Vermouth’s Revival

The classic aperitif wine has gained a new generation of devotees, particularly in the on-premise.

E.&J. Gallo partnered with Quaker City Mercantile to launch the wine-forward Lo-Fi Dry and Sweet vermouths (above), as well as an amaro.
E.&J. Gallo partnered with Quaker City Mercantile to launch the wine-forward Lo-Fi Dry and Sweet vermouths (above), as well as an amaro.

For years, vermouth was neglected. At retail, it was relegated to floor-level shelves under gin and vodka, a nod to Martinis. On back bars it languished open for too long, unrefrigerated and unloved. A fortified and aromatized wine with a name derived from the German word for wormwood—one of many botanicals from which it gains its complexity—vermouth has an illustrious history that dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. It’s sipped neat at trendy bars in Europe and was popular in the United States until Prohibition. So, where’s the respect?

Palm Bay International, importers of Cinzano ($8 a 750-ml.) and Boissiere ($10) vermouths, recently launched a national campaign called “Respect the Drink” to raise vermouth awareness. Seminars, tasting events and advertising communicate its history and role in classic cocktails. Cinzano and Boissiere volumes have grown by nearly 10 percent annually for the past several years, with interest in traditional mixology and lighter cocktails driving that growth, according to Palm Bay senior brand manager Dave Singh. “Today’s market is perfect for vermouth, including classic cocktails at a speakeasy or low-abv vermouth cocktails at a restaurant licensed only for wine and beer,” Singh notes.

On-premise accounts are building cocktail programs around vermouth and connecting consumers to the category. “Vermouth is our passion project, and we love introducing people to it,” says Jacques Bezuidenhout, partner at PlumpJack Hospitality Group, which has nine on-premise venues in San Francisco. Bezuidenhout says interest in vermouth picked up about four years ago and has accelerated in the last year. At the group’s Wildhawk bar, he offers a list of 22 vermouths (all $7 a 3½-ounce pour) as well as vermouth-based cocktails ($8 to $9). While Yzaguirre Blanco Reserva vermouth and Vermouth del Professore are among the top sippers, Bezuidenhout says traditional vermouths in the dry French style and the sweet Italian style lead in classic cocktails. Dolin Dry, Noilly Prat Extra Dry, Cinzano 1757 and Martini & Rossi Rosso are the restaurant’s top-selling vermouths. He suggests pairing dry vermouth with marcona almonds ($5) or a charcuterie and cheese board ($17). “Vermouth’s briny, sharp acidity and bit of residual sugar pair well with our nibbles menu,” he says.

Vermouth consumption totaled 1.39 million nine-liter cases in 2016, representing a 1.6-percent decline from the previous year, according to Impact Databank. Over the same period, Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat, both imported by Bacardi USA, grew 3.3 percent to 454,000 cases and 10.4 percent to 46,000 cases, respectively. In the past decade, shipments of both Italian and French vermouths have increased, with the latter growing faster. Of the imported vermouth category’s volume last year, Italian imports comprised almost 84 percent (mainly Martini & Rossi and Stock), while French imports took slightly more than a 12-percent share. Vermouth from other countries comprises less than 4 percent of the total import volume. Domestic vermouth takes almost a 47-percent share of the total market, and domestically produced craft vermouth is generating excitement. Additionally, on- and off-premise accounts are reporting strong interest in higher-end vermouths, both imported and domestic.

At Plumpjack Hospitality Group's Wildhawk bar, partner Jazques Bezuidenhout (pictured at Wildhawk) has curated a list of 22 vermouths.
At Plumpjack Hospitality Group's Wildhawk bar, partner Jazques Bezuidenhout (pictured at Wildhawk) has curated a list of 22 vermouths. (Photo by Matthew Millman Photography)

Botanical Bounty

In the on-premise, customers don’t often think of vermouth, but they’re open to trying it. “I guide our guests to vermouth, talking about what makes it so special,” says Molly Wellmann, co-owner and head bartender of Wellmann’s Brands, which operates six on-premise venues and a retail store in Cincinnati. The venue Japp’s Since 1879 leads in vermouth sales for the company, in part because the bar focuses on classic cocktails from the 18th century onward, many of which feature vermouth. Among the eight vermouths at Japp’s, Carpano Antica Formula Sweet and Dolin Dry ($7 a 4-ounce pour) lead sales, and Quady Winery’s Vya vermouth ($9) is gaining traction. Wellmann updates the Bourbon-based classic Remember The Maine ($9) with Vya Sweet vermouth. “After I explain how important vermouth is to cocktails, our guests see it in a different light,” Wellman says.

