Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Vermouth Battles: Tribuno vs. Martini & Rossi

Full disclosure: I went into this project assuming the vermouth was the least important ingredient in a Manhattan.  After all, most of the flavor comes from the whiskey and the bitters.  Even switching to a higher grade of cherries made more of a difference than I would have expected from a change in vermouth.

Long story short: I was wrong.

Let's back up a little.  What is vermouth and what is its function in my favorite cocktail?  Vermouth is a fortified, aromatized wine.  The fortification distinguishes vermouth from brandy which is distilled wine.  Vermouth came from Italy originally but, naturally, the French can never resist a good Italian food idea so they started making it, too.  Generally, the product comes in one of two forms: sweet and dry.  They are occasionally listed as Italian and French vermouth respectively or red and white vermouth respectively.  There are additional varieties but most of what you'll find in a liquor store sits under one of those two umbrellas.

A traditional cocktail is built upon three legs: base, sweetener and bitters.  While there are some drinks which use vermouth as the base liquor, it more typically serves as the sweetener.  Such is the case with the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan.

As noted in this post, I recently made a discovery about vermouth.  I'd long perceived a wheaty aftertaste in our Manhattans which I'd assumed derived from the barley-based whiskey.  But then I tasted the same in a completely different cocktail which didn't involve whiskey but did include sweet vermouth.  I wouldn't exactly describe the taste as a flaw but given the choice, I could do without it.  As such, trying out different vermouths became a more meaningful exercise.

Martini & Rossi has been our brand of choice for a while.  It was recommended by one author or another - I can't remember whom - and has served us just fine.  The company is based in Turin and has been producing vermouth since 1863.  Tribuno is our first challenger, an American product, originally from New York City, 1938.  Vermouth is relatively cheap so price is not a major consideration but for the record, Tribuno is the less expensive of the two.

The Manhattan Test

Without a doubt, the Martini & Rossi is the culprit in the aftertaste mystery.  It went away with the Tribuno.  Merely sniffing the bottles revealed a significant difference.  Tribuno smells and tastes simply more like, well, wine.  The resulting cocktail is fruitier and, at least to our palettes, better.

Winner and New Champion: Tribuno

Squid on the Vine

Azienda Vinicola I Pastini, Antico Locorotondo White Blend 2019
Starts sweet, finishes sour
A not quite ripe green apple
My rating: 8.0

Denavolo Catavela Malvasia di Candida Blend 2018
An orange wine
Smells of peach, tastes like apricot
Quite dry
Smells better than it tastes
My rating: 8.1

La Garagista Ci Confonde Pétillant Naturel Rosé Blend
Sour cherry
Floral nose
My rating: 8.1

Domaine d'E Croce (Yves Leccia) Ile de Beauté Biancu Gentile 2019
Delicate fruity nose, a hint of metal
Dry but with a kick at the end
My rating 8.5


  1. The first vermouth I ever bought was some kind of Gallo brand, which I bought because my wife worked there and, as it happened, it was cheap, less than $5/bottle. My wife did NOT like it and, if I'm remembering correctly, it was kind of medicinal tasting. I think I got both the sweet and the dry because I didn't know which was the one needed and, as stated, they were cheap.

    When we decided to try Manhattans for the first time, my wife wanted good vermouth, so we got Vya sweet. It's quite tasty all on its own and reminds me of port, to some extent. It's considerably more expensive, coming in at around $20/bottle, but, as I said, you could drink it as a dessert wine if you wanted to. That's still the bottle of vermouth we're working on, and I don't really see us trying anything else considering that my wife is not a Manhattan fan and we haven't found anything else we want to try, yet, that calls for it.

  2. I've tried Jameson Whiskey and Port so I like both, never been to Manhattan although maybe I could beam over to NY sometime and we could talk trek at a Star Trek convention or something. Hey I know, how about "Squids Galileo Cocktails" for a sauce to flog to the fans. If the flavors good enough and you've got a shuttle handy.. :)

    1. That sounds fun!

      Just looked up a Galileo out of curiosity - quite an exciting drink. At least the version I saw involved a shot-glass chaser, set on fire!

