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Why won't bars stock good vermouth?

I'm about ready to give up.

After years in the vermouth wilderness, I've discovered the difference a good vermouth can make in a cocktail - a Nick-and-Nora martini is transformed by Vya dry vermouth, and a Manhattan made with Carpano Antico is an order of magnitude better than one made with sweet vermouth from the well.

But go into a typical bar or restaurant, and although they keep the Knob Creek, Macallan, Grey Goose, and Bombay Sapphire close at hand, their vermouth selection (if there is one) is akin to Early Times, Scoresby, Cossack, and Seagram's.

Is it too much to expect a place that makes cocktails to stock something better than Cinzano or Noilly Prat? Something that costs more than $6 a bottle?

I guess it's good that I can't get a great Manhattan at most of the places I go. Making them at home saves a boatload of money, and my friends are impressed at how much better the drinks I make are than the ones they get in bars. But still, wouldn't it be nice if there were a bottle of Punt e Mes behind the bar occasionally?

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  1. Do you pronounce Vya
    'vie-a' or 'vee-a'?

    2 Replies
    1. re: alwayscooking

      I pronounce it Vie-a. Of course, for an authoritative pronunciation you could call the winery and ask its maker, Randy Quady. But then you'd have to figure out how to pronounce his name when asking for him...

      1. re: alwayscooking

        I was first introduced to it at the Boston Wine Expo and I believe whoever was pouring it called it "vuh-ya" so that's how I've always pronounced it. But it wouldn't be the first time I was wrong :-)

      2. I think this is changing. There is definitely a new breed of mixologists or bar chefs or whatever they are calling themselves who are stalking the good stuff, including Carpano and Vya.

        1. The simple answer is that the average bar or restaurant patron knows Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, and Macallan. Punt e Mes, Carpano Antica, and Vya are brands of which they've never heard. Furthermore, the average patron probably doesn't have a preference among the common brands of vermouth. Why bother to stock something that costs three times as much or more and will rarely, if ever, be ordered by your clientele?

          And you're giving Cinzano, M&R, and Noilly Prat a bum rap. They are better quality products than Scoresby, Cossack, etc..

          1. I think that the real answer is that vermouths have a much shorter shelf life than spirits (which can have a pretty much indefinite lifespan). Throw in that there are enough people who order their martinis "extra dry" that, for example, a 750-ml bottle of dry vermouth could last months behind a bar. If not kept in the fridge, that's going to be a pretty nasty beverage in relatively short order.

            That said, I totally agree with you. Punt e Mes is a great example, as it isn't terribly hard to get or expensive, but totally transforms otherwise blah cocktails. It's even pretty good (though crazy bitter) on its own.

            1. "Go into a typical bar or restaurant" and you're lucky if they have Cinzano or Noilly Prat, and you're lucky if whatever dreck they have hasn't spoiled. It's just ignorance, I guess, and not caring.

              It's also annoying that you can walk into a place with a show-off wall of specialty vodka, bourbon, maybe even gin, and the person behind the bar can't do much besides pour a shot over ice and doesn't know how to -- or won't -- make a Martini with a reasonable amount of vermouth in it even if the customer specifies the proportions.

              Vermouth has an undeserved bad reputation, something like anchovies. People think they don't want anchovies on their pizza but they may never have tried them. People are so used to hearing about extra extra extra dry Martinis and nothing else. Order a Martini and half the time the waiter will ask "Extra Dry?" and are surprised (or ignore me) when I say no.

              8 Replies
              1. re: Up With Olives

                Vermouth, like anchovies, kind of earned its reputation. The local pizzaria doesn't sell many anchovy pizzas, so the stock they have on hand turns rancid, and anybody who tries them quickly learns that anchovies are nasty stuff. When the typical barkeep, using a bottle of cheap vermouth of indeterminate age, mixes a martini that's anything other than extra dry, it doesn't taste very good.

                But anchovy pizzas haven't become increasingly fashionable over the last ten years; martinis have. And IMHO It's way past time for the bar and restaurant owners to step up to the plate.

