What is vermouth?

Thanks to a new wave of Australian producers, vermouth is returning to drinks cabinets as the sexy sidepiece in a Martini or simply to enjoy solo, writes sommelier SAMANTHA PAYNE.
Glasses filled with various vermouths.
Glasses filled with various vermouths.
Kristina Soljo

Across the country, a vermouth revolution is stirring (or shaking). Initially, the aromatised fortified wine was introduced to the world as the “tonic for what ails you”. Greek philosopher Hippocrates is credited as the first to macerate botanicals such as wormwood into wine back in 400 BC and both Italy and France have claims on the original – but it’s the Catalans who made it their own, serving the apéritif chilled with a Spritz of soda and a skewered olive. 

More recently, Aussies have been sloshing vermouths in their glasses since the 1970s (mainly in Highballs or very wet Martinis), coming into fashion as a less potent alternative to other fortified wines of that era.

But vermouth doesn’t exist in a vortex; the craft movement that transformed Australian beer and spirits now has the 1970s throwback in its grips. So, where Australians have spent the past 20 years abandoning overly processed large brands (such as Cinzano), we are now developing a taste for premium local apéritifs made with native botanicals.

Today, there are more than 20 Australian vermouth producers compared to 10 years ago, when there were just two; Madenii and Regal Rogue, launched in 2011 and 2012 respectively. And while tradition dictates just two categories of vermouth (sweet red or dry white), the Australians are playing fast and loose with the rules. Embla chef and vermouth maker Dave Verheul from Saison Apéritifs explains: “We’re lucky here in Australia, we have a new world kind of freedom when it comes to breaking from tradition and that is evident when it comes to food and vermouth.”

And while a sole vermouth bar might have been ahead of its time (RIP Sydney’s Banksii), it’s clear our love of vermouth as an apéritif or blended into a cocktail continues to grow.

Here’s an expert’s guide to vermouth, from dry white styles to

Dry white vermouth

Dry White (aka the Martini one) is liberally splashed in a chilled glass for a “wet” version of the classic cocktail or just waived over the top for a “dry” martini. The new trend of serving Martinis on the rocks means these dry white vermouths have a chance to shine with their lemon balm and sage notes. In this country, Maidenii is the OG for vermouth production and still sets the benchmark. Its dry vermouth is truly one for the Martini lovers. It is viognier-based with generous lashings of wormwood, strawberry gum and wattleseed, and no bar is complete without it. All it requires is your choice of chilled gin and a twist of lemon.

Red vermouth

Made with a red wine base, red vermouths are known for their more robust flavours (courtesy of the red wine). This style once erred on the sweeter side but now makers are exploring the merits of subtle savoury notes to add balance to Negronis and Manhattans. An exciting case in point is Regal Rogue’s Bold Red. This red vermouth is a blend of organic shiraz from Orange, New South Wales, and organic un-wooded chardonnay as its base with spicy top notes of native pepperberry, wattleseed and native thyme. Adding other dark spices and dried fruits such as orange, cherry and fig gives an almost Christmas cake quality. An excellent addition to an Aussie Negroni combined with gin, and the aperitif liqueur of your choice, garnished with thyme and orange slices. 

Sweet and semi-sweet vermouth

This is another new vermouth category and speaks to lovers of a Spritz or a lower-alcohol highball. A sweet white vermouth needs no additional spirits to enhance its flavour. Just add ice, top with sparkling water and freshly cut herbs from the garden. At Saison Apéritifs, moscato is the base for all of Dave Verheul’s sweet white vermouths. “I want the base wine to have floral complexity, to be sunny and warm, and to have a high residual sugar so that it doesn’t require a lot of sweetening, if any.” The choice is a natural fit for its 2023 Summer Flowers release, which blends the wine with wild-picked and biodynamically farmed marigold, rose geranium, elderflower, and chamomile to enhance the floral aromatics of the moscato. Summer Flowers and other sweet white vermouths are best served solo over ice or in an Americano with a splash of soda, bitter orange liqueur, and a large orange wedge.

Amber and rosé vermouth

This new category for vermouth lovers breaks all the rules. Innovative makers include 78 Degrees Distillery in Adelaide Hills who blend McLaren Vale chenin blanc with shiraz to create a blush pink-coloured rosé vermouth. The result is a fruity style which sees fruits of the forest meet finger limes, that is perfect over ice with fresh finger lime pulp. Over in Victoria’s Yea Valley Philip Lobley Wines used a skin-contact sauvignon blanc to create its amber style, which explodes with cumquat, bitter pink grapefruit characters, and aromatic florals. Add your favourite grapefruit soda in a tall glass and sip while watching the sunset; light jazz in the background is not compulsory but highly recommended. 

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