  3. Interesting analysis. I have been digging around for these types of posts because I have tried to get to the mystery behind sweet Vermouth. As concisely as I can: I have consumed cocktails for the better part of the last 25 years but have avoided certain ingredients. Top among them was anything with Vermouth (especially sweet Vermouth), which I found to be completely unpalatable--I assumed all sweet vermouths tasted like M&R. There's something in it--it's on the nose too.
    Like oregano but worse. I should point out I am a huge fan of Port, but find dry sherry briny and--like Vermouth--unpalatable.
    Recently, I have been expanding the types of cocktails and thought I would give Vermouth a more serious tasting. Not wanting to dump $40 on Carpano Antico lest I dump it like the rest, I tried (on it's own on ice) a cheap "Sole" brand at Trader Joe's. Better than M&R Rosso, but still had (fainter) that same thing in M&R. It had more of a cola presence. I could get it down, but not great. Then I tried Gallo. What a game changer. This is not the difference between two types of, say, Bourbon, or London Dry gins. This is like the difference between a Pinot Noir and a Riesling. Sure they're both wine, but that's where it basically ends. Gallo is a bit sweet and one-dimensional for sure and maybe even what some might call "insipid" after lots of it, but complete devoid of that offputting note in M&R. Gallo (as you describe Tribuno) tastes more like "wine". I will have to try Tribuno, but am curious if what I am sensing is something more common. My wife agrees with me completely so it can't be something unique to just us, I feel. Would be curious for your take.

    1. Oregano! Yes, that's it. Good call.

      I have a top two at this point. Boissiere is my current favorite, a subtle player. Given your preference for port, you might prefer my #2: Cinzano. It's sweeter and has a fuller mouth feel, not unlike a good port.

    2. Great, thanks for the suggestion. I will try Cinzano. I had heard Cocchi Vermouth and Dolin Rouge would be good to try, but then I read a review that Dolin Rouge had a "wonderful briny herbal note like a dry sherry", which makes me think to avoid it. Will try Cinzano now. Thanks.

    3. My pleasure!

      I haven't heard of Cocchi. Dolin Rouge, though is on my wish list. Neither is sold here in Vermont, a liquor-control state. Dolin will have to wait until our next trip to either New Hampshire or Quebec. In other words, it could be a while.

    4. Thanks again. I haven't heard of Boissiere, by the way. but I am hardly a Vermouth expert.

      I have bought Cinzano and your assessment was very good. While I wouldn't say it's my absolute favorite drink, it hit the spot between more complexity/less cloying than Gallo without whatever is in M&R that is a non-starter (like oregano as mentioned, but I feel that gives oregano a bad name). It's definitely solid, so thank you.

      Here in Virginia, we are a liquor-control state for spirits, but not wine or beer. Vermouth is--from what I can tell--in a uniquely funny spot: it's sold both at our state-run ABC stores and regular grocery stores, wine stores, etc. Port, Sherry, Madeira, etc. are (I believe) only sold in the latter with regular wines, and of course spirits are only sold in the former. I think that's because ABC is allowed to sell "mixers" in addition to spirits (they can also sell Virginia wine).

      Anyway, based on my research, I too will have cross state lines--in my case, a 40 mile trip to the Total Wine in Maryland if I want to get Cocchi or Dolin Rouge.

    5. Oh... you're from my part of the world! Or at least, it used to be. I grew up in Maryland - Montgomery County. As long as we're on the subject, Maryland is not a control state EXCEPT for Montgomery County. All of the liquor stores are county-owned and operated.

      Please share your findings. This is fun!

    6. Oh, I'm familiar with the Montgomery County Liquor Control Stores! I used to go there a lot more 10-15 years ago due to the better prices and often better selection than the Virginia ABC, especially for "large hauls" or if I happened to be across the river. In recent years, the ABC stores' selection has improved considerably and I suppose in my old age I have decided that convenience of the ABC (including one in walking distance) trumps saving a few bucks. For "large hauls", I now go to the Total Wine in Laurel (especially if I passing through on I-95/BW Parkway)--which by the way, I understand carries Cocchi, Noilly Prat Rouge, Dolin Rouge all in 375ml, which is great for sampling/reducing spoilage--an option for you should you ever be passing through your old stomping grounds. I can only find NP 750ml here (at the ABC). I'll head up to Laurel sometime to get those and report my findings, though my wife has informed me that we have too much supply of liquor accumulating during the pandemic and the cabinet is bursting at the seams, and method for severely reducing the inventory is not without health risks :P

      BTW, I had a Manhattan last night at my brother-in-laws with Gallo. It's not bad, but a strong whiskey tends to dominate it and all I really get is a sweetness and a bit of citrus/fruit, almost like I was drinking an old-fashioned, but still enjoyable and much better than M&R, which I feel ruins anything.

