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Anyone that has been following my series on Martini Gadgets will realise I have a passion for this mixture of gin and vermouth. As gin has become increasingly popular, a wide array of gin tastings have taken place, held in London, Manchester and Oxford, to name but a few. But what about the vermouth? When a cocktail only has two ingredients, even the lesser partner is a crucial component.
Vermouth is an automatized wine. The flavour is determined by “appropriate derived substances” (e.g. seeds, herbs, spices, roots) and there is no prescribed combination of these, with the one exception that a Vermouth must contain an Artemisia (such as wormwood). Vermouth can be sweetened, but only with caramelized sugar, sucrose or grape must.
Typically there are three main types of vermouth:
Red: A sweet style that is coloured with either caramel or herbs. Often drunk as an aperitif or in cocktails such as the Manhattan and Martinez (both potential ancestors of the Martini).
White: A sweet style based on white wine.
Dry: A dry style, also based on white wine and synonymous with the modern Martini.
Two more styles seem to be growing increasingly popular: Rose Vermouth and Orange/Ambre Vermouth.
All of the vermouths in our tasting were tried on their own and then we tried our top ten in a Dry Martini.
Dry Martini Details
#1) Martini Extra Dry (Italy) (15%)
A very familiar product to most and synonymous with its namesake cocktail.
Own: On the nose, there is a little pistachio and wet slate. This is quite dry; probably one of the driest we tried. It was quite simple and rather tart.
Martini: Pretty good, a classic drink. It’s a popular brand, readily available and makes a decent drink. This is an excellent fall-back when it’s difficult to get hold of some of the more obscure varieties.
Martini Extra Dry is available from most supermarkets and off-licences for around £8 (75cl).
#2) Noilly Prat Dry (France) (18%)
Own: A very fruity nose with a hint of nail polish. Great scents of honey and blossom, and the slightest hint of salt. One panelist likened the nose to that of a good muscat. Noilly Prat has depth of flavours and is quite complex. There is some jamminess, akin to an apricot preserve, and there is a pleasant warmth at the end. Very popular with the panelists.
Martini: A truly classic Martini and exactly what I would expect when ordering a Dry Martini. Excellent balance between gin and vermouth, with just enough herbal flavours to complement the gin without overpowering it. Cool, clean and crisp.
Available from Waitrose around £10 for 75cl.
#3) Filipetti Extra Dry Vermouth (Italy) (14.8%)
Perlino also make a Blanco and a sweet vermouth, as well as Martelletti, a Classico Vermouth.
Own: Dry; exactly what you’d expect from dry vermouth. Some floral aspects like a good muscat. Well balanced with hints of honey and cinnamon. Very pleasant.
Martini: In the proportions of 5:1, this made the wettest Martini of those that we tried. The dry and slightly fruity flavours have a strong presence in the cocktail and, if you like only a whisp of Vermouth flavour in your Martini, this is worth a look.
#4) Dolin Chamberry Dry Vermouth (France) (17.5%)
Made in Chambery, near the French-Swiss border, this has a wine content of 75-80%, which is notably higher than some of its competitors. Dolin also make a Blanco and a Rosso vermouth.
Own: A musky, tropical nose with notes of passionfruit and guava. Soft flavours, well-rounded, simple and neat. This would make an excellent aperitif and has a lovely aftertaste. A couple of panelists likened it to a dry sherry. Another popular vermouth amongst our panel.
Martini: Exceptionally clean, with a slightly warm texture. Strong, but not overpowering flavours of Juniper and Angelica, a balanced bitterness and a touch of cinnamon. The vermouth compliments SW4 well.
Available from Waitrose around £8 for 75cl.
#5) Stock (Italy) (16%)
Made by the Stock Spirit Company, whose biggest markets are in Italy and Slovenia, Stock is made with Italian Table Wine and Italian Brandy and is infused with more than 50 herbs & spices. They also make a Blanco and a Rosso vermouth, in addition to a very tasty Maraschino.
This has a superb, fresh leafy green flavour and was a favourite of one of the panel. It made a very flavourful Martini whilst still maintaining the underlying characteristics of a Dry Martini.
#6) Cinzano (Italy) (15%)
Founded in 1757 in Turin, Cinzano is owned by Gruppo Campari. Cinzano has a Classic range, comprising of a Dry, Red, White and Rosé varieties, and a Mediterranean range: Limetto and Orancio, which are vermouths with twists of orange and lemon (somewhat akin to the old Martini Limon).
Own: A fruity nose, akin to a house white wine, with some peach notes. It tastes like sweet grape juice and is not very dry, as vermouths go. The taste is much better than the smell, but the panel was left unimpressed.
Martini: Quite a basic Martini; pretty good, but lacks the depth and crispness of some of the others.
Available from Waitrose around £5 for 75cl.
#7) Vya (USA) (17%)
Made in Madera, California, Vya was made in response to an increasing number of premium gins making their way into the market; the idea being that, if you’re spending $30 on a gin, does it make sense to then mix it with a $6 vermouth? They also make a sweet variety of their premium vermouth.
Own: Vya had a nose reminiscent of fresh vegetation: cabbage or pea pods. The panel disagreed on their opinion of the taste: some enjoyed its definitive flavours, which were fresh and bright with hints of cloves and liquorice, whereas others found it exceptionally bitter and overpowering.
