June 15, 2024

Vermouth back in vogue – and not just for cocktails

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Drink is a wine that has been fortified to 15-19% and then flavoured with a range of botanicals

Vermouth is a key ingredient in some of our favourite cocktails, be it a martini, negroni, Manhattan or boulevardier. But how often do we drink it solo?

Vermouth is wine that has been fortified to 15-19 per cent abv, and then flavoured with a range of botanicals, and sometimes sweetened with sugar syrup and coloured with caramel. The basic division is between white vermouth which tends to be drier, and red which is usually sweet, although the lines are certainly blurred. 

Vermouth was originally a medicinal liqueur that became popular as an aperitif. The name comes from the herb wormwood, and these days some, but not all vermouths will contain this intensely aromatic bitter herb. Modern vermouth was created by the Milanese, who served it as an aperitif. The best-known Italian names include Cinzano, Martini, Carpano and Cocchi. French vermouth tends to be white and dry, the most popular brands being Noilly Prat, Lillet and Dolin.

Generally made from white wine, red vermouths derive their colour from botanicals, caramel or added red wine. In large wine producing regions such as Sicily, the Languedoc and southwest France, it provided a useful outlet for the mass of fairly tasteless white wines made from grape varieties such as Ugni Blanc, Grillo and Catarratto. 

Vermouth (or vermút) has been popular in Spain for more than a century. For many years, it was seen as an old person’s drink (in some areas, a small glass was traditionally consumed after Sunday mass as an aid to digestion or to prepare the stomach for Sunday lunch). More recently, it has become highly fashionable, as I found out when judging the vermouth category in a wine competition in pre-lockdown Madrid. Styles varied hugely, from light, spicy and sweet, to very bitter and dry. 

In Spain, production is largely based in Jerez and Rioja, although it is made all over the country, often using locally gathered herbs, and recipes remain closely guarded secrets. The difference is, in Spain, vermouth is consumed solo, with ice, a slice of orange or an olive. In some places, bars serve it on tap, and in some regions, you can fill your bottle directly from the barrel.

Vermouth may be fortified, flavoured and sweetened, but it is still a wine, so once opened, it should be kept the fridge and consumed as quickly as possible; weeks rather than months. If you run out of cocktail ideas, you can use it for cooking. Dry vermouth is excellent in fish dishes, red with red meats and fruits. Just remember that it is more powerful than wine, so use with discretion.

Today I feature three Spanish vermouths, plus Ireland’s first commercial vermouth, made by Anna and Orla Snook O’Carroll using Spanish wine and herbs foraged on Valentia Island, Co Kerry.

Lacuesta Vermouth Reserva, Rioja

15%, €22-€23
Aged in new French oak barrels, this lightly floral medium-sweet vermouth has subtle spice and vanilla. Drink it with ice and a slice of orange.
From: A Taste of Spain, D1; Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Pinto Wines, D9, pintowines.ie; 64wine, Glasthule, 64wine.ie; Green Man Wines, D6, greenmanwines.ie.

Lustau Vermut Blanco, Jerez

15%, €22.95
A delicious fairly dry herbal white vermouth with aromatic marjoram and wormwood finishing on a pleasantly bitter note. Serve chilled with an olive or two. 
From: Mitchell & Son, D1, Sandycove, and Avoca, Kilmacanogue & Dunboyne, mitchellandson.com; The Vintry, D6, vintry.ie; Bubble Brothers, Cork, bubblebrothers.ie.

Valdespino Vermouth, Jerez

15%, €32.99
Bittersweet Seville orange peel and toasted almonds with a rounded sweet finish offset by a bitter edge.
From: Blackrock Cellar, Blackrock, blackrockcellar.com; Redmonds, D6; redmonds.ie; The Corkscrew, D2, thecorkscrew.ie; wineonline.ie.

Ór Valentia Island Vermouth

18%, €35
Rich caramel and vanilla flavours mingle with coconut and aromatic herbs and spices. Perfect with tonic water and ice. 
Widely available including online, Bradleys Off-licence, Cork, bradleysofflicence.ie.
From: Redmonds, D6; redmonds.ie; Deveney’s, D14, deveneys.ie; La Touche, Greystones, latouchewines4u.ie; Celtic Whiskey Shop, D2, celticwhiskeyshop.com; Willies Wine Shop, Cahersiveen; Bubble Brothers, Cor, bubblebrothers.ie; Select SuperValu, supervalu.ie.  

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