Old meets new

It was inevitable – vermouth is the latest category to be revived through the craft movement. Jaq Bayles reports on how modern twists are making big names sit up.


GIN AND VERMOUTH go together like rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong, which, if it wasn’t a lyric from a nonsensical song in the musical Grease, could easily be the latest obscure botanical in either of the aforementioned drinks.

Gin, as we all know, is currently everyone’s favourite spirit and it’s now also being credited with helping to spark a vermouth resurrection, having prompted a new generation of consumers to enjoy learning how botanicals work together to create different flavour sensations.

Given the high percentage of cocktails that vermouth is present in, the fact that its profile has been so low for so long seems a little odd, but the global rise in the popularity of the Negroni and the Martini has helped to drag it back into the limelight and there are no end of new brands springing up all over the world.

According to IWSR figures, vermouth sold 20.7m 9-litre cases in 2015, with the omnipresent Martini brand accounting for nearly half of those but, in common with the rest of the drinks world, these new craft brands are making consumers look twice and helping bartenders to add value to their top-selling cocktails.

Philip Duff, a drinks educator and director of Liquid Solutions Bar & Beverage Consulting, says he can hardly move for new entrants. “Everywhere I look the market is flooding with craft vermouths, whether it’s the UK, Germany, US, Australia or France.

“What makes it tricky is that, much like whisky, it’s quite straightforward to make a vermouth but very, very, very difficult to make a good one. Because making vermouth doesn’t necessarily entail distilling or ageing, you can get it to market with minimal investment, which has driven innovation and created a huge buzz around the category.

“We’ve seen a lot of locally-made vermouths (even in Brooklyn, not famed for its vineyards), wineries bringing out their own vermouths, several collaborations between whiskey and gin with vermouths bespoke to their brands, and much more.

“Indeed, once you delve into vermouth, you emerge with a newfound respect for just how much expertise goes into making a bottle of even the most basic, classic Martini Rosso or Cinzano Bianco.”

These New World takes on what started life in 16th-century northern Italy as a medicinal drink made with aromatised fortified wine may horrify the purists, but their purveyors see them all as opening up the market to new consumers.

Mark Ward, who created Regal Rogue, which uses 100% Australian wine and native Australian botanicals, says his brand is “the disruptor of the modern craft vermouth category”. He adds: “Now most countries have a vermouth. New Zealand’s about to launch one, Australia has gone from having just one to eight or nine, Germany has two or three. We’re seeing everything really evolve very quickly. We’re seeing vermouth bars such as Caffé Dante in New York and Banksii in Sydney where everything is dedicated to vermouth.”


And the craft movement in vermouth has, in keeping with trends in other drinks, led to even the biggest producers looking at their brands in a new light.

Ignacio Vazquez, global brand director for Bacardi-owned Martini, says: “Craft is a trend happening across all categories. Consumers and bartenders are looking to find something unique and that’s not well known. There’s an element of personal discovery and there needs to be a strong authentic story.

“We are the leader by far and it does affect us in a positive way. It pushes us, makes us get on our toes and create something really authentic. Because of that we have crafted a product called Riserva Speciale, inspired by old recipes, using traditional methods such as resurrecting old Pinot casks.”

The latest range carries a Vermouth di Torino classification and has two variants – Rubino, which is made by blending small parcels of Langhe DOC Nebbiolo wines with extracts of Italian holy thistle and red sandalwood from Central Africa, and Ambrato, with Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines, yellow cinchona bark from Ecuador and Chinese rhubarb.

Vazquez says that today’s consumers are looking for more than just a drink, they are seeking an experience, which is why Martini has been busy creating pop-up ‘vermoutherias’ at events such as the Venice Bar Show and Tales of the Cocktail in Edinburgh. “Instead of looking backwards we give a twist in terms of looking at the future. We are creating lots of expressions of classic cocktails.”

