Cigar Aficionado

A Trio of Vermouths for Your Next Manhattan

For Americans enthusiastic about such classic cocktails as the Manhattan and Martini—or even those who prefer to take their aperitifs alone—the Vermouth world just got bigger.

The Italian maker of aromatic spirits Contratto, established in 1867, is now exporting to the United States its red and white Vermouths, as well as a similar aperitif called Americano, made from their original 19th century recipes. Contratto’s contribution will certainly fill out your cocktail options as well as making you an of-the-moment bartender next time someone orders a cocktail with Vermouth at one of your soirees.

The seminal Vermouth cocktails—Manhattan and Martini—that have long been mainly distinguished by the choice of spirit brand employed—have recently gotten more complex owing to the availability of new faces in the aperitif category. This is a development we applaud. Add Contratto to that list.

Vermouth is an aromatized and fortified wine that was first created in Turin, Italy, in the late 18th century. Since then, a huge diversity of Vermouths have sprung up in that area as well as the adjacent French region of Chambery. (Contratto was founded in Canelli, also in the northwest corner of Italy.) A host of botanicals (25 to 50) typically inform the flavor of a Vermouth. (The name comes from the German for wormwood, one popular part of many recipes.) While based on wine, Vermouth, which can vary in proof from about 25 to 50, is strengthened with neutral spirits made from wine and similar to a brandy.

Even as Americans have been introduced to but a few brands in the past, Europe enjoys a great diversity of brands and styles. While Vermouth Rosso (red or sweet Vermouth) is often referred to as Italian Vermouth, Italian makers also have a tradition for making Vermouth Bianco (dry or French Vermouth).

The color of red Vermouth comes not from the wine’s color (it’s typically white) but from burnt caramel additive, which give it a dark hue and also its sweet flavor.

Americano is a traditional Italian aperitif that is similar to Vermouth, but often distinguished by its use of gentian herb as well as wormwood. The name comes not from any connection to the American continent, but rather from the root word amer-, Italian for bitter. Normally, Americanos bridge the sweetness gap between red and white Vermouths.

All of these new (to us) Contratto products make fine additions to cocktails, and in the case of the Manhattan a majestic complement to a cigar.

Contratto Vermouth Rosso (34 proof or 17 percent alcohol by volume, $32.99 for a 750 ml bottle): This complex and inviting red is based on at least 31 aromatics. While quite sweet and fruity to the nose, a sultry tartness is added in the mouth that makes the run of spice and citrus notes pop. Aromatics include coriander seeds, bay laurel leaves, yellow sweet clover, cinnamon, angelica root, nutmeg, bitter orange peel, carob tree pods, pimento seeds, rhubarb roots, sage, bark of China, lemon peel, sweet orange peel, licorice and sandal wood.

Manhattan suggestions: Its sweetness contrasts to great effect in a drier Bourbon environment such as Basil Hayden, Four Roses, Bulleit, Buffalo Trace or Woodford Reserve. Also plays well with rye: George Dickel’s new release, Rittenhouse 100 proof, Sazerac.

Contratto Americano Rosso (33 proof or 16.5 percent alcohol by volume, $32.99 for a 750 ml bottle): Not quite as complex as the red Vermouth (25 aromatics), the Americano has a very fresh and minty nose that is more spicy or eucalyptus-like than bitter. In the mouth, it’s herbs and spices become savory and are joined with more sweetness. Aromatics include: ginger, mint leaves, hibiscus flower, hawthorn flower, nettle leaves, angelica roots , bitter orange peel, rhubarb roots, sage and sweet orange peel.

Manhattan suggestions: The tanginess of this aperitif suggests good interplay with sweeter, more classic style spirits—Wild Turkey, Knob Creek and Evan Williams—and that is certainly borne out, but don’t overlook its possibilities with a smoky Scotch—Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila—in a Rob Roy. They’re mindscramblers.

Contratto Vermouth Bianco (36 proof or 18 percent alcohol by volume, $32.99 for a 750 ml bottle): The most complex of the trio (50 aromatics), the white is surprisingly sweet after a nose that comes off like a dry pinot grigio. Aromatics include: Hawthorn flower/leaves, coriander seeds, marjoram leaves, bay laurel leaves, chamomile flower, yellow sweet clover, aloe juice, cinnamon, mint leaves, ginger roots, angelica roots , cardamom seeds, nutmeg, bitter orange peel, gentian roots, nettle, sweet orange peel, carob tree pods, pimento seeds, felon herb, rhubarb roots, hibiscus flower, sage, bark of China, lemon peel, bergamot orange peel, liquorices roots, sandalwood, etc.

Manhattan suggestions: Whereas you typically expect white Vermouth to go in a Martini, we’d caution against that use unless you have a gin that has a full-frontal tasting profile, such as a Dutch gin or an Old Tom (or possibly vodka if you want to go in the other direction and simply weaponize this enchanting Vermouth.) Instead use it in a dry or perfect (half red, half white) Manhattan. Pairs well with wheat Bourbons like Maker’s Mark, Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller.

"Sage advice from Jack ! Have a party with friends and the like, always a good idea." —February 28, 2013 02:18 AM
"Or you could step up your Manhattan intake and not give the Vermouth time to turn." —February 25, 2013 08:24 AM
"Vermouth either Red or White is wine and oxidises in a day or two after opening. A good way to ruin a perfectly good cocktail. Use a vacuum stopper and freeze it to keep it fresh." —February 24, 2013 03:50 AM
"Can't wait to get some of the Rosso for my manhattan's. I am a lover of both manhattan's and martini's, Vodka and gin. Will try the white with them both. " —February 23, 2013 08:43 AM