Friday, 7 October 2011

Red vermouth showdown!

DBS braces himself for the challenge of tasting 19 red vermouths
Our exhaustive blind tasting of dry white vermouths back in March has proved a continually popular post, attempting as it does to answer the question of how much difference the actual brand of vermouth makes in a Martini (and other cocktails too, but the Martini must surely be the quintessential dry vermouth drink, an obvious shibboleth and, arguably, the main reason for the liquid to exist*).

So it wasn’t long before DBS announced that he had corralled no fewer than 19 different red vermouths for a similar tasting. Red vermouth (or “Italian vermouth” as you will often find it in old cocktail books, referring to the bitter-sweet rosso style developed in Turin in the late 18th century) is based around wine, typically flavoured by infusion with various herbal and spice botanicals and fortified to around 14–17% alcohol by volume with spirit. It is not usually made from red wine, as I had always assumed, but is coloured primarily by the addition of caramel. It is invariably sweet, though often with a bitterness too—it’s part of that whole family of wines and spirits flavoured with bitter herbs that probably started as a medium for conveying and preserving the supposed medicinal benefits of the herbs. The classic bitter herb has to be wormwood, in its various strains, found in absinthe and also very much in vermouth; in fact in a recent lecture at the Boutique Bar Show, Jared Brown and Anastatia Miller (who were launching their new book on vermouth) informed us that the presence of wormwood was a defining characteristic—not unreasonably, considering that vermouth gets its name from German vermut, meaning wormwood. But red vermouths are flavoured with many other herbs and spices, citrus peel and sometimes cinchona bark too.

My (now patented) Vermouth Matrix
I don’t know that red vermouth has such an obvious quintessential cocktail as the Martini, though we went for two strong contenders, the Manhattan (in this case two parts rye whisky, one part red vermouth and a dash of Angostura) and the Negroni (equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari).

So our tasting involved sampling all the different vermouths neat, then taking our short list and trying them in these two cocktails. So, in the order we tasted them…

1. Filipetti (15% ABV) A nose of vanilla, sandalwood, orange and perhaps cinnamon; quite pleasant though it smells surprisingly dry. On the palate, however, it is actually quite sweet, but not unpleasantly so; there is bitterness there too, and it’s pretty balanced.

2. Forteni Rosso (14.4% ABV) A more sour, dry nose, like biscuits or the sesame confection halva; a bit pungent. The palate is more bitter than the Filipetti, with a somewhat sour aftertaste. Not too bad overall, but less sophisticated than the Filipetti. We don’t know too much about the brand—it is one of DBS’s purchases from his regular trips across La Manche to Carrefour.

3. Dolin Chambery Vermouth (16% ABV) Dolin dry vermouth has found a place for itself in many bars and indeed it scored well in our own blind tasting. Their products are billed as “Chambery Vermouth”— vermouth from Chambery has AOC status, though Dolin are the last firm to be manufacturing it. This red one has a nose a bit like Coca Cola, almost leading you to expect it to be fizzy, plus a hint of ginger and something slightly “off” like decomposing seaweed. On the palate it is sticky, with a candied finish.

4. Sacred Organic Old English Spiced Red Vermouth (around 16–17% ABV) Shortly before conducting this tasting David and I had been lucky enough to visit Ian Hart’s Sacred microdistillery—which is basically a room in his house where he vacuum-distils a range of botanicals individually (after macerating the ingredients in neutral alcohol in his garden shed for sometimes weeks or months), then blends them into his Sacred Gin. But he was also considering other possibilities, such as making an absinthe and, as it turned out, vermouth. This pre-production sample was part of an attempt to make a very English vermouth, using local ingredients—this one had some 20 botanicals. It is indeed much redder than the more tawny-coloured first three samples. The nose is startlingly thyme-led, a very fresh and herbal attack. On the palate, the thyme again dominates and perhaps other woody, aromatic herbs, plus orange and sweetness. It apparently has elderberries in it, which might explain the colour, and tastes a bit like port infused with thyme. Compared to the previous samples, vanilla is notably absent.**

