Vermouth: Sweet or dry, LCBO’s narrow selection makes some aficionados bitter

Vermouth is the bestselling aperitif on LCBO shelves. And the ‘pretty abysmal’ selection is about to get better.

An ad for Martini & Rossi vermouth appearing in a July 1963 issue of Playboy Magazine asks: “What makes a Manhattan? Not more or less vermouth — but a really fine vermouth.”

Vermouth, an aromatic wine infused with brandy and various botanicals, was popular at the height of 1960s cocktail culture and is currently the bestselling aperitif on LCBO shelves.

But mixologists and sommeliers are clamouring for the province’s liquor regulator to offer other recognized brands cherished by North America’s vibrant cocktail scene, such as Dolin, Carpano and Cocchi.

“The tastes, fragrances and bitter notes really change from brand to brand,” says sommelier Joseph Cassidy of Via Allegro Ristorante.

The public should be educated on the nuances of vermouth, a task that should fall in the hands of the LCBO, he says. “People in Ontario view vermouth as very generic. They rarely ask for it by brand name unless they come from Italy.”

The LCBO does recognize this revived appetite for aperitifs such as vermouth, says media relations co-ordinator Heather MacGregor. “Most vermouths in stock are doing well against sales targets, but there will be no increase to shelf space for this product.” Currently available are sweet and dry variations from Martini & Rossi and Stock, sweet from Cinzano and dry from Noilly Prat.

This year, the LCBO plans to add to the selection by reviewing new tenders for white dry vermouth, adds MacGregor in an email.

Jen Agg, owner of Cocktail Bar on Dundas St. W., would be pleased with any additions, calling the current offerings by the 86-year old guardian of provincial liquor sales “pretty abysmal. They sell well because they’re the only option. If that’s all you offer, of course it will do well.”

The LCBO is fairly slow to respond to niche markets, she adds. “They are interested in making money. They’re a business, so they respond to the masses.” Because of this, Agg, who also owns the Black Hoof restaurant across the street, says the public would be better served if laws allowed for the existence of specialty spirit and wine stores — one that could specialize in bourbon, another in Pinot Noir. Sipping a Manhattan, she jokes: “They don’t need to be so specific, but a bartender store where you could buy all the vermouth you need would be ideal.”

Thanks to private dealers — all under the auspices of the LCBO — local bars have access to a wider variety of vermouths unavailable on the LCBO’s shelves. The Manhattan at Cocktail Bar, balanced out with five millilitres of house bitters, calls for 7/8 of an ounce of Carpano Antica Formula, a robust, high-end sweet vermouth with touches of oak that elevates the spiciness of the rye — the Manhattan’s partner-in-crime — in this case Alberta Springs 10 year.

But Carpano Antica Formula might not work in every drink. “In a Negroni, it was overpowering,” says Agg, tempering the gin-based drink with a blend of Antica Formula and Dolin, a French vermouth producer which offers both sweet and dry varieties.

Until brands such as Carpano, Dolin and Cocchi appear next to LCBO stalwarts Martini & Rossi, Noilly Prat or Cinzano, the public can still order imported vermouths through an agent like the one Agg and other cocktail bars use. But quantity is the issue: “You have to order by the case-load, so unless you go in on it with friends, it’s pretty pricey.”
North American wineries have also ventured into the world of botanical-infused spirits. The Magnotta winery in Ontario produces a sweet rosso vermouth with hints of clove, as well as bianco and secco varieties, available through their stores in the GTA, and online or by phone for delivery by post.

Quady Winery in Madera, Calif., which specializes in aperitifs and dessert wines, offers sweet, extra dry and whisper dry varieties of its Vya brand.

Cassidy speaks highly of Atsby New York’s small-batch dry vermouth. “It’s quite delicious. You’ll find that in the new world, they use a different grape. Generally a chardonnay is the base. It is a much lighter product,” he says. “Fruit-heavy, less roots, more of a light-gin, something that is dry.”

Whether your home stock consists of Cinzano or Dolin, both Cassidy and Agg offer the same advice: Enjoy it swiftly, because vermouth, like any wine, will spoil. “If you’re not drinking it at a fairly regular rate, it can go bad within a few weeks,” Agg says. “Just keep it in the fridge, tightly closed. It might last you a few months, but it certainly won’t be as fresh as when you first opened it.”

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