At Ball Square Fine Wines in Somerville, Massachusetts, specialty spirits and beer manager Nate Kruback stocks 35 vermouths alongside other wine-based aperitifs, amari and dessert wines. Sweet red vermouths lead in volume and sales, including top-selling Carpano Antica Formula Sweet vermouth ($17 a 375-ml.; $32 a 1-liter) and Dolin Rouge ($12 a 375-ml; $14.99 a 750-ml.). Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ($14; $20) is gaining traction, as are Badenhorst Caperitif ($33 a 750-ml.) from South Africa and Vermut Martinez Lacuesta ($19 a 750-ml.; $88 a 5-liter box) from Spain. Kruback notes an even split between vermouth purchased to mix and to consume neat. “Customers want new flavors and recommendations they trust, and their brand loyalty drops every day,” he says. “Many of our customers are bartenders, and they’ve tired of making elaborate cocktails at home in favor of vermouth—the original premixed drink.” The store’s annual aperitif and digestif tasting features many vermouths and attracts about 175 customers, Kruback adds.

E. & J. Gallo, longtime producer of Gallo Extra Dry and Sweet vermouths (both $7 a 750-ml.), has launched two vermouths under the Lo-Fi brand in collaboration with Quaker City Mercantile, a creative agency that specializes in developing spirits brands. Lo-Fi Dry and Sweet vermouths (both $25) are currently available in San Francisco, New York and Philadelphia. The line also includes an amaro. In a departure from European tradition, Lo-Fi vermouths have a wine-forward flavor profile, and the sweet expression has no added color. “They’re definitely their own thing, our own unique California twist on the classics,” says Quaker City founder Steven Grasse. Consumer and trade tasting events highlight the brand as a mixer in lower-abv cocktails for brunch and daytime enjoyment. Grasse says Lo-Fi vermouths work well neat in classic cocktails like Martinis and Manhattans, but that promotions focus on drinks such as spritzers and mimosas. “While we see more people drinking vermouth straight these days—a trend fueled by the industry—most consumers are mixing vermouth into cocktails,” Grasse adds.

Angelito David, Martini & Rossi senior brand manager at Bacardi, agrees that vermouth volume is driven by mixed drinks and reports momentum in the trade and among consumers. “Vermouth has always been a partner in classic cocktails, and now millennial consumers are in the early stages of rediscovering it, as we see with the comeback of Italian cocktails like the Negroni and the Americano,” David says. “Over the last couple years, there have been pockets of growth as vermouth reenters the spotlight.” David predicts that the trend toward simpler and lower-abv cocktails, such as vermouth and tonic, will grow the category. Bacardi markets Noilly Prat ($11 a 750-ml.) as well as Martini & Rossi ($8). Two years ago, the company added a reserve tier, Martini Riserva Speciale Vermouth di Torino, which includes both ruby and amber expressions ($15).

Ball Square Fine Wines specialty spirits and beer manager Nate Kruback offers 35 vermouths at his store.
Ball Square Fine Wines specialty spirits and beer manager Nate Kruback offers 35 vermouths at his store.

Complex Concoctions

Although domestic craft vermouth volume remains small, it’s a shining light in the category. Atsby Vermouth founder Adam Ford says the number of U.S. producers of craft vermouth went from five in 2012, when he launched Atsby, to nearly 25 today. Atsby is distributed in eight states and has grown by 50 percent annually since its inception. The company makes two vermouths with Chardonnay from the North Fork of Long Island: Atsby Amberthorne and Atsby Armadillo Cake (both $34 a 750-ml.) Limited quantities of two aged vermouths ($35 a 500-ml.) will roll out this autumn. “One trend in domestic vermouth is the use of high-quality wine as a base, because grapes are the starting point for any great vermouth,” Ford says, adding that some other domestic brands also have wine-forward flavor profiles.

Ford—who has written a book on vermouth—notes that while some domestic producers put their own spin on traditional vermouth, others push the category’s boundaries with unique flavor profiles. In the latter group he includes Atsby and Uncouth (both from New York), and Hammer & Tongs and Imbue (both from Oregon). “Because of their unique flavors, these brands aren’t drop-in substitutes for traditional vermouths in classic cocktails,” says Ford. “On the other hand, we’re also not directly competing with the more established brands.”

