The fact that I haven’t been in bars much over the past 18 months perhaps goes some way to explain why British vermouth was not on my radar, but now that I’ve started to notice quite how many there are out there, I’m amazed. Partly, I’m guessing, it’s a spin-off from the boom in home cocktail-making during lockdown, but it’s an obvious diversification for wineries such as Bolney (below) that can use their own wine as the base.
Vermouth, for those who are new to it, is an ancient drink of fortified wine that, like gin, is aromatised with various herbs and spices. The name derives from wormwood, which is also included in the mix, though not in any specific quantify, with the result that many modern vermouths exhibit a mere trace of its trademark bitter character (other botanicals might include artichoke, gentian, cloves, cassia and citrus peel).
Vermouth can be drunk neat (usually over ice), diluted with tonic or soda (a great low-alcohol option) or used as an essential component in many classic cocktails such as the negroni, manhattan and americano. The tricky thing, however, is pinning down the style. In theory, there are three main types: dry, white (or “bianco”), which is off-dry, and red, which is generally sweeter, but you get a vast divergence even within each category. “Dry”, for example, ranges from the London Vermouth Company’s innovative No 3 SE Dry (below), which is based on bacchus grapes, gooseberries and bramley apples, to more classic bottlings such as Sacred’s English Dry (£18.95, 21.8%), which is best for a dry martini. Similarly, you’ll find that reds range from the austere (Sacred again) to the delectably cherry-scented Old Poison Edinburgh Vermouth Rosso (£19.95, 18%). If you’re a vermouth newbie, or particularly sensitive to bitterness, I’d start with the more approachable styles in today’s pick.
Two more tips for the vermouth virgin, though both will depend on the product and your palate: dry vermouths generally work best with tonic, while sweeter styles, such as the Reus Blanco below, are more refreshing with soda, but do experiment (I find a standard serving of red vermouth with a splash each of tonic, Campari and gin a lighter, less bitter alternative to negroni, though purists will probably throw up their hands in horror). And, finally, vermouth, particularly dry vermouth, doesn’t take kindly to being left out, so once open, keep it in the fridge and consume within two weeks. Then again, once you’ve got the vermouth bug, that won’t be a massive hardship.