White Hot & Fortified
Blanc vermouth elbows its way in between sweet and dry as a pre-dinner aperitif and modern cocktail component.
Dry is for Martinis, and sweet is for Manhattans. But just what the heck do you do with white vermouth? This style – which may be labeled “blanc,” “bianco” or “white” – dates back almost as far as its more popular (and more frequently stirred) siblings, yet also tends to be the most difficult to understand. But with more bottles on shelves from producers including Carpano, Dolin, Alessio and Cinzano, it’s time to give the pale yellow aromatized wine a peek.
At first glance it may look a little like dry vermouth, but that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. “Ultimately, blanco and dry vermouth are pretty similar at a basic level, but the increased residual sugar and rounder aromatic profile in a blanco really sets it apart,” says Peter Koll, restaurant director at the new Hazel in Washington, D.C., which boasts a robust vermouth program. He goes on to add that the botanicals in dry vermouth tend to be more aggressive and the finish drier; on the flip side, softer, more approachable blanco is a tad more versatile. “The floral botanicals, softer citrus and spice allow it to play well with both light and dark spirits.”
Jake Parrott, national sales manager for Haus Alpenz, which imports Dolin Vermouth, believes that blanco’s “fruity and friendly” style mixes best with clear spirits, including the astringency of gin and the earthiness of Tequila, mezcal and pisco. “In many ways, a good way to ‘prove’ a clear spirit is to mix it with some blanc vermouth, a little lemon juice and soda,” he notes. “This ‘test sling’ is a good way of assessing a spirit’s ability to marry with other flavors in cocktails and express under dilution.”
White vermouth was actually first created in Chambéry, France in the 1880s, either by Dolin or the now defunct Comoz, Eric Seed, principal for Haus Alpenz, points out. (It’s a point of contention among the two companies.) The main botanical is wormwood, it’s generally two to three times sweeter than the dry style, and it was originally served as a Spritz with soda, sliced strawberries, and either a mint sprig or citrus twist. Upton 43 in Minneapolis still serves a blanc vermouth Spritz, the Grapefruit and Cucumber Fizz, and it’s their best-selling drink. (See recipe below.) “[Today], the fear and disdain of vermouth has been replaced by curiosity and acceptance,” Seed says. Indeed.
The type of sweetener that’s also gives a distinct character and distinguishes it from darker-hued sweet. “Bianco vermouth does not use caramelized sugar,” says John Troia, co-founder of Tempus Fugit Spirits, which produces Alessio Vermouth Bianco. “[So] flavors tend to be brighter and range from crisp citrus notes to a more vanilla-forward flavor profile.” This style makes it perfect for drinks like the Negroni Sorbetto, where it’s stirred with Junipero Gin and Luxardo Bitter. (Negroni purists, look away.)
“I really like bianco vermouth as a base ingredient for low alcohol cocktails,” says Scott Mayer, director of brand advocacy and education for Infinium Spirits, which produces Carpano Bianco, who adds that it’s a wonderful aperitif. “I usually drink it on the rocks with a grapefruit twist or in a Collins glass mixed with club soda and a lemon twist.” An aperitif lets the vermouth’s floral and herbal botanicals shine (plus, its low ABV makes it a palate prepper rather than a palate killer before a meal, unlike high test cocktails like the Martini).
“Bianco vermouth has had a very quiet history living in the shadows of dry and sweet vermouths,” says Dave Singh of Palm Bay International and brand manager for Cinzano Vermouth. Now, it’s more than ready for its moment in the sun.
Grapefruit and Cucumber Fizz
Recipe courtesy of Upton 43, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- 4 slices cucumber
- 1 ½ oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth
- ½ oz. fresh sour mix
- Chilled San Pellegrino Grapefruit Soda
Muddle cucumber, add other vermouth and sour mix, add ice and shake until well chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice and top with soda.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.