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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?