Definition and production

Summary :

Vermouth is a pre-dinner drink made from wine fortified with a spirit that is then flavoured with an infusion of herbs and spices. Some European vermouths have been awarded ‘protected designation of origin’ status.

  • Des fûts de Noilly Prat en cours de vieillissement © Rudolph Simon
  • Americano, cocktail à base de vermouth © Nicholas Sikorski

Definition

Vermouth is not a spirit. It is made from a wine fortified with a spirit that is then flavoured with an infusion of plants (absinthe wormwood), peel, seeds, leaves, flowers and/or citrus fruit zest. Its sugar content varies, as does its colour, which can be enhanced using caramel. Vermouth generally contains between 14.5% and 22% ABV.

Vermouth, step-by-step

Vermouth is made in three key stages.

Step 1 – Preparing the wine

The quality of the vermouth depends on the selected wine. The vast majority of vermouths are made from wines that:

  • are aromatically neutral,
  • have low alcohol content,
  • are made from a blend of several different grape varieties.

In France, the selected grape varieties are generally located in the Gers region (Clairette, Colombard, Picquepoul, Ugni Blanc, Muscat, etc.). Noilly Prat uses a blend of Clairette and Picquepoul to make its vermouths. 
In Italy, the wines are mainly sourced from Piedmont and Pouillesoude (Sicily). The main varieties used are Muscat (for Carpano vermouths among others) and Trebbiano (Cinzano vermouths).
Whether sweet or dry, vermouth is made from white wine aged between 2 to 3 years. It is fortified with alcohol or mistelle (fresh grape juice mixed with alcohol) to 18% ABV.


Step 2 – The addition of herbs and spices and extraction of aromas

Roots, seeds, herbs, flowers, peel, leaves, zest - as with gin, the choice and proportions of herbs used play a key role in the ultimate character of the vermouth. These two alcohols use the same flavouring extraction methods (by maceration, infusion or distillation). The flavourings are then mixed with the wine.
Almost a hundred different herbs and spices have been used in vermouth, with each recipe containing up to 30. The most common are: coriander, bitter orange, angelica, clove, cinnamon, absinthe, gentian, elderberry, cardamom, anise, vanilla, cinchona bark, iris, marjoram, camomile and sage.


Step 3 – Final adjustments before bottling

The blend’s resulting sugar content can be adjusted by adding cane sugar (white vermouth) or caramel (red vermouth). The liquid is then carefully mixed to ensure all of the vermouth’s various ingredients are thoroughly integrated.
Manufacturers may then decide to proceed with a final ‘marriage’ stage in oak casks: the vermouth is left to rest for 5 to 6 months in casks with the bunghole left open to encourage contact with oxygen.