combine ingredients over ice in a ~10 oz rocks glass. Garnish with an orange wheel.  Vary the amount of club soda to taste and occasion.

Although most vermouth follows a pretty standard formula there are a lot of brands:  Martini and Rossi, Noilly Prat, Gallo and Cinzano are the most common.  Gallo, to me, is thin and flat compared to all the others.  But outside of that they seem to be pretty similar.  So I’ll buy whatever of the other three is available or on sale at the supermarket.

Italian vermouth is our focus today, and it is a sneaky ingredient.  Your first thought, I’m sure, is “But Manhattans are too strong for me.  So why would I ever buy sweet vermouth?”

I’ll change your mind on Manhattans.  But there many other ways to use sweet vermouth.  I’ve already shared the Bronx Cocktail with you.  And you could just shake a little with ice and a lemon peel and strain it into a highball glass filled with ice.  Garnish with a lemon twist and drink.  Not bad, eh?

Combining highballs in a separate glass ensures consistency. Blood orange slice adds both color and needed citrus flavor to the drink.

But my favorite application for sweet vermouth is the Americano.  This drink from 19th century Italy is based on a bitter liquor called Campari that the native Italians would drink straight.  This was a bit too much for the sweeter American palate, so they would order it on ice with sweet vermouth and club soda.  Eventually the drink became known as the Americano.

Fast forward 100 years and even an Americano is too bitter for most American palates.  But this is my favorite summer drink and if you like IPA style beers it could be yours, too.  It isn’t too sweet and can be very low in alcohol depending on club soda ratio.  I make pitchers of them and sit next to the pool with a red cup on summer Sunday afternoons.

But with winter closing in, let’s talk about the classic winter cocktail – the Manhattan.  Each sip and I feel like I’m in a basement jazz club in Chicago listening to Thelonious Monk with one eye on the mobsters in the booth in the back corner.  There’s snow on the ground, but my walk home is only 2 blocks.


2 oz bourbon

1/2 oz sweet vermouth

1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir ingredients and strain into chilled cocktail glass.  Garnish with maraschino cherry.

You run into a problem recreating this scene today.  Okay, two problems.  Monk has long been playing the upright piano in the sky.  And most bars and bartenders make an inconsistent and un-tasty version of this classic cocktail.  Which is why most people say they don’t like them.

Traditionally, a Manhattan is made with 2 parts american rye whiskey and 1 part sweet vermouth.  I prefer mine with a 4:1 ratio — not as dry as I like my martinis but much drier than tradition.  Additionally, rye whiskey has been hard to find for a while but is making a comeback.  There are a variety on most liquor store shelves these days.  All are small-batch and the best I can say is that they are inconsistent.  Some are quite tasty, but I’ve also spent $35 on some pretty bad whiskey.  So I stick with traditional american bourbon for this drink.

Because the bourbon or rye is such a large part of the drink, the quality of the ingredients matters a lot.  So a very smooth bourbon like a Woodford Reserve will make a smoother Manhattan than say Jack Daniel’s.  I never was a fan of hairspray in a glass, but if it’s your thing, there are a bunch of Hell’s Angels that would probably back you up. 

Cherries on a toothpick make for easier eating. Pour spouts are $5/dozen -- the cheapest way to amke an efficient home bar.

So my recommendations for bourbon?  I haven’t done an official tasting, but I like Woodford, Knob Creek, and Maker’s Mark generally.  Just make sure you use a straight whiskey (no Crown Royal or other blended or Canadian whiskeys please) that you like.  If that’s Jack Daniel’s then so be it.

Every palate is different, so try all the variations and find what you like best.  Then you can solve the bar problem by ordering exactly what you want.  Asking for a “4:1 Woodford Manhattan with 2 cherries” may get you a funny look from some bartenders.  But most will be happy for the guidance — it beats guessing.

Stir v Shake:   Shaking a cocktail both chills and dilutes it as a little ice melts into the mixture.  Stirring does the same thing to a lesser degree, but because it is less violent it clouds the drink less.  So the rule of thumb is to stir drinks if all the ingredients are clear, alcoholic liquids and shake everything else.  That would mean all Manhattans, Martinis, and Gibsons should be stirred.  While I like tradition, I will sometimes shake a Manhattan if I want one slightly less strong.

To stir a drink, grab your bar spoon and the glass side of your boston shaker.  fill halfway with ice and pour ingredients into shaker.  stir vigorously for ~30 sec with the bar spoon and strain into appropriate glass.  it won’t get either as cold or as diluted as it would if it was shaken, but it should be crystal clear and tasty.


About Paul

Having been passionate about cocktail craft for many years, I've recently been coerced into sharing my insights and experiences. This blog is my first attempt at that goal.
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3 Responses to Oeno Files 1 — Sweet, Sweet Vermouth

  1. Paul says:

    Recently to NC liquor store shelves is Russell’s Reserve Rye. It is aged 6 years and is my favorite small-batch rye to date. It isn’t cheap at $33 a bottle, but is in the range of Maker’s and Knob Creek. And I actually think I like Russells’ better than those. If it is available in your area, check it out…

  2. Pingback: Local Watering Holes – Part 2 | Inside the Mixer

  3. Pingback: A Lost Classic (Brunch Files – Part 2) | Inside the Mixer

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