Bittersweet Symphony: vermouth, the light, refreshing, versatile aperitif, is back

Bittersweet Symphony: vermouth, the light, refreshing, versatile aperitif, is back

Clockwise from left: Bar Raval’s Mal Gusto; co-owners Michael Webster and Robin Goodfellow; Bar Raval’s patio (Images: Dave Gillespie)

For years, Toronto bar lists have favoured ballsy amber liquors (bourbons, ryes and the like) for building powerhouse cocktails. But lately bartenders have been experimenting with tipples that pack more flavour than potency. ­Vermouth, the once-popular aperitif, is a favourite. It’s made from dry white wine infused with herbs, roots and barks (sweet or red vermouth gets its colour from caramelized sugar and plants), and then fortified with spirits such as brandy, vodka or gin. It lasts longer than wine, but not by much—both dry and sweet styles will develop a sour, oxidized tang after about a month—so keep it in the fridge after opening.

At Bar Raval, the raucous, Gaudi-esque tapas den on College Street, co-owners Michael Webster and Robin Goodfellow are spreading the vermouth gospel. They stock 20-odd imports to drink on the rocks, or spritzed with soda or cava. “Saying you don’t like vermouth is like saying you don’t like wine,” says Goodfellow. “You just have to find the style you enjoy. Some are like a big, bold California cab, others are more like a mellow pinot.” Their list favours Spanish bottles, like Casa Mariol’s herbal Vermut Negre, but they’ve got their eye on the Niagara distiller Dillon’s, which is debuting a small-batch vermouth this fall.


45 mL fino sherry
15 mL white vermouth
10 mL rich syrup (2 parts sugar, 1 part water)
22 mL lime juice
5 mL absinthe
Shake and serve straight up in a chilled glass.

Robin Goodfellow of Bar Raval loves this low-alcohol blend. “It’s dry, tart and refreshing, with lots of flavour. Plus it’s low-octane, so you can have a few without feeling woozy.”

Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry
$13.45 | France
LCBO 370858

This producer, from Chambéry, France, has made vermouths since 1821. The dry version is subtle, citrusy and herbaceous.

Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Rouge
$13.45 | France
LCBO 370841

Dolin’s red version is delicious over ice with an orange slice and an olive, but also as an ingredient for cocktails like a Negroni.

Fratelli Branca Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
$15.95 | Italy
LCBO 360248

This sweet vermouth smells like vanilla and tastes like star anise, orange peel and dates. Dilute with soda or cava.