Vermouth Roundup: A Sweet Vermouth Tasting Review

So many sweet vermouths, so little time!

Until a few years ago my sweet vermouth universe consisted of Gallo and Martini & Rossi. And there really ain’t nothin’ wrong with that. Some of my best Manhattans have been with Gallo and Jim Beam sitting under a pine tree while camping, and M & R is terrific in a Negroni.

But variety is the spice of life, and during the last few years I (along with my brother) have enjoyed trying out different sweet vermouths. The good news is none of them are really bad. Yes, some are more flavorful and sophisticated than others, but the worst you can say about the lower rung vermouths is that they lack depth and character — which for some people is just what they want.

The following are my tasting impressions of over a dozen vermouths. Tasting vermouths in one sitting is a challenge. You really need to taste them neat, in a Negroni and in a Manhattan. That’s a lot of drinks.  So these tasting notes are based on my experiences over the last few years, plus some dedicated tasting sessions mixed in.

Also, none of these were done blind, although I think I could identify many of these Vermouths when tasted neat. In a mixed drink is another matter. Yes there are at times significant differences, but could I tell a Manhattan made from Gallo from one made with Ponti? Probably not. But between one made with Carpano Antica and Gallo — hell yes.

The Manhattans used for tasting were typically made with:

  • Two parts Bulleit Bourbon
  • One part vermouth
  • Three dashes Angostura bitters

The Negronis:

  • One part Campari
  • One part  London dry gin (often Beefeaters or Trader Joe’s Rear Admiral Joseph’s)
  • One part sweet vermouth

Bulleit Bourbon is a nicely flavorful bourbon with a relatively high concentration of rye that can overpower some of the more mild mannered vermouths. For some of these I also tried them in a Manhattan made with Canadian whiskey — which has a more neutral flavor than American bourbons. That’s called out in some of the tasting notes.

In the Negroni more subtle differences could stand out. In a Manhattan I really can’t tell the difference between M & R and Cinzano — but in a Negroni I can.

OK, enough rambling. Here are my impressions…

1. Gallo  ($2.99 750ml Safeway, not pictured)

I grew up with Gallo. It’s the vermouth you can find when you can find no other — at least here in California. And it’s cheap.

Neat

Very sweet and lightly herbal. No bitterness. Approachable, but this is not a vermouth to drink on its own. No depth. No complexity. No bitterness.

Negroni

Harmless and inoffensive. Yes there are better choices, but at least Gallo doesn’t ruin the drink!

Manhattan

Serviceable in a pinch, especially for those that like a sweeter Manhattan with a tame whiskey (like Canadian). With a bolder whiskey the vermouth is lost.

Best For

Those on a budget. Or if you can’t find any other vermouth.  Or you are not a fan of bitter and like a basic sweet Manhattan.

2. Ponti  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s)

One of two sweet vermouths carried by Trader Joe’s in our area.

Neat

Sweet and marginally more herbal than Gallo. No bitterness. This will offend no one, and excite no one. It’s pretty much a slightly better version of Gallo.

Negroni

Works in a pinch. If you’re picking up your liquor at TJ’s then it is fine.

Manhattan

Like Gallo, it is serviceable. No problems — but no fireworks either.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth. A better alternative to Gallo.

Update: Trader Joe’s in our area has stopped carrying Ponti as of summer 2016.

3. D’Aquino Rosso  ($3.99 1ltr Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

The other sweet vermouth carried at our Trader Joe’s.

Neat

Very sweet and pleasant. No bitterness. There is nothing wrong with this vermouth, but Ponti has a bit more flavor. In any case, you probably aren’t buying this stuff to drink on the rocks.

Negroni

Serviceable.

Manhattan

Serviceable.

Best For

You’re shopping a TJ’s and you need some vermouth and they are out of Ponti.

Update: As of 2016 this product appears to have a new label: Sole Vermouth Rosso. This is what Trader Joe’s now carries in our area. Sole is imported by D’Aquino and tastes the same as D’Aquino Rosso, so I think it’s the same product.

