Manhattan Month Cocktail Basics: Vermouth
The Short Version: The choice of vermouth for your Manhattan is as important as your choice of whiskey. Vermouth adds a tremendous level of dimension and flavor to the cocktail, and can vary significantly between producers. When choosing your vermouth, look for something that imparts balanced levels of bitterness, sweetness and flavors which complement the cocktail. A great place to start is with a vermouth who’s most pronounced flavors pair well with that of your chosen whiskey. Flavors found in both ryes and bourbons integrate well with the baking spices of Vya Sweet Vermouth, making it a great place to start. As always, explore your options and find one that you enjoy the most.
Few will argue that when it comes to the Manhattan cocktail, the whiskey is often the star of the show. Choosing the ideal whiskey for your Manhattan is a great place to start and will go a long way in laying the foundation for the drink. But never assume that a great whiskey is all that you need.
Vermouth is the second most voluminous ingredient in your Manhattan and is even matched in proportion if you’re making a 50:50 Manhattan (which we highly recommend trying). Vermouth in itself is complex and packed with interesting flavors and aromas. For our Vya Sweet Vermouth specifically, we infuse over 17 different spices and botanicals, which add layers upon layers over the already flavorful base wine. There are dozens of vermouths to choose from, and they all deserve as much care in selecting as does your choice of whiskey.
What exactly is vermouth? First and foremost, it’s a wine. It’s then fortified (high-proof alcohol or brandy is added to the base wine). Unlike other fortified wines like dessert wines and ports, vermouth is then infused with the producer’s choice of herbs, spices and botanicals. Think of this infusion like a giant teabag which is steeped in the wine for a desired amount of time, imparting all of the characteristics of the plants into the base wine. There are a number of plants which can be more commonly used across any number of vermouths. For example, wormwood is always used in sweet/red European vermouths, and is even required in order for it to be considered a vermouth (this is not the case in the US). Aside from wormwood and a handful of others, there are hundreds of lesser known and more exotic ingredients to choose from. Beyond the simple yet not so simple selection of which ingredients to choose, the producer must then determine how much of each plant to add, how long to steep it for, and the quality/origin of the plant itself. It’s a lot to consider…
Like whiskey, vermouth has an extremely rich history. Its origins date as far back as millenniums but its most referenced and celebrated evolution occurred in and around the 1700’s. Before then, vermouth was produced for its medicinal purposes. People would often use a wine of lesser quality, because why would you ruin a good wine by infusing it with bitter medicinal herbs? However, around the 18th century, people began to realize vermouth’s potential beyond just being a foul tasting medicine. They now sought to develop it into a drink which could deliver rich, deep, and enjoyable flavors. From there, vermouth transformed from something you only drank when your health demanded it into something people would actually WANT to drink.
In a Manhattan, you’re looking for a vermouth that imparts balanced levels of bitterness, sweetness and a depth of flavors which complement the cocktail. It’s also important to note that as Andrew Quady put during last Manhattan Month, “Most of the bitterness in a Manhattan comes from the vermouth, not the bitters.” As always, your choice of vermouth should first be determined by simply what you like most, regardless of what others say about which is best. But there are plenty of worth while suggestions out there as to what flavors you’re looking for when pairing vermouth and whiskey. A great place to start is with a vermouth who’s most pronounced flavors pair well with that of your chosen whiskey. As mentioned in our previous blog, flavors found in various rye whiskies often include clove and nutmeg, which are also present in Vya Sweet Vermouth, so they tend to complement each other nicely. The vanillas and oak found in both bourbons and ryes also pair wonderfully with the various holiday spices in our Vya Sweet, spices like cinnamon. There’s a reason why we say Vya Sweet Vermouth is the perfect vermouth to start with in experimenting with Manhattans, and it’s not just because we make it ourselves! In fact, Tastings.com World Cocktail Championship awarded Vya Sweet Vermouth as the best vermouth for Manhattans in 2018.
We encourage you to get out there and experiment with what the vermouth world has to offer. Play around with how various whiskies and vermouths interact with one another, and which ratios give you the most balanced yet expressive experience to your liking. If you’re just starting out, or haven’t tried Vya Sweet Vermouth in your manhattans, we encourage you to give it a try and let us know what you think!
Cheers! And be sure to check out www.manhattanmonth.com for more on October’s tastiest celebration.