                I don' t for a second believe that it's a question of demand. Rather, it's a question of marketing. The demand for super-premium vodka didn't arise organically, it was created. The flavor difference between good and bad vermouth is much, much greater than that between cheap and expensive vodka. So why can't anybody seem to create a demand for decent vermouth?

                1. re: alanbarnes

                  You don't think it's a question of demand, yet you're also saying that there's no demand for it.

                  Of course it's a question of demand. Marketing causes demand, as you suggest. Ultimately it's a question of demand. How that demand is created or not created is an interesting discussion, but until it is, get used to your stock vermouth that has been open behind a hot bar for months, because there's no demand for anything better.

                  1. re: tommy

                    I was imprecise. What I was trying to say is that this is the kind of product where a little education will will lead to a huge increase in market demand. It's not a question of whether people will prefer better vermouth, but rather of getting them to know that it exists.

                    With some foods, many or most people either can't tell much difference or prefer the mass-market version to what the cognoscenti claim to be the best. For example, it's likely that longhorn cheddar will always outsell Epoisses. Vermouth isn't such a product; given an opportunity to taste both, nobody is going to choose Gallo over Vya.

                    The demand is there, it just needs to be tapped somehow.

                    1. re: alanbarnes

                      i was with you up to the last sentence. unless we don't share the same definition of "demand."

                      As an analogy, I guess I could say that I am a millionaire, i just have to make a million first.

                      1. re: tommy

                        There's no untapped demand for money. It's my opinion that there is an untapped demand for good vermouth.

                        1. re: alanbarnes

                          I'm glad we agree it is about demand, then, rather than not believing for a second that it's about demand.

                      2. re: alanbarnes

                        It's vermouth, it's not premium vodka. The money's not going to be spent to market the hell out of it or educate the masses. It's more difficult than putting it in a frosted bottle and charging more. I wonder how many people have ever had regular Bombay gin to even compare it to Sapphire. All they know is that blue bottle.

                        And are they necessarily going to choose Vya dry over Noilly Prat? Are they going to be able to tell the difference in their Martinis? That is never going to be a make or break question for the average person when he is deciding where to spend his money.

                    2. re: alanbarnes

                      Could it be done? Probably. But vermouth is starting from a much lower position, PR wise than vodka was. In my circle of friends, there are people who *should* know better (from hanging out with those of us who do) but still cringe when they hear "vermouth". Many of these people will do the "this is great, what's in it?" and then afterwards say "blech!" when they hear that vermouth is in it.

                      Now take it several notches worse if one wants to consider the average "martini" drinker, where a lot of the marketing has been at the expense of vermouth. How many times in the last 10-15 years have you seen stuff poking fun at vermouth and talkign about all the creative ways one could go in order to lower the amount of vermouth in a drink?

                  2. They don't stock good vermouth for the same reason they don't stock a lot of good stuff, but rather line their bars with artificially flavored liqueurs and 20 flavors of vodka: there's just not a demand. Hell, most people think vermouth is disgusting and only want the bottle "waved over the glass."

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: tommy

                      My problem is that while I do wish there was a way for bars to stock better vermouths, I personally really do dislike dry vermouth. I've had the standard Gallo, Noilly Prat etc. I have a bottle of Dolin dry vermouth in the fridge. To me, it really does ruin cocktails. Tried a perfect Manhattan--gross. Tried a Martinez (which seems to be capable of containing either sweet or dry vermouth, depending on the recipe you use)--nasty (though awesome with sweet vermouth).

                      On the other, other hand, most bar-goers have likely only had spoiled vermouth in their martinis. They might think that's how it's supposed to taste, and shouldn't necessarily be blamed for not liking it...unlike anchovies. There's no good reason not to like anchovies, Up With Olives.

                      1. re: jkv

                        My point exactly, jkv. ( I love anchovies, btw.) Some people think something is icky because of popular opinion or lore.