4. Martini & Rossi Rosso ($7.99 750ml Safeway)

The world’s most popular sweet vermouth. Tasty and reliable, this vermouth is a straight shooter. No bar should be without a bottle of M & R.

Neat

Moderately herbal and jammy. Very slight bitter finish. This is the quintessential all-arounder sweet vermouth, but not a great choice for drinking on the rocks.

Negroni

My favorite. Yes, I said it. Plain old M & R is my favorite vermouth for a Negroni where it provides a solid foundation without competing with the Campari. I don’t like flowery gin nor overly bold vermouth messing up my Negroni!  M & R hits the right balance for me.

Manhattans

Perfectly good in a Manhattan. Nothing you would rave about, but totally acceptable.

Best For

Best bang for the buck sweet vermouth. Every bar should have a bottle. And makes a terrific, balanced Negroni!

5. Cinzano Rosso ($7.99 750ml BevMo)

The other moderately priced contender, from the makers of Campari.

Neat

Initial cola taste and nicely herbal with a slightly more bitter finish than M & R. Cinzano has just enough personality to be tasty on the rocks or with soda.

Negroni

Quite good in a Negroni, but pushes it slightly off balance. I prefer M & R.

Manhattan

Just fine, just like M & R.

Best For

Everyday on the rocks. That touch of extra character and bitterness over the M & R makes this a better choice for drinking on the rocks or with a splash of soda (hence the near empty bottle in the photo).

6. Vya Vermouth Aperitif ($ 12.99 375ml BevMo)

A relative newcomer from California.

Neat

Initial slight cola flavor followed by an herbal finish of somewhat mysterious makeup — maybe coconut? I find Vya interesting, but not necessarily tasty.

Negroni

Not my favorite. Adds a subtle distinctive flavor that I don’t necessarily appreciate. This is a case where I’d rather have Gallo in my Negroni than a “better” vermouth.

Manhattan

The Bulleit dominated anything distinctive in this vermouth, so in a Manhattan it was serviceable but not special.  Wanting to give it a second chance I tried it with some Canadian and found it did better with a lighter bodied whiskey (if you like its taste).

Best For

Try it neat. If you like it then it would be good on the rocks or in a Manhattan with a lighter bodied whiskey. But for me, I will look elsewhere.

7. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino ($13.00 375ml BevMo)

Top shelf we are here! One of the more popular high end vermouths.

Neat

Luscious and delightfully herbal with notes of cocoa and citrus. Little bitter finish, but enough herbal depth to still be complex and interesting. This is a delicious vermouth that can easily be appreciated on the rocks — even by non-vermouth lovers.

Negroni

Good, but nothing special. The delicate flavors that are so tasty neat are somewhat lost in the Negroni and the lack of bitterness doesn’t help either.  I wouldn’t use this vermouth in a Negroni — not that it is bad, but it can be put to better use in a…

Manhattan

Spectacular! This warm, flavorful vermouth makes for a balanced Manhattan with depth. Really, really good. I mean — really good.

Best For

Sipping on the rocks and in a Manhattan. A great choice if you like a vermouth with depth, but low in bitterness. A perfect choice for Canadian Manhattans.

8. Carpano Antica Formula ($31.99 1ltr BevMo)

This is the vermouth that is currently all the rage, and is generally considered the best sweet vermouth out there. Pricey, but top notch.

Neat

Bold herbal profile with hints of vanilla and licorice. Strong, pleasant bitter finish. This is a big, complex vermouth with lots going on. Might be a little bold for some.

Negroni

While the Cocchi was a little tame in a Negroni, the Carpano is a little unbalanced. The vanilla pokes through the citrus base of the Negroni in a distracting way. It’s not bad, but not my favorite. Again, a Negroni is not the place to use this vermouth. Instead…

Manhattan

Now you’re talking! The forwardness that hurts in a Negroni shines in a Manhattan as long as you have a bold whiskey to stand up to it. It is fantastic in the Bulleit Manhattan: bold, deep and complex. But pair it with a lighter bodied whiskey and the balance is lost. Canadian lovers should reach for Cocchi.

