Elegant Vermouth Substitutes for Martinis
These variations still have the bones of the classic Martini, but with a twist!
Of all the drinks in the classic cocktail canon, few have been as bastarized as the Martini. The dark days of cocktail culture in the 1990s and early 2000s saw anything served in a V-shaped glass given a “-tini” affixed to its name. Most of those drinks bore slim to zero resemblance to the original. Today, bars generally serve fewer of those non-Martini variations on the Martini, but the ones that have survived seem closer to the classic. Some of the most interesting and delicious of those survivors are Martinis that swap the vermouth component for a similar aromatized or fortified wine, or complementary ingredient.
One classic variation that’s similar is the original Tuxedo (made with gin; manzanilla, fino or dry amontillado sherry; and orange bitters) invented at the Waldorf Astoria in the early 20th century, (as seen in The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, updated by Frank Caiafa). Today, the top bartenders around the world are swapping vermouth out for sherry, sake, amaro and all manner of ingredients instead. Others are taking the debate over a gin or vodka to another level by using the Martini format with close-to-neutral spirits like shochu and sherry instead of vermouth. All twists, however, only push the envelope ever so slightly.
“To the extent I’m trying to emulate the flavors in a vermouth it is generally to exaggerate them,” says Colin Baker, master distiller of Loch & Union, which won California Gin Distillery of the Year at the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition. “Most of the vermouth I’ve had is a subtle combination of fruity and herbaceous, and in that way its good at softening the edges of the base spirit and bringing out it’s character.”
Herbaceous spirits and liqueurs are often the best option to replace vermouth, though they generally add more of a flavor to your drink. “Broadly speaking, if I want the focus of the drink to be the base spirit I’ll make a traditional vermouth based Martini,” Baker says. “If I want to shift the focus slightly I’ll add something more robust.”
To get a similar flavor profile, opt for a fino or manzanilla sherry, says Jacques Bezuidenhout of Liquid Productions. “Dry Sherry is about as close as you can get [to vermouth],” Bezuidenhout says. Other fortified wines like Lillet blanc, Cocchi Americano, and even a white Port work as well. “If you decide to use olorosso or amontillado,” says Bezuidenhout, “then it will make for a different drinking experience but still delicious.”
One of this writer’s favorites is the Canary cocktail from New York’s Existing Conditions made with fino sherry, saffron-infused Plymouth Gin, and Yellow Chartreuse. The saffron infusion puts it out of reach for home bartenders (as beverage director Bobby Murphy explains: one gram of saffron per 750 ml of gin that’s put into a keg and pressurized with nitrous oxide), but tasting it onsite is a must for anyone in New York pining for a good Martini variation.
In general, the goal when swapping out the vermouth for a Martini variation is to compliment the botanicals in the gin without overpowering the drink. Some of the best variations Baker says he has tried are from the Dukes Bar at the Dukes Hotel in London. Variations made with green and yellow Chartreuse, Centerbe Italian liqueur, and thyme and rosemary liqueurs are some of the standouts.
For an even punchier drink (though one that admittedly looks far different than a traditional Martini), look to amaro, says Tad Carducci, the spirits ambassador, consultant and educator for Benham’s Gin, whose Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin was a silver medal winner in the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition. “There are now so many styles and flavor profiles available in the US that one can have a field day,” Carducci says. “I also like Barolo Chinato [liqueur]. It's bitter, earthy and tannic, and brings a rich berry fruitness to cocktails with gin, rye and other savory spirits. I'm also a fan of Marsala as a substitute for vermouth. The nutty, raisiny oxidated flavors add tons of depth to agave, whiskey and aged rum cocktails.”
Carducci has also found success with other aperitifs and herbal liqueurs such as Suze, Byrrh and Cardamaro. When making a Martini that swaps out the vermouth, it appears you’re only limited by what you can get your hands on.
Recipes to try
Poseidon from Times Square EDITION
Created by Salvatore Tafuri, the bar director at Ian Schrager’s Times Square EDITION, the Poseidon is a savory variation of the Martini that’s perfect as an aperitif and when paired with an oyster. The saline solution boosts the flavor profile (as all good salt additions do) without turning the drink into anything dirty.
Directions: Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass, stir well and pour into a half Martini glass with an (optional) oyster on the side.
Fiori e Radici by Antica Pesa
The Fiori e Radici is a vodka-based Martini riff that blends perfectly with ginger liqueur. The bite of the ginger has a hint of sweetness and takes the place of vermouth in a standard 2-to-1 vodka Martini. Lavender bitters add a floral note to keep the sharper flavors in check and smooth the drink out to a refreshing finish.
2 oz unflavored vodka
1 oz ginger liqueur (homemade or bought, Alcohol Professor suggests 2017 New York International Spirits Competition winner Marble Distilling’s Gingercello)
2 dashes of lavender bitters
Directions: Shake and double strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a thin, fresh ginger strip.
Dr. Angel-Face from Mister Paradise
In a re-imagination of the Dirty Martini, the Dr. Angel-Face cocktail uses Japanese shochu instead of vodka or gin, along with verjus, sherry and a clarified tomato water dashi. Together these ingredients bring the same acidity and salinity responsible for the classic’s appeal, just with an added umami kick.
1 1/2 oz Mizu Saga Barley Shochu
1/4 oz verjus blanc
1/2 oz Fino Jarana Sherry
1 oz Tomato Water Dashi (fortified with sea salt, white sugar and rice vinegar)
Directions: Stir all ingredient with ice until chilled. Serve in a green chartreuse-rinsed coupette. Garnish with a single Kinome leaf (optional).
Rosé Fifty-Fifty from Plymouth Gin
Swapping out the vermouth for a Martini doesn’t have to be complicated. For a low-alcohol Martini variation, use Lillet Rosé to pump up fruity notes in a 50-50 Martini.
1 part Plymouth Gin
1 part Lillet Rosé
Directions: Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Strain into rocks glass over ice or served up in a Martini or coupe glass.