Indeed, Duff says this is key to driving consumption with cocktails far and away the biggest trend: “The big hitters are Negronis, Manhattans and (wet) Martinis, followed by a host of classics and neo-classics – the Bijou, the Vieux Carre, Martinez, Brooklyn, Bamboo, and so on. The Americano has seen a resurgence too, as the vermouth long drink. I’d really love to see more vermouth long drinks – such as with ginger ale or bitter lemon – but I’m not seeing that gain traction. Yet.”

However, vermouth and tonic has proven a popular serve – for Regal Rogue’s Ward it’s the global serve and Martini’s Vazquez says the simple serve of half Martini and half tonic served with tonic, a slice of orange and ice is currently on-trend across Europe. It also works for Italian bartender Giancarlo Mancino, who recently launched an eponymous brand to challenge vermouths that he felt “lacked depth and charisma”.

Mancino says: “I was I was super-upset that the classic liquid products were going down and down in quality. About eight years ago people started realising that they could not mix any more with the big brands because the weakness of the vermouth was like pouring water into the drink.

“For me it has to be Italian, Spanish or French. It’s the traditions that make the liquid. Some producers are not using Italian wine. They are using botanicals from Thailand, India and Cambodia. If you buy cheap vanilla it’s not going to be very good.”

He adds: “We now push vermouth and tonic. The trend is for lower abv. Consumers want something a bit healthier with less sugar and more wine.”


Duff also sees lower abv as a trend that can only be good for vermouth. “Even a Negroni is lower in alcohol than a Manhattan - but no less a serious cocktail, so it gives a drinker the very best of both worlds.

“In effect a vermouth is already a pre-mixed cocktail-in-a-bottle, and while I don’t see it growing much as a trend, drinking vermouth straight, or over a sphere of ice, is delightful.

“Low-alcohol cocktails, where you either swap the proportions of the strong alcohol and the vermouth, or use the vermouth as the base instead of hard liquor, are growing in popularity, driven by their deliciousness, sessionability, and very high profit margins for a bar. As one beverage director confided in me: ‘Two shots of vermouth is always going to give me a better GP than two shots of whiskey.’”

The food movement and aperitif culture also get some credit, with Ward saying today’s consumers have an appetite for discovery when it comes to flavours. “What’s generating the spread of vermouth is the food movement and a curiosity of taste. The UK is a hybrid of multiple cultures. When we do a masterclass we educate on what the flavours are but emphasise that taste is as unique as a fingerprint. Education around flavours has evolved.”

Martini’s Vazquez concurs: “Globally as a trend we will see a change in the way consumers eat and drink. They are becoming more Italian, eating and drinking well. It’s a fluid occasion. Vermouth is sessionable and refreshing so lends itself perfectly to this.”

And how is until-recently unfashionable vermouth targeting that holy grail of drinks audiences, the millennial consumer?

Duff responds: “Classic vermouth houses such as Martini have responded by making vermouths with a stronger influence of the base wines, inspired by the likes of modern brands such as La Quintinye (a Pineau-des-Charentes base) and Imbue (a Pinot Noir base). This gels very much with millennials’ desire for clean flavours and fundamental tastes, without masking or concealing with the use of flavourings layered over an industrial-wine base, which is the default.

“Vermouths being made specifically to be used in cocktails are a real game-changer and, while a lot of the innovation out there results in vermouth I’d rather not drink myself, all that innovation taken as a whole is bringing vermouth to some very new and exciting places.”

But might some of those places prove too far flung for consumers or were the lessons really learned from vodka’s mistakes? “It’s already happening that it might be going too far with aromatics,” says Ward. “You need to drive home one thing consistently before it sinks in. As a brand we have to get singular with our positioning. People need to understand the foundation before you can get to the funky twist.”

Given that vermouth can contain anything from 20 to 40 botanicals, producing flavours ranging from savoury and earthy to citrus, spice and tropical fruit, there’s surely plenty of opportunity for it to go horribly wrong. but, for now, there’s no rush to start importing that rama lamma lamma ka dinga da dinga dong.