These days, it seems as if every bar and home bartender were making infusions. The ultimate neutral palate, vodka is a natural place to start. Rum’s warmth lends itself to some flavors. Tequila takes kindly to spice. But hard liquor isn’t the only route to cocktails or infusions. Low-alcohol, nuanced, and adaptable, vermouths are infusion-friendly. Like wines, beers, and liquors, they work well in the kitchen. Infuse them, and they bring crafty elegance to cocktails, desserts, and entrees.
While red vermouths are deep, rich, and flavorful, the subtlety of white vermouths makes them an excellent starting point for exploring infusions with fortified wine.
White vermouths are not like triplets or quintuplets. From vines to botanicals, each house has its jealously guarded recipes, and each white vermouth has a distinctive flavor profile. Get to know the basics, and it’s easy to build on them.
A bartender favorite, Dolin Dry is crisp, dry, and light. That doesn’t mean it’s simple. Dolin’s as Alpine as a skier’s dream. There are more than 50 botanicals in that bottle, with chinchona, chamomile, and wormwood among them. Let it sit with sliced cucumbers and yellow peppers to bring out its clean vegetal flavors. When the pepper and cucumber are becoming clear, add a hit of anise or thyme, or a thin slice of fennel. Taste the mixture every five minutes. When the balance suits you, run the vermouth through a fine mesh strainer, funnel it back into the bottle, label it, and put it in the fridge to chill.
Another classic, Marseille-born and bred Noilly Prat is a rover. Made with two separately aged wine varietals, Noilly Prat gathers its twenty-something plants and spices from France, Tunisia, and Indonesia. The vermouth spends three weeks in casks, resting with the botanicals. This is a fruitier white vermouth, with notes of orange, as well as anise and herbs. Give it time over sliced and peeled peaches or nectarines, and drop in a bit of vanilla or mace toward the end. If you’re thinking in terms of dessert, and you want to spike a syrupy sub-note, then roast the fruit before starting the infusion.
Routin’s white vermouths differ enough that it’s worthwhile playing with both of them. Think “palate cleanser,” and you’ll be sharing space with Vermouth Routin Dry. Its 17 flowers, plants, and spices frame a nutty, borderline almond characteristic. It isn’t prominent, but it’s present enough to give the vermouth roundness. Boost that with chopped toasted almonds or counterpoint it with dried apricots or cherries. Add cardamom at the end, but taste frequently; cardamom can overpower fast. Take it in a different direction with rosemary and pan-warmed walnuts. Those autumn notes pair well with toast and cheese, but it’s also gorgeous drizzled over a savory cheesecake.
As is typical with the dry/blanc divide, Vermouth Routin Blanc is on the sweeter side of fortification. With one more botanical than its drier sibling, Routin Blanc tastes like sun-warmed stone fruit and freshly torn thyme—and thyme is a great starting point for an infusion. Add lemon peel, being careful not to include any of the bitter pith. Taste it every ten minutes or so, until it reaches the intensity you desire. Drizzle it over sorbet or warm cornbread, or use it to make sweet and sour chicken.
An Italian vermouth, Contratto Bianco has 50 flavor components—not counting the wine—but the makers will share only 28. Those include aloe, angelica root, gentian, rhubarb, pimiento seed, sage, clover, and sandalwood. Contratto Bianco doesn’t taste busy. This creamy vermouth has sweetness and tartness and an underpinning of something dry. Hazelnuts, nutmeg, and plums underscore the richness. Vanilla takes Contratto Bianco’s creaminess up a notch. A touch of cracked black pepper can provide unexpected brightness–just don’t let it steep too long.
Don’t feel constrained by cocktails. Vermouth is a strong player in the kitchen. Infuse it with the last of the caramelized onion, roasted carrots, herbs that won’t last much longer, and keep it in the refrigerator for salad dressings (cut back on the vinegar, and use vermouth in its place), glazes, or whatever else comes to mind. It will become one of your most flexible staples, and a natural way to use scraps, save on waste, and expand your creative range.
Swap a homemade infusion for a shelf vermouth, and take your gin martini from prêt-à-porter to haute couture. Get our Perfect Gin Martini recipe.
Prick this savory cheesecake with a fork, drizzle it with vermouth, and you have an adults-only appetizer no one can replicate. For a glaze, reduce the vermouth to half over a low heat. Add finely chopped shallots and a pinch of thyme, to bring out the best of the basil in the cake. Get the recipe.
Andrew Zimmern’s pomelo sorbet gets bitterness from Campari and some of its sugar from sweet vermouth. Tweak its flavors with infused vermouth, taking the sugar down a notch or shunting it in a more savory, herbal direction. Get the recipe.
Michael Ruhlman uses dry vermouth in his Roasted Chicken Provençal. Choose your infusion, and heighten the flavors of roasted shallots, herbs de Provence, or citrus. Your guests will thank you (and probably eat all of your dreamt-of leftovers). Get the recipe.
Use herb or shallot-infused vermouth in this tomato and scallop pasta. Here, too, you can reduce the vermouth a little to boost the flavor. Do that, and you can get away with using less vermouth, losing none of the taste and saving some fortified wine for other things (like your after-dinner cocktail). Get the recipe.
Make the Bronx your own by subbing an infused vermouth in this classic cocktail. Play with gins, too. Made with Plymouth or Dorothy Parker, the same recipe will give you a very different drink. Get our Bronx Cocktail recipe.
Go ahead. Drizzle vermouth over Smitten Kitchen’s Cherry Cornmeal Upside-Down Cake. Nobody will tell. Just lock the refrigerator, or you might find yourself going back for a third slice of midnight snack. Get the recipe.
— Head photo: Pexels.