      I'll report back soon! Jeremy

    7. Thanks, Jeremy!

      In my opinion, that's all a Manhattan needs from the vermouth - a bit of sugar, maybe a hint of something flavorwise. But the play between the whiskey and the bitters is the whole point of the drink.

      I look forward to hearing of your future adventures.

    8. Will keep you posted. In the meantime, as it'll likely be a month or so before I make it up there, I figured during my shopping at Safeway tonight that--given your original post--I ought to try Tribuno (I mean, $6.29 for a liter, c'mon). As you say, it's definitely better than M&R. It's sweet, though not as cloying as Gallo, but the favor I pick up early in the finish is--I know this sounds overly precise--Little Caesar's pizza. I haven't tried in a Manhattan yet, but could be good. But Cinzano was definitely nicer on the rocks, I felt. Jeremy

    9. Haha! Little Caesar's... I hadn't thought of that as a distinctive flavor but there it is.

  4. Sorry for the silence. I have finally made it to Total Wine in Laurel, MD on a trip from PA this weekend. What a great find for sampling sweet vermouths, FYI. Much to my wife's chagrin, I got a lot of small bottles. They had 50ml of Carpano Antico, so I got two. Also got 375ml of Cocchi di Torino, Noilly Prat Rouge, and Dolin Rouge. I recently also tried Rivata Sweet Vermouth, which I thought was OK, even pretty good. Better than Tribuno, I thought. It's amazing--to me, all I have tried so far are all much better than M&R.

    Will keep you posted once I try all of these.

    1. Thanks for the report! I'm especially curious about the Dolin Rouge.

    2. Pleasure. It's in the fridge now, but I have not opened it. I like how Dolin Rouge has a place to write the date you opened it on the back label. I opened the 50ml Carpano Antica the other night--I can see why people like it, and it definitely has the "complexity" people like, but honestly, I thought it was quite similar than Cinzano, especially on this finish, but with a tad more complexity. Of course, both way better than M&R. Jeremy

    3. I tried the Dolin Rouge. It's very nice by does lack any intense bitterness of most vermouths and certainly does have any unpleasant herbaceous notes a la M&R. In a manhattan with Knob Creek Rye, however, I felt it was a bit lost. It barely was noticable beyond a very faint sweetness. The Carpano Antics created, I felt, a much more balanced Manhattan (as does Cinzano, I think) when I tried it later. Perhaps with a mild bourbon or even a Canadian whisky, Dolin would be a better option. On their own, I think I prefer Dolin, though. I hope this helps. Off to try Noilly Pray Rouge and cocchi in a few weeks! Jeremy

    4. "Does NOT have any unpleasant herbaceous..."

    5. A wonderful report.

      I like both Cinzano and Noilly Prat.

      You bring up an important point regarding the care and feeding of vermouth: refrigeration. I have to confess, I don't. I know one's supposed to but I feel it keeps just fine on the shelf. I don't believe in refrigerating red wine either.

      It might be a worthy experiment of its own one day, though fridge space is scarce at our house.

    6. You know, I have seen several videos where people can't really tell the difference between newly opened and old ones outside the fridge. After a few years, sure, but I think you're right for sweet vermouth. Less sure about dry vermouth. I just put it in since I find it doesn't taste good at room temperature and ice takes a while to chill. But in a cocktail I think you are right. Glad you like Noilly prat. Will try soon!

      Ps. I put red wine in the fridge simply because here especially in the summer room temperature is too warm. Most taste better in the 60-62 range I think. And it's never that cool here. As for how long reds once opened, not usually a problem in our house!

    7. Ha! Yes, it is a lot hotter where you live.

      As noted, the decision is made for me with the high premium on fridge space. And it's pretty obvious when a bottle - be it wine or vermouth - goes off and at least in the case of verm, that seems to take quite a while.