Bartenders everywhere know that people hate vermouth. Guests are constantly requesting their martini not be sullied with that same swill collecting dust in their home liquor cabinet. They employ an ever-expanding array of vocal burbles and diminutive hand motions to demonstrate how minuscule a measure of vermouth might be permitted.
But there’s no chance the liquid they have in mind will end up in their cocktail. In fact, it doesn’t even exist in most bars. It’s long since been discarded because that liquor-cabinet-loner has a secret not enough people know: vermouth goes bad. People hate it because they have only tasted the old, dull, flat, bad vermouth. But when it’s not bad, it’s very good.
Vermouth goes bad because it is, by definition, aromatized and fortified wine. (Wait, wine?! Yes, wine. I was shocked as well.) “Aromatized” means the wine is infused with botanicals and herbs. Originally this was done, as with most cocktail ingredients, for medicinal purposes and later for deliciousness purposes. “Fortified” means increasing the ABV by adding neutral grape brandy or grain spirit, which helps prolong freshness but doesn’t preserve vermouth indefinitely.
The best method of preserving the life and luster of vermouth is refrigeration. Storing vermouth in a cold, dark environment will retain the flavor far longer than storing at room temperature, where it does what wine does: oxidizes, expels volatile aromatics, and goes flat. In other words, it has likely lost all the glorious aromas, flavors, and colors that make it a spectacular cocktail ingredient.
Do your palate—and your bartender—a favor and give vermouth another chance. Dump the bottle in the cabinet at home, go to a favorite liquor store, and start exploring the range of vermouths available locally. For the “sweet” or Italian style, start with the richness of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino or the vanilla/bitter balance of Carpano Antica. To give “dry” or French vermouth another shot, crack a brand new bottle of the iconic Dolin Dry and taste the difference. Taste the renaissance of Spanish red/rojo vermouths with Miro or Yzaguirre, meant to be served on the rocks with an orange slice. And, finally, you should definitely make room for a modern-style vermouth by seeking out the rose-petaled Otto’s Athens Vermouth or the herbal and floral Vya. Remember, always store vermouth in the refrigerator to enjoy them more and more often. (Responsibly.)
Mountain Meadow Martini
2 ounces Otto’s Athens Vermouth
1 ounce Loon Liquors Metropoligin
2 droppers Dashfire Mission Fig Fennel Bitters
Stir well with ice, and strain into a lowball glass with one large ice cube.
Editor’s Note, April 5, 2019: The French vermouth recommendation has been updated from Dolin Blanc, which is slightly sweeter, to Dolin Dry, their more classic dry vermouth.