Somewhere deep in the recesses of your kitchen liquor cabinet probably sits a bottle of dry vermouth. You know it’s there, but you really have no idea how long it’s been there. Maybe your uncle or a date wanted dry martinis and you bought it because you confused dry gin with dry vermouth. Or maybe you knew exactly what you were doing and wanted actual vermouth in your martini, a rarity these days. Whatever the case, you opened it way back when and now there it sits.
Dry vermouth, or French, is the other kind of vermouth. Since Carpano Antica upped the game in sweet vermouth quality back in the late 1990s (and concurrently upped the game in Manhattans as well), new quality sweet vermouths have begun appearing on the market. The dry stuff though has always had a problem. The main difference (aside from color, which is added to sweet vermouth that is usually made from white wine) is the taste. Not to be confused with bianco vermouth, which in many cases is simply uncolored sweet vermouth, dry vermouth typically has a pronounced oxidized flavor. Ironic in the extreme because oxidized wine is seen as “old” or “flawed” wine, even if it’s new.
It doesn’t help that most people don’t refrigerate their vermouth, and even though much newer vermouth is now fortified with the addition of spirits (vermouth used to be purely an aromatized wine, unfortified but flavored), there is not enough added spirit in it to really prolong its lifespan significantly. Vermouths are usually 14% to 22% ABV, high on the scale for still wine, but low on the scale for fortified wines like port or madeira. Wine can last for about two months if it is refrigerated (white or red), but lasting and being good are not the same thing. Now imagine something unrefrigerated, open and three years old. Yikes!
Which is perhaps why the proportion of dry vermouth in martinis has shrunk down to essentially none these days, meanwhile, the proportion of sweet vermouth in Manhattans has gone up. Granted, Manhattans have always skewed towards more vermouth than martinis, but just a simple look at market trends will tell you what the consumer likes and dislikes. Sweet vermouth has 55% of the market, according to Grand View Research, meanwhile, the white vermouth market splits that remaining 45% between bianco and dry. And recognize that in Italy, for instance, bianco vermouth outsells sweet vermouth.
But if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door. And bartenders are starting to make all kinds of craft cocktails using dry vermouth, partly because several California producers are making much better tasting versions.
Three leaders are Vya out of the Central Valley, Lo-Fi in Napa and Sonoma’s Rockwell. Vya, made by Quady Wines in Madera, makes two delightfully fresh-tasting vermouths: a whisper dry, which has slight herbaceous notes mixed with subtle citrus fruit and spice, and their extra dry that ups the herbaceousnous a notch. Lo-Fi is a subsidiary project of Gallo, and as such proves that if you have the money and the will, you can create a great product. Lo-Fi dry vermouth eschews the oxidation completely, but instead of sweetening things up with sugar, they opt for a spicier, lighter finish. It’s certainly not a sweet vermouth, theirs is dry in the classic sense. A newer player is Rockwell, made by Santa Rosa winemaker Birk O’Halloran, of Iconic Wines. Their entry is stronger (proof wise) than the other two, yet still retains a floral and fruity character without residual sweetness. Rockwell is marketed as “American flavor” vermouth, partly because instead of wormwood — vermouth means “wormwood” — they use wormwood’s “cousin,” sage.
Here I’ve gathered three classic cocktails reimagined to highlight the resurgence in good-quality dry vermouth. So, throw out that old bottle in your cupboard and put your new bottle in the refrigerator, and then mix up these cocktails. You won’t be disappointed.
2 Griffo Distillery Stony Point whiskey
¾ ounce Vya Vermouth Whisper Dry
½ ounce Aperol
1 orange zest
Combine the first three ingredients in a mixing beaker with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with orange zest. Essentially, it’s a take on a Boulevardier, substituting dry vermouth for sweet vermouth and Aperol for Campari. Boulevardier means essentially “one who prowls the boulevards” for what is cool and new.
1 ounce Santo Spirit Mezquila
1 ounce Luxardo Bitter Bianco (imported by Hotaling & Co.)
1 ounce Lo-Fi Aperitifs dry vermouth
1 orange zest
Combine the first three ingredients in a mixing beaker with ice. Stir and strain over a large format ice cube in a rocks glass and garnish with orange zest. The Boulevardier is a whiskey take on the Negroni, and this a Mezcal take on that.
New Millennia Dry Martini
2 ounces Alamere Spirits London dry gin
1 ounce Rockwell Vermouth American Version dry vermouth
1 lemon zest
Combine the first two ingredients in a shaker with ice. Shake until ice cold and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with lemon twist. This is a dry martini, in every sense, the way it was meant to be. Proving that, as with applied physics, once the pendulum has reached its apex it starts swinging back the other way.