                        Years of "extra dry" and "wave the vermouth bottle over the drink," and comedic novelties like a vermouth spritzer have made an impression.

                    2. If the Average Joe could tell the difference between a well-vermouth and a premium vermouth, I'd be really surprised. The insignificant handful (you could probably count that number with two fingers per month) that could tell a martini containing Vya or similar quality wouldn't make the storage and cost worth the effort.

                      It's all about volume and profit. A well-martini with stale vermouth still satisfies the masses.

                      1. I'm reading your post as more a complaint than a question, but:

                        1. Good bars will. We are talking like 1 out of 25 here, places that really do cocktails well, but you can find good vermouth in the right places.
                        2. The major difference between premium vermouth and premuim booze is shelf life. A bottle of premium booze is still going to taste fine if it sits on the bar for a year, a bottle of good vermouth will not.
                        3. There is also the issue of demand, which other people have addressed. I do think that the potential for this demand to increase is there, but someone needs to figure out how to sell the stuff. Right now, people are so used to not having vermouth options that no-one specifies. Still, it's really not that unusual to basically spec out the rest of a drink - booze, garnish, etc - so why not? Still, at this point, I think people see vermouth as a mixed, like tonic or soda, and aren't used to options.

                        I agree with you I'd love to see this change.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: andytee

                          I'd like to see some very small bottles of premium vermouth. Maybe 6-8oz. I guess the cost of packaging might make this impossible though.

                          As far as seeing it in the average bar I don't think it will happen anytime soon if ever. I know the bar manager at the place where i work doesn't even realize that vermouth has a shelf life.

                        2. I just got turned on to Punt e Mes and actually found it at my local liquor store "Grapevine" in of all places Lakeland, FL. Lakeland is often behind the times:) but this store stocks all kinds of different liquors including about 10 kinds of Rye and ordered Sazerac rye which came in in about two days

                          1. because it's a lot easier to throw away 3/4 of a bottle of $6 gallo than an expensive vya, when there are a couple dozen fruit flies in it and it's been sitting around for 8 months :) easiest way to address this is to forget about *most* bars and be a good regular at *one* bar. be "norm" at cheers. . . then ask the bar mgr to order the bottle of vya and keep it, capped, in the fridge for you. you would be surprised at how many independent bars keep a special bottle on the shelf, specifically for one well-liked regular customer. heck one place i worked stocked a certain brand of beer at the end of saturday nights, because of a regular who came in every sunday afternoon.

                            it's wise to steer clear of vermouth in any bar that's not specifically a craft martini bar. if your area has a smoking ban, this goes double or triple or quintuple. sorry to be gross-- i've never seen spitting in food, etc. but on more than one occasion i've seen a bar manager straining dead fruit flies out of vermouth, through a coffee filter at 10 am-- which is fitting, considering the state of most bar mgrs' souls-- they will probably return in the next life as fruit flies. . .

                            1. The better bars in my area (Jersey Shore) are routinely charging $10 to $12 for a premium martini. I think a bottle of Vya could survive a week or so in a refridgerator, not go to waste, and at those prices be affordable for the establishment.

                              On a related note, Q and Stirrings tonic bottles are basically single-serving sized. Why not have those instead (or in addition to) tonic from the gun? YUCK!

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: MGZ

                                While I agree that it a it could done without too much of a hit, aside from an owner or manager's commitment to high quality ingredients and/or craft cocktails, what would be the incentive to use Vya?

                                Using Q or Stirrings or Fever Tree instead of gun tonic would be much worse for the bottom line than using high end vermouth. I don't know the cost of a box of tonic syrup, but I'd say it's a least 10x cheaper per drink than one of those three. Having them, or Schweppes at the least, as an option would be nice.

                                1. re: ultramagnetic

                                  While out to dinner last night, I watched a bartender prepare a diet coke, two cokes, a scotch and soda, two gin and tonics, and two club sodas, one after another in about 40 seconds - all with the same gun. I shuddered and thought about this thread.