5. Carpano Antica Formula (16.5% AV) Carpano have been making vermouth since 1786 and this product is, I believe, a resurrection of an ancient recipe. It has been a big hit with bartenders (I’ve heard it described as a sort of universal ingredient that you just bung into everything to improve it). Since 2001 the company has been owned by Fratelli Branca, makers of Fernet Branca. Oddly the Antica Formula only comes in litre bottles, now at £30 a pop, and I was hesitant about stumping up that much for a vermouth, which one tends to use only in small doses but which has a habit of oxidizing after being open for a while. However, I ended up with the sample bottle from this tasting and I can confirm that, unlike most dry white vermouths, this one is not nearly so affected by oxidation, so it is safe to invest in a bottle. The nose is vinous and vanilla-led, and I also get chocolate, prunes and rum & raisin. The palate is complex and rich, with elements of chocolate and vanilla again, plus oranges and blueberries, yet all with a clean, bitter finish. Sophisticated and highly appealing.

6. Toso (14.8% ABV) The nose is sweetish, a bit like nougat, and you can sense the underlying wine base. The palate is mild and winey, a bit like grape juice. OK, but not very interesting.

7. Punt e Mes (16% ABV) Made by Carpano since 1870, when it was allegedly created when a customer, a stock exchange agent, asked for vermouth plus china bitters (presumably one part and half a part respectively, as the name means “point and a half”). Another story is that Carpano’s stock went up by a point and a half on the stock exchange and the company released the new vermouth to celebrate. The drink is a very dark red with a port-like and slightly sour nose and a palate that is strongly bitter, but (to me) pleasantly so. Hints of coffee (someone said Camp coffee), chocolate and anise, and something banana-esque too. Jared Brown describes it as like Antica Formula with a dash of Campari.

8. Dubonnet (14.8%ABV) Created in 1846 by a Paris chemist as a way to make anti-malarial quinine doses more palatable for French Foreign Legion troops, Dubonnet has had an international presence ever since. It has a fruity nose, “like Ribena” according to one, plus a rooty element, and perhaps a hint of dishcloth. The palate strikes me as surprisingly light, with flavours of carrot juice and grape juice. It seems sweet to me, and not especially bitter, but then we were tasting is after the Punt e Mes.

9. Casa Marteletti Vermouth Classico (16% ABV) The flagship of the Filipetti range, this vermouth has a subtle coffee/chocolate nose and a smooth, complex, sweetish palate, with definite notes of anise, menthol and coal tar; it doesn’t seem bitter to me but has a lingering dry, rooty, herbal aftertaste, probably from wormwood.

Ian Hart (far right) from Sacred, sees his product square up to the competition
10. Sacred Organic Old English Amber (ABV?) Another experiment: the subsequent production version has less thyme, but in this version the thyme if very dominant; a piney resinous nose with what I call in my notes a “see-though vividness”, which may come from the fact that it had been distilled that afternoon. (I kept a sample and I think that in time the thyme softens and integrates.) The palate is also strong, vivid and quite bitter; to me it seemed more “together” than the red version (no. 4 above), which had a “scooped” quality of pronounced bitter high note and sweet low note, but not quite enough glueing the two together in the middle. The amber reminds me of East European style bitter liqueurs, like becherovka, but without the sweetness.

11. Homemade (ABV?) David made this using the same recipe as in the dry vermouth tasting (a recipe from a booklet handed out by Plymouth gin), but using sweet (white) wine as a base, extra citrus and dark brown sugar instead of white. In my tasting notes, though, I record that it didn’t smell of much at all and had a watery palate, sweet with hints of orange and dusty spice, and none of the dominating clove power I recall from the dry white version. Not a great success.

Adam from Graphic mixes up some Manhattans
12. Byrrh (18% ABV) Another oldie, invented in 1886 in Perpignan by two brothers who were drapers by trade but, for some reason, wanted to make a quinine drink, which they initially sold through pharmacies as a health draught. It declined after the war but has recently been rising in popularity again. It has a nose of Ribena fruit and wood and, on the tongue, a drying, herbal, woody liveliness, subtly complex and evolving with a bitterness that grows on the finish. Made me want to try it mixed.

13. Stock (16% ABV) The Extra Dry version didn’t impress last time, and the tradition is carried on here. This sample had a nose of Bovril and Worcestershire sauce and a palate of Bovril and cheap ruby port, but with a really nasty, sour oxidized finish.

