I’d been told I just had to try the house-made sweet vermouth at a trendy Italian spot on a recent trip to California. Not one to ignore a recommendation from a friend with trustworthy taste buds, I obliged. He was right! The icy glass of the slightly bitter, oh-so-refreshing herbal aperitif was a total, delightful, surprise.Once I arrived home, the only store-bought vermouth I could find was cloying with a synthetic floral aftertaste, nothing like the complex bitter flavors I’d enjoyed many months ago. To recreate that classic Italian libation—a fortified wine flavored with bitter and aromatic herbs—I’d have to make it myself! I quickly found there wasn’t just one way to craft sweet vermouth. Yet the single constant among all the recipes I unearthed was wormwood. The leaves of this bitter herb are most famously used to make absinthe, but it’s also an important component of vermouth.
After lots of experimentation, I came up with two recipes that were easy and delectable—a quick method that uses heat to help the herbs infuse faster, and a slower method that’s similar to making a tincture—with the addition of wine.
As with most things in life, the slower method will produce a better finished product. But the quick method is great if you need vermouth in a hurry, and it is so much tastier than anything you can find at the store. Note: all herbs used in the vermouth recipe should be dried.
- 1 tsp. organic wormwood
- 1/2 tsp. organic gentian root
- 1/2 tsp. organic chamomile flowers
- 1/2 tsp. organic juniper berries
- 1/2 – 1 whole organic vanilla bean
- 1 organic star anise pod
- 1/4 tsp. organic sage
- 2 tsp. dried organic orange peel
- 4 organic cardamom pods
- 1/2 tsp. organic coriander seeds
- 1 bottle (750 ml) light white wine (such as Pinot Gris)
- 1 cup sherry (Cream sherry if making a sweet vermouth; Fino sherry if making a dry vermouth)
- Put all herbs into a stockpot and add the wine.
- Bring to a boil. Watch closely to ensure it doesn’t boil too long!
- As soon as it comes to a boil, remove from heat and add the sherry.
- Place the stockpot in a cool, dark, dry place overnight to cool and infuse.
- The next day, taste. If you’d like more botanical flavor to shine through, keep infusing for a bit longer before straining. If it’s to your liking, strain the mixture using a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer to catch the fine bits of wormwood and other small herbs.
- Refrigerate or store in cool, dark, dry place. It should keep for a very long time (I’ve had mine for 6 months in my pantry, and it’s still delicious!)
My local liquor monger shared a tale about vermouth’s original recipe: Italian families would venture into the hills to gather wild bitter herbs. Upon returning home, they would infuse them in a white wine fortified with something like our modern-day vodka, the higher alcohol content of the spirit pulled out the herbs’ healthful properties. This was then sweetened with honey to make it palatable and enjoyed before a meal. Here’s my attempt at this more traditional method, minus the wildcrafting!
- Same herbs and wine as recipe above
- Swap sherry from recipe above for 1 cup high-quality organic vodka such as this one, crafted in small batches by a nearby family-run micro-distillery
- 1-2 Tbsp. simple syrup (if making sweet vermouth)
- Place herbs in large glass jar and top with the vodka.
- Let sit one day, then add white wine.
- Let sit one more day, then taste. If the liquid is to your liking, move onto the next step. If not, continue to let herbs infuse, checking for flavor daily.
- Strain the mixture using a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer.
- If making sweet vermouth, add simple syrup to taste.
- Refrigerate or store in cool, dark, dry place.
What Do You Do With Vermouth?
Vermouth is surprisingly versatile! It’s actually wonderful in cooking, especially when making complex sauces. For a simple beverage, serve it on the rocks with a twist of citrus like I had at that trendy Italian restaurant on my travels, and for a celebratory drink, mix up a Vermouth Champagne Cocktail. Or try it in these other classic cocktails:
- Sweet Vermouth: Manhattan, Negroni, Rob Roy
- Dry Vermouth: Martini, Brooklyn, Gibson
This concoction is a play on the popular gin-based Negroni. It's technically called “Negroni sbagliato,” which I’m told means “messed up Negroni” in Italian. Bartending lore says it was created accidentally by a careless barkeep. Accident or not, it’s delicious, easy to make, and its gorgeous reddish hue is a true crowd pleaser!
- 1 oz. organic gin; such as this one, crafted in small batches by a nearby family-run micro-distillery
- 1 oz. dry or sweet vermouth
- 1 oz. Campari
- Champagne or other sparking white wine
- Fresh organic citrus peel for garnish (I loved it with Meyer lemon)
- Place first three ingredients into a champagne flute.
- Fill flute with sparkling wine.
- Rub citrus peel, pith side down, on glass rim. Place into glass. (Or you can garnish with a citrus wedge instead, as pictured.)