Falling in Love With Craft Vermouth

Of all the categories, it's Vermouth that gives you the most artisanal bang for your buck.

For the past few years, I’ve had the great pleasure of being one of the judges in the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition (CASC), which, if I can self-servingly say, is the premier competition for the craft distillers in this country. It’s great fun, and an insane amount of work, ploughing through over 700 blind samples and both scoring and critiquing every entrant.

In the first few years of judging, there was an ocean of craft vodka to swim through—some great, some more “difficult”—but what has been really encouraging is to see the growth in other categories as the industry matures in Canada. And there’s no category I’m more psyched to see expand than vermouth.

I’ve written a bit about vermouth in the past, mostly to say that I’m pretty sure your vermouth has gone bad. (Short answer: it doesn’t last forever, or even all that long. Always put it in the fridge!). But the reason I’m jacked that the category is improving is that, for my money, it offers the consumer the best return on their craft investment. Take gin for example: there’s no end of $50 craft gins out there. A few are very special, but more than a few are only marginally better than a stalwart like Beefeater of Bombay Sapphire—which are half the price.

But take the vermouth category. Here you can go the mainstream route and buy a Cinzano or Martini, which will cost about $10 a bottle. They’re not great, but they’re usable and they’re definitely cheap. But once a person gets into cocktails, one of the first things they do is up their vermouth game and that generally means going to something more niche like Carpano Antico Formula, a great and widely available option. But it’s not cheap—$19 for a 375ml bottle, and at that point, you’re fully in the price-realm of our local craft vermouths.

During the tasting for the CASC Awards I came across two vermouths—both white—that really impressed me. I didn’t know who made them at the time, as they were tasted blind, but I’ve since found out they both hail form Vancouver Island. The first is De Vine Modern Vermouth, and at $22 it’s well-priced for a true craft product. It comes from Ken Winchester—one of the OG craft distillers in North America—and it’s surprisingly sweet if you’re used to the austerity of most white vermouths. There’s some nice juniper notes, which makes me think this would be a nice stand-in for a lower-proof take on a gin and tonic.

From further up Island in the Cowichan Valley is Ampersand’s smartly packaged Imperative Vermouth. I came to Ampersand through their amazing Ampersand Gin—it won a Gold Medal with Distinction at the CASC last year—and if you’re like, me the test of both a great gin and a great white vermouth is how they hold up in a martini. It’s a cocktail with no safety net and it exposes flaws in either ingredient pretty much immediately. And boy, do these kids play nicely together. Even cooler is that the vermouth is a collab with Rathjen Cellars in Victoria, who supply the base wine to aromatize with the botanicals. And wait, there’s more: a bottle of Imperative costs $25… for a 750ml! It’s a crazy price—a bespoke drink for a plebeian sum. It’s probably why it seems to sell out frequently. But keep searching. Vermouth salvation is just around the corner.