Ford credits Quady Winery CEO Andrew Quady with paving the way for other U.S. producers with his 1998 rollout of Vya vermouth. Quady makes three expressions of Vya ($20 a 750-ml.) and produces 5,000 to 10,000 nine-liter cases a year. Volume peaked about three years ago and has remained steady. Vya Sweet vermouth comprises 75 percent of the brand’s volume, driven by on-premise demand for Manhattans, Quady says. Domestic and imported entrants to the vermouth category have generated interest and made the playing field more crowded, he adds.

About five years ago, the swell of domestic craft vermouths raised a question: Can vermouth be called vermouth if it doesn’t contain wormwood, a plant that lends characteristic bitterness? European vermouth producers use wormwood in minuscule amounts because it’s extremely bitter and can be toxic, but say it’s fundamental. American producers disagree, foregoing the ingredient. “Both Europe and the United States have stringent regulatory hurdles to ensure beverages containing wormwood are safe, so domestic producers tend to use cinchona bark as their main source of bitterness,” Quady explains. “It’s that combination of bitter and sweet that makes vermouth compelling, yet bitterness can come from other botanicals, so wormwood isn’t an important flavor component.”

Adam Ford, foudner of New York–based Atsby Vermouth, has pushed the category's boundaries by creating vermouths with unique, nontraditional flavors.
Adam Ford, foudner of New York–based Atsby Vermouth, has pushed the category's boundaries by creating vermouths with unique, nontraditional flavors. (Photo by Reka Nyari)

Gentle Treatment

The global dispute has quieted in favor of a discussion where everyone agrees: Vermouth is wine and needs to be treated with the same care as other wines. Bacardi’s David says the company constantly communicates that vermouth is wine-based and should be chilled after opening. “Education is the key, so our team works hard to explain the importance of keeping vermouth refrigerated,” David says. “The best way to land this message is to ask our accounts to store vermouth both ways and taste the difference.”

Atsby’s Ford says on-premise accounts are catching on. “We’ve come a long way in the past five years, and now most beverage directors and bartenders understand vermouth is a wine and must be chilled after opening—and used relatively quickly,” Ford says. “We’re no longer in the dark ages where everyone just left vermouth out on the bar.”

At Wildhawk, Bezuidenhout says guests often ask about the two refrigerators of vermouth behind the bar, which sparks a dialogue. He explains what vermouth is and how it tastes better fresh. “Another strategy is incorporating vermouth into our house cocktails, which helps us pour through them faster,” he notes. With an eye toward freshness, Bezuidenhout buys 375-ml. bottles of vermouth when available. “That’s a conversation retailers are having as well, encouraging customers to buy smaller bottles,” he adds. Overall, Bezuidenhout predicts modest growth for vermouth, with a trajectory similar to Sherry’s rise over the past decade. “It won’t be an explosion, but you’ll see more bars get serious about vermouth, and more people enjoying it as an aperitif,” he says. “There are good signs out there for vermouth, particularly on-premise.”

Quady Winery launched Vya vermouth in 1998, pioneering domestic craft vermouth in the United States.
Quady Winery launched Vya vermouth in 1998, pioneering domestic craft vermouth in the United States. (Photo by John Valls)

Aperitif Culture

Vermouth’s bitter, acidic flavor profile makes it appealing as a before-dinner drink, with or without food. Yet vermouth isn’t a stateside happy-hour staple like it is in Europe, although that may change with the millennial penchant for casual drinking and dining. “The United States is moving slowly in the direction of an aperitif culture like Europe’s,” says Atsby’s Ford. Quaker City’s Grasse believes this trend will push vermouth forward. “One of our key goals has always been to help lead an aperitif renaissance, and as consumers become more interested in and curious about vermouth, we’re one step closer to that becoming a reality,” he says.

Most operators predict that cocktails will drive vermouth’s growth, given that consumers view it primarily as a mixer. “Old-school drinks are very current right now, and vermouth plays an essential role in classic cocktails,” Wellmann says. “I’m excited to see vermouth’s growing prevalence in resurrected classics and new craft libations.”

Palm Bay’s Singh predicts newer-style and traditional vermouths will grow together rather than compete. “Vermouth will continue to expand with more local or regional expressions,” he says. “These new domestic vermouths will help grow interest in the category and simultaneously generate continued interest in the classic, iconic brands.”