Robert Beckwith (l) and David Hollander assess a cocktail
14. Lillet Rouge (16% ABV) Not sure this really counts as a vermouth: I seem to recall that Lillet Blanc is a mixture of wine and citrus liqueurs, with the original quinine bitterness (it used to be called Kina Lillet) dispensed with in 1985. Lillet Rouge was created only in the 1960s for the US market. It has a similar strawberry nose to the blanc and a soft, quiet palate. I think this sample had been open a while as it was noticeably oxidized, but at the same time you could tell it was once quite balanced.

15. Vya (16% ABV) Made by the Quady Winery in Madera, California, this vermouth uses Orange Muscat wine as a base. It is a mid-tawny colour and has a concentrated blackcurrant nose with added herbaceous notes and a streak of Benylin. On the tongue I am reminded of coconut flesh plus a bitter-sweet berry flavour. It is well balanced and intriguing, though I am not sure I like it, exactly.

16. Noilly Pratt Rouge (16% ABV) Noilly Prat Extra Dry is my dry vermouth of choice so I was looking forward to tasting this sample of the red version, which is not distributed in the UK, its main market being the US. However, I was disappointed: in fact I suspect the sample was off, as it tasted rank, dry and thin, with a strong waft of fermenting bananas.

17. Bellino (13% ABV) Not sure where DBS got this but he concedes it is not really a vermouth, but a mixture of wine, grape juice and herbs (although it seems there certainly used to be a vermouth called Bellino, as the poster attests). It has a sweet candied nose of Parma violets. The palate is likewise tuckbox sweet, tasting of Refreshers (which also probably don’t exist any more). It tastes like something children pour over ice cream. Which is probably worth trying, especially if you want them to be quiet.

18. Martini Rosso (15% ABV) Surprisingly woody and dry on the nose, full of aromatic herbs, thyme in particular. Maybe I expected it to be more cloying but on the palate the sweetness is again well balanced with the strong herbaceous elements. I gather that it is made in steel vats to preserve the botanical flavours rather than influence them with oak. I found it sound in concept, albeit (tasted neat) a bit crude in execution, not as polished of smooth as some.

19. Cinzano Rosso (15% ABV) Allegedly invented in 1756 and therefore the original vermouth di Torino, Cinzano has the usual secret recipe (though one which includes thyme, marjoram and musk yarrow). The brand was early to export round the world, from the 1890s, but has never matched Martini’s success. After a stint owned by Diageo it is now in the hands of Gruppo Campari. On both the nose and the palate, it is remarkably similar to the Martini we had tasted just before, although the taste seemed to me sweeter with more vanilla and chocolate notes.

So, which of these 19 did we like best? In truth there was no clear winner, because different vermouths seemed to find favour in different contexts. For example, on its own Antica Formula and the Casa Marteletti scored highest while Byrrh and Punt e Mes were preferred in a Negroni. Martini was rated the best all-rounder, while Antica Formula made the best Manhattan, its sweet, vanilla, chocolate tones balancing well with the woody edge of the rye.

Carpano Antica Formula

Martini Rosso, Byrrh, Punt e Mes & Filipetti Casa Marteletti (joint)

I personally would say that Antica Formula probably emerged the victor, with Martini, Byrrh, Punt e Mes and Casa Marteletti al  jostling for second place. I think that Antica Formula does indeed make a cracking Manhattan, but recently I have to admit that I’m not sure it’s the best choice for a Negroni—it seems it really is horses for courses. But if the only red vermouth you usually use is Martini Rosso, do check out the others in our top five.

* Of course you can drink dry vermouth on its own, but I don’t know anyone who does. When I was a student a friend and I spent an evening drinking a litre and a half of dry Martini vermouth and later regretted it.
** I met Ian again recently at the Boutique Bar Show and learned that he is now making three vermouths, but two of them are exclusively for Duke’s bar, who have cleared a number of their other vermouths to make way for him. The two samples tasted here did not make it into production, but descendants of them did, in practice with a lessened thyme presence.


  1. Great post, very interesting. I'll have to try and get my hands on a bottle of Marteletti's. Too bad that you couldn't get any spanish vermouths. There are some nice products around, the most famous brand being Yzaguirre. Give it a try if you manage to find a bottle.

  2. Thanks for the tip-off! We will investigate Yzaguirre…

  3. I have to admit that those Vermouth labels look great. they did a great with it. I haven't tried out but it sounds delicious.

  4. Anything in particular you would recommend about it?
    Love the blog here. Nice colors. I am definitely staying tuned to this one. Hope to see more.

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