An Astoria Vecchio cocktail (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON…)
When I wrote my very first Spirits column five years ago, the topic was vermouth. It’s hard to imagine now, but I felt I had to persuade readers to show vermouth a little respect.
At the time, in the early stages of the classic cocktail trend, vermouth was still the butt of age-old jokes by committed drinkers of “very very dry” martinis. (You know the old saws: Just whisper the word “vermouth” while you mix it! Simply wave a capped bottle of vermouth over the shaker! Take a tumbler of gin and bow in the direction of France! And so on.)
Real cocktail drinkers now know that no ingredient is more important than vermouth. Bartenders, both professional and at home, take better care of vermouth, treating it as a wine that must be refrigerated and is best used within a few weeks. Consequently, more people are sipping martinis with a good portion of dry vermouth rather than “very very dry” (which is otherwise known as a glass of gin). With more higher-end sweet vermouths on the market, Manhattans and Negronis have never been better.
It’s safe to say that vermouth awareness is at its highest level since before Prohibition. Yet with all this vermouth love wafting through the air, I’ve been surprised that a third member of the vermouth family still doesn’t get much attention. Everyone knows dry and sweet vermouths and their many uses. But still a big mystery to most drinkers is the vermouth known as bianco (if it’s Italian) or blanc (if it’s French): “white” vermouth.
In fact, I’d be willing to wager that many readers just stopped in that last paragraph and said, “Wait. There’s a third vermouth?”
Just as people still mistakenly think maraschino liqueur is the juice of maraschino cherries (it happens more than you’d think), many erroneously use dry vermouth when a recipe calls for bianco/blanc/white vermouth.
The difference between dry and white vermouth is significant. White vermouth has distinct aromas of thyme and oregano and notes of cloves and vanilla, striking a unique balance between sweet and savory.
Not that white vermouth is anything new. Martini has been making its bianco vermouth since about 1910. In Italy, bianco vermouth is the most popular by far, and accounts for more than half of Martini’s production. Go to any bar at happy hour, and you’ll see Italian young people ordering bianco vermouth on the rocks, with a twist of lemon. In the United States, however, many liquor stores don’t even carry a white vermouth.
I predict this might be changing. After the deluge of revived classic cocktails over the past few years, we’ve entered a moment when a lot of creative bartenders are scratching their heads about what to do next. Many have noticed that simply substituting white vermouth for dry or sweet vermouth, and then altering the other ingredients accordingly, creates a refreshing new cocktail.
By replacing the sweet vermouth with white vermouth, for example, and leaving out the bitters, a Manhattan becomes a Manhattan Bianco. Or by using white vermouth instead of dry, and then changing the gin to genever or Old Tom, the classic Astoria cocktail becomes the Astoria Vecchio .
From there, white vermouth opens up a whole world of possibilities. I find that it mingles well with the oakiness of aged spirits, such as with Irish whiskey in the Irish Sling or with Calvados in the Orchard Keeper. It also balances bitter flavors well, such as it does with Root liqueur in the Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan.
It’s doing both of those jobs in the Casino Soul cocktail included here, mingling with the aged rum and balancing a healthy portion of the love-it-or-hate-it artichoke-based Italian amaro, Cynar.
This is a start. I’m seeing a lot more white vermouth on cocktail menus, in particular Dolin’s slightly more expensive blanc. However, I think there are many more amazing white-vermouth cocktails to be discovered.
Am I being hyperbolic about white vermouth love? Perhaps. But five years ago, who would have believed that anyone would have anything positive to say about vermouth at all?
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.