Martini: Cool and flavoursome with hint of cinnamon and spice, followed by a lightly bitter edge at the end. Complex and slips down the throat very easily, moving toward the intense flavours of the home-made vermouth.
Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £16 for 75cl.
#8) Top Shelf (UK)
This is based on a flavouring syrup produced by home-brew specialist Still Spirits. They suggest mixing it with either vodka or wine, so we decided to try both versions.
i) Wine-based (14.7%) – This had a nose of moth balls; slightly sherberty. Very sour, very dry, a bit like cordial. Watching the physical recoil of people as they tasted it was very interesting. As a result, this is not recommended, although it should be noted that mixing the syrup with a better quality wine would probably improve the results.
ii) Vodka-based (Sipsmith) (16%) – With a nose of moth balls and lavender perfume, this reminded one of the panel of their great aunt. The taste is much better than the wine version, being sweet with hints of creamy vanilla, although some of this obviously came from the vodka. Not so dry and closer to a Sweet Bianco than a Dry vermouth, this was nonetheless quite palatable and had an interesting a hint of Christmas spice.
Top Shelf Dry Vermouth Flavourings is available here for £2.29 for 50ml (One 50ml bottle makes up to 1.125 litres of Dry Vermouth.)
#10) Berlino (UK) (13%)
Berlino is produced and bottled by Continental Wine and Food (CWF), who are based in Huddersfield. Although it looks a lot like vermouth, it is in fact billed as “Extra Dry Aperitif”, made from the “finest quality concentrated grape juice, herbs and spices.”
Own: There were various cries of disgust at the smell of this; “wet dog” and “drains” were among two of the more polite comments. It had very little flavour and was rather watery, but did have a sharp, bitter finish. This was the least popular of the varieties we tried. At £3.20 a bottle it may look like a cheap alternative, but it would be a false economy.
Belrino is available from Tesco for around £3.20 for 70cl.
#11) Home-made (UK)
Own: Fresh, with a slightly meaty nose, one panelist likened it to hotdogs (in a most positive way). Another comment stated that it was reminiscent of a German Christmas market, with mulled wine, stollen and bratwurst. The taste was rather savoury and quite heavy on cloves, with some hints of anise and angelica too. Without a doubt, it had very intense flavours, but was also very good. If you’ve never tried making your own vermouth, I highly recommend it.
Martini: Very popular with the panel, this was jam-packed with flavour. This vermouth may not produce your typical, very clean, very crisp Martini, but it is an excellent drink nonetheless and, if you like a wetter, more flavourful Martini, then this is definitely worth trying. Cloves and Christmas spice come through, but complement the gin well.
#12) Lillet Blanc (17%)
Own: A very light and subtle nose of white grape, grass and dried flowers. Sweeter than expected, this was less complex and thinner than the Jean de Lillet, but, served cold, it is an excellent aperitif and an all-round good product.
Martini: A soft Martini that was less herbal than normal. Simple flavours, less bite and some subtle citrus. Smooth and delicate, and rounds off the gin nicely.
Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £15 for 75cl.
#13) Jean de Lillet
Own: Strong, savoury nose; fresh and very appetising. The taste is quite sweet, with overtones of honey, blossom, apple, pear and peach. It’s a little buttery and reminiscent of a quality Sauternes. This was really very, very good and there would be little danger of it oxidising before the bottle was finished. It had a finish of apricot stones, apple and almond.
Martini: A rich and flavourful Martini, this does make a truly excellent drink, but for my money I’d rather drink it neat. We also tried it in a Vesper as a substitute for Kina Lillet and the drink certainly had a more bitter edge and was pleasant golden yellow, although perhaps not quite sweet enough.
#14) Gancia Bianco (14.8%)
Own: The nose of Gancia Bianco had hints of sloe gin and lemonade. Floral and herbal. The taste is very pleasant and was a very nice surprise: it was a little syrupy, like mead. It also had a finish of lemon pith, which counteracts the sweetness well.
Martini: A very flavourful Martini and not too sweet. I’d never really thought of using Bianco vermouth in many cocktails, but in a Martini it worked well; nice for a change.
Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £12 for 75cl.
#15) Martini Gold (Italy) (18%)
Own: Very floral on the nose, with hints of tea, lavender and Bergamot. The taste is quite smooth and sweet, but has an underlying bitterness akin to Campari or Suze. Quite a long finish, with the saffron coming through. Very much a departure from their traditional range, but a product with potential.
Martini: On the face of it, this is a pretty standard martini – cool and crisp – but there is definitely a more bitter finish than usual, with herbs and spice and the hint of saffron, which works well with the bitter elements. It’s like you’ve made a martini half with vermouth, half with a bitter apertif.
Available from The Whisky Exchange for around £21 for 75cl.
From our tasting, it is clear that the vermouth you choose for your Martinis can have a big impact on the drink and so it’s a decision worth some consideration. It’s also clear that vermouth is something that is more versatile than I had previously thought: its merits extend beyond its use in Martinis and that, by over-looking Bianco/White vermouth, I’ve been missing out; definitely something to look into.
Special Recommendation: Jean de Lillet
A special thanks to Pernod Ricard, Bacardi-Martini, Lillet, Marblehead, Speciality Brands, Vya, Perlino, Stock Spirits Interntional, Imbue and Graphic Bar for their support in this tasting.
Thanks also to SW4 Gin for providing the Gin for our Martinis.