There are many things you don’t really need to make yourself. You don’t need to make your own furniture, or jewelry, or cheese. But, sometimes these things are fun and challenging to make, so you choose to make them yourself in spite of the fact, or perhaps precisely because of the fact, that you don’t need to.
For me, vermouth falls into this category. My favorite vermouth is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. It’s a sweet (sometimes known as red or rosso) vermouth, and I love it. It’s perfect just as it is. Buuuuut, that hasn’t stopped me from tinkering, and tinkering, and tinkering some more in an attempt to make a vermouth myself that I like just as much (or, at least, almost as much). It seemed like a fun challenge.
Vermouth is aromatized, fortified wine. That is, wine that has been infused with herbs and spices (aromatized) and has had a higher-proof spirit added to it (fortified). Sweet vermouth also has caramelized sugar added to it. It was likely originally a way of taking wine that was not very good—or was getting past its prime—and covering up the off flavors. Additionally, the higher proof helps the wine keep longer before becoming completely oxidized.
So, I surmised, vermouth was something you could make at home to save sub-par wine—and there are no particularly fancy techniques and equipment involved in making it. Obviously, this meant I may as well try to make my own. The internet doesn’t precisely abound in DIY vermouth recipes, but they are certainly out there, and I think I’ve tried nearly all of the recipes a simple search turned up. And I haven’t liked any of them. But they gave me ideas, understanding, and a base from which to experiment.
Here are some of the important points I’ve learned in my journey towards making a vermouth I like:
1. Even though vermouth is not meant to start from good wine, you will taste the wine that’s in there, so don’t start with a wine you really don’t like. I tried making a couple of batches to use up some bottles of white wine that I didn’t like because I tasted fermentation flaws in the wine. I still tasted those in the vermouth, and it made it disgusting. Vermouth is usually made from dry white wine, and I like to use one that doesn’t have super fruity notes. Cheap, but not terrible, Pinot Grigio has become my go-to.
2. Don’t go overboard on the herbs and spices. It turns out a little goes a long way. Many recipes for vermouth call for too-large of quantities of many potent herbs, and the resulting vermouth feels like an apothecary is trying to punch you in the mouth. Of course, this makes it hard to make small batches of vermouth because for a single bottle of wine you might be measuring things in 1/12th teaspoons or a couple of grams. It’s annoying, but it’s doable.
3. Vermouth is supposed to have one or more bittering agents, including wormwood (from which vermouth gets its name) as well as other options like cinchona bark, gentian, dandelion root, or burdock root. Again, be very careful with how much you use, especially with gentian, which is potently bitter. I have had the best luck with using half as much (or less) gentian than most recipes seem to call for.
Some traditional recipes for vermouth call for really unusual herbs. You can find many of them from online sources, at Mountain Rose Herbs, for example. But be forewarned, if you start Googling and clicking without paying adequate attention, you might accidentally find yourself on a web forum for aspiring witches. (At least, that is what happened to me when I went searching for what mugwort was.) I haven’t included mugwort (nor some of the other obscure things, like blessed thistle, calamus, or centaury) in my own recipe.
4. There are several ways of steeping the herbs in your vermouth. You can steep them in the higher proof alcohol for a week. You can steep them in your wine for a week or two. Or you can heat some of your wine, steep the herbs in the hot wine, then add the rest of your alcohol, allow everything to cool, and then strain. I have found I like this hot steeping method best. There’s less over-extraction of the herbs, plus you get more instant gratification.
5. Adding some sherry or port helps give your vermouth the signature fortified wine flavor that you can’t get just by spiking regular wine (because the ingredients don’t get to age together in a barrel).
After learning all of these things, I have finally come to a sweet vermouth recipe that I really like quite well. It’s still no Cocchi di Torino, but it makes an excellent Manhattan or aperitif to drink over ice. Now, this has a pretty long list of ingredients, and I have a completely unfair advantage because I own a distillery and therefore have things like wormwood and angelica on hand. But once you procure the herbs, the rest of the process is pretty easy. If it sounds at all fun to you, give it a try!
Emily's DIY Sweet Vermouth
Makes about 4 to 5 cups
- 1 (750 ml) bottle dry white wine (I use pinot grigio)
- 1/2 teaspoon wormwood
- 1/6 teaspoon gentian root
- 1/12 teaspoon angelica root
- 1/12 teaspoon chamomile
- 1/3 inch piece of vanilla bean
- 1/3 tablespoon orange peel
- 3 rosemary leaves (like, the actual little leaves, not whole sprigs)
- 1 sage leaf
- 1 basil leaf
- 1/4 teaspoon thyme
- 1 cup tawny port
- 1 cup brandy
- 1 cup scant (about 9/10ths cup) sugar