A Negroni Cocktail in a glass, served with orange slices

In the 20th century’s middle decades, no cocktail bar or domestic drinks trolley was complete without a selection of vermouths, always including a sweet vermouth from France or Italy. Vermouth from producers such as Cinzano, Noilly Prat, and Martini and Rossi were huge sellers. Towards the end of the century, vermouth suffered a decline in popularity, but its fortunes have revived in recent years. 

Vermouth in all its variants—sweet white vermouth, rosso (red) vermouth, and dry vermouth—is embraced as a key cocktail ingredient for its ability to provide bitterness, sweetness, and acidity. Today, in addition to traditional Old World vermouths, cocktail enthusiasts and those searching for a tasty aperitif can choose from a wide variety of New World artisanal sweet vermouths from the U.S., Australia, and South Africa. 

What is Sweet Vermouth? 

Sweet vermouth is a sweet, aromatized, fortified wine. Fortification is the addition of a distilled spirit to the base wine, typically before fermentation has been completed. Aromatization adds macerated herbs, spices, fruits, and other ingredients to give different vermouths unique flavors. 

Vermouth’s base wine is made from a neutral grape, such as Moscato, Colmbard, or Malvasia. The fortifying spirit is conventionally a neutral grape-based spirit, usually unaged brandy. The distilled spirit stops fermentation and leaves the resulting wine sweeter with a higher alcohol content.

The base wine is usually white, even in the case of sweet vermouth, which is often dark red. This red sweet vermouth, also known as rossi vermouth or Italian vermouth, is colored by its flavorings and the addition of caramelized sugar. Sweet vermouth can include up to 15% sugar. In the past, white vermouths, often known as French vermouths,  were always dry, with less than 5% sugar. However,  producers later introduced sweet white vermouths labeled bianco or blanc vermouth. 

Aromatization accounts for the diverse flavors of vermouths from different regions and producers. Before the herb and spice flavors are added to the wine, the botanicals are soaked in alcohol (macerated), further increasing the alcohol content of the finished vermouth. 

Sweet vermouths may include a huge range of ingredients, depending on the desired flavor profile. Historically, vermouth’s dominant flavor was contributed by a plant in the Artemisia family known as wormwood—vermouth gets its name from wermut, the German for wormwood. Many European vermouths still use wormwood in significant proportions, but vermouth produced for sale in other regions, particularly the U.S.,  use minimal quantities of wormwood or substitute alternative flavors. 

Other common botanical ingredients include anise, cardamom, cloves, elderflower, gentian, ginger, lavender, orris root, saffron, and many more. In mass-produced vermouths, the ingredients are macerated together, but modern artisanal vermouth producers may macerate each ingredient individually to ensure the perfect extraction. 

What Does Sweet Vermouth Taste Like? 

Sweet vermouth is a slightly sweet, medium-bodied fortified wine. In contrast to dry vermouth, which is lighter-bodied,  sweet vermouth typically has more tannins alongside its vanilla and caramel flavors. Rossi sweet vermouths generally contain more bitter-flavored botanical ingredients than sweet white bianco or blanc vermouths.

As you can see from the list of ingredients in the previous section, sweet vermouth’s flavor can vary enormously, depending on the mix of herbs, spices, and fruits the producer chooses. Experimenting with different types and brands is often the best way to find the perfect sweet vermouth for your tastes. 

What is Sweet Vermouth Used For? 

Vermouth was initially developed in Italy as an aperitif, an alcoholic beverage taken before meals to stimulate the appetite. It is still drunk as an aperitif, but vermouth’s main claim to fame is as a cocktail ingredient. The best-known vermouth-containing cocktail is the Martini, which mixes chilled gin with a splash of vermouth. Cocktail classicists will insist on dry vermouth, but cocktail rules are made to be broken and if a Martini with sweet vermouth tickles your taste buds, go for it. 

Cocktails that are traditionally made with sweet vermouth include:

  • The Negroni: Gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari. 
  • The Americano: Campari, sweet vermouth, and soda water. 
  • The Manhatten: Whiskey, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. 

Does Sweet Vermouth Have Alcohol? 

Yes, sweet vermouth is a fortified wine. As such, it contains more alcohol than non-fortified wine, although less than spirits and many liqueurs. Vermouth typically contains between 16% and 18% alcohol by volume, although it may have more or less depending on the production process.  

Is Vermouth a Liqueur?

Vermouth is a fortified wine, not a liqueur, although there are some similarities—both are flavored with sugar, herbs, spices, and fruits. However, liqueurs are spirit-based drinks; the botanicals are added to a base spirit, often unaged brandy. In contrast, vermouths are aromatized wines; the botanicals are macerated in alcohol and then added to a base wine into which a quantity of spirit alcohol is mixed during the fortification process. 

Can You Drink Sweet Vermouth Straight? 

You can drink sweet vermouth straight. In fact, that’s how people originally drank it. Vermouth was created as an aperitif to be drunk before a meal. It was only in later years that it began to be used primarily as a cocktail ingredient. Sweet vermouth is still popular as an aperitif in many parts of Europe.  

Does Sweet Vermouth Go Bad? 

Historically, wine was fortified because the extra alcohol helped it last longer than unfortified wine. But vermouth remains a wine at heart and does not keep for as long as spirits and other high-alcohol beverages. To keep sweet vermouth in top condition, the bottle should be sealed after use and ideally kept in a fridge. It will keep even better if you can remove oxygen from the bottle with a vacuum pump, just as you would an opened bottle of wine.