The City Magazine Since 1975

Fortified Just Right

Fortified Just Right
August 2019

Why low-ABV vermouth cocktails are the perfect, thirst-quenching summer send-off

Lane Becker, head bartender at Babas on Cannon, pours an Americano. This take on the classic cocktail, bottled in-house, features Punt e Mes vermouth.

No longer the neglected bottle on your favorite watering hole’s backbar, nor the syrupy off-brand you can’t seem to empty even after a jag of Manhattans, vermouth has become the star of many quaffable, low-alcohol cocktails around town. This fortified, aromatized wine is largely made from white grapes aged with alcohol, wormwood, and a blend of additional spices, bark, and herbs, then sweetened subtly by either cane or caramelized sugar. Enthusiasts like Lane Becker, head bartender at Babas on Cannon, believe the import is also worthy of prime real estate on your at-home bar.

Becker first began to appreciate vermouth’s greater wonders about five years ago. As a classic cocktail resurgence swept through the Holy City, a demand for higher quality supporting spirits introduced elegant Spanish, French, and Italian vermouths into his mixing vocabulary. “These didn’t look or taste like those dusty old bottles in my parents’ liquor cabinet,” says Becker.

Plush with bitter and sweet botanicals, vermouth can possess delightful complexity; as Becker discovered, the spirit could not only improve the nuance and balance of a cocktail but also made for a fantastic drink on its own. A common order in bars throughout Spain, where vermouth is often poured from a tap, it’s an instant cocktail-in-a-glass. “At Babas, we keep four to five vermouths in a really cold refrigerator and serve them on the rocks,” says Becker. “It’s a good way to introduce somebody to a vermouth that’s super refreshing on a hot day.”

One of Becker’s favorites is Catalonian Priorat Natur—nutty, fruity, and orange (skin-contact) wine-based—which first began appearing stateside in 2017. “It’s golden, bittersweet, and delicious,” says Becker. “And since it’s made with more than 100 different aromates, it defies categorization.” His vermouth-forward Manhattan, with two parts Old Overholt rye, one part Priorat Natur, and one part Lacuesta Vermut Rojo, makes for a lighter, brighter twist on the classic. White vermouths—such as French Dolin Blanc or Spanish Atxa Blanco—are crisp and floral, perfect for lively spritz variations. Plus, at approximately 16-percent ABV, Becker notes that vermouth is, in ways, “strong wine.” Less boozy than high-proof spirits yet still bearing a kick, vermouth is ideal for summer sipping. Whether you taste around town or slowly build your own collection, be adventurous. As Becker puts it: “There are countless vermouths to taste out there, so why not try them all?”

(Left) The Spanish Spritz at Renzo; (right) Cannon Furniture Co. cocktail at The Grocery

Vermouth Cocktails Around Charleston:

Babas on Cannon
11 Cannon St.,
Americano, $12
Punt e Mes, Campari, soda (bottled in-house)

708 King St.,
Vermouth Spritz, $10
Contratto Bianco, Lillet Rouge, Dolin Dry, soda

384 Huger St.,
Spanish Spritz, $10
Atxa Blanco Spanish vermouth, fresh lemon juice, cava

The Grocery
4 Cannon St.,
Cannon Furniture Co., $10
Dolin Blanc, Cynar, cava