Best For

On the rocks if you like the bold flavors and in a Manhattan when mixed with a suitable whiskey.

Tip: If you like the boldness of a Carpano Antica Manhattan, but balk at the price (or worry about the bottle of Carpano loosing character before you finish it) then try using a cheaper vermouth and adding a splash of Cynar amaro. Delicious!).

9. Carpano Punt E Mes ($26.99 750ml BevMo, not pictured)

Carpano Antica’s rambunctious little brother.

Neat

Out of all of the vermouths here, I would consider Punt E Mes closest to an apertif. Initially sweet with a bit of root beer followed by a steadily building quinine bitterness that lingers. This is a flavorful vermouth with a big bitter bite. Delicious on the rocks or with soda if you enjoy herbaciousness with a strong bitter finish — and I do!

Negroni

I’m not sure what you call Gin, Campari and Punt E Mes …. but I wouldn’t call it a Negroni. Not that it’s bad, but the Punt E Mes is like a bull in the china closet fighting the Campari to be top dog (how’s that for a mixed metaphor).

Manhattan

Like in the Negroni, Punt E Mes alters the Manhattan into a different drink — reminiscent of a Little Italy. It’s actually quite good, but if you’re looking for a traditional Manhattan then save Punt E Mes for drinking with soda. Canadian lovers should flee.

Best For

On the rocks, or with soda.

10. Cinzano 1757 ($29.99 1ltr, Zanatto’s Market, not pictured)

Cinzano’s attempt at a premium vermouth.

Neat

A little less sweet than normal Cinzano with a bit more herbaceousness and a sturdy bitter finish. Herbal notes are more floral and less complex than Carpano Antica — and the bitterness seems a bit forced. This is a fine vermouth, but if you are in this price range and want a bold vermouth then Carpano Antica is a better choice.

Negroni

Works fine in a Negroni, but isn’t really any better than M & R. Maybe adds a touch more bitterness — but not worth the premium.

Manhattan

Meh. Does not add the depth and complexity of Carpano Antica nor the deliciousness of Cocchi. If you’re going to spend for a premium vermouth for your Manhattans then I would not spend it on 1757.

Best For

In a Negroni if you want to look fancy. But I won’t be buying any more of this vermouth.

11. Noilly Prat Rouge ($12.00 750ml, Safeway, not pictured)

French sweet vermouth. Our local Safeway started carrying it so I decided to give it a try.

Neat

Sweet, light bodied. Low herbal. No bitterness. Touches of clove and prune. Reminds me a bit of Gallo, but a tad more pleasant.

Negroni

OK, but nothing special. Definitely inferior to good old M & R.

Manhattan

Pedestrian. Did not stand up to the Bulleit. As with other light vermouths might work well for those that prefer a lighter Manhattan made with Canadian.

Best For

Those that like a basic, light bodied Manhattan. Me? I’ll pass.

12. LeJon ($3.97 750ml, CVS, not pictured)

I was in CVS buying a birthday card and, of course, wandered down the liquor aisle. I recognized this label from my youth. It was $1.99 on sale — so I had to pick up a bottle.

Neat

A bit winey and not very vermouthy. No bitterness. Not very herbal. Rather unpleasant.

Negroni

First attempt resulted in no detection of vermouth whatsoever. So I tried doubling the portion, and the Negroni became barely drinkable. But why bother.

Manhattan

I haven’t tried yet. Not sure I’m going to.

Best For

Uh….nothing comes to mind. If you want a cheap vermouth then both Gallo and Ponti are clearly better. This is the only vermouth on this list that I would consider truly bad.

13. Sole Rosso ($3.49 1ltr, Trader Joe’s, not pictured)

Recently our local Trader Joe’s stopped carrying Ponti and D’Aquino, and now carries only this brand. Sole Rosso is labeled as being imported by D’Aquino and it tastes just like the D’Aquino Rosso described above (#3), so I suspect it is the same product. See the D’Aquino tasting notes.

14. Rivata Sweet Vermouth ($6.29 750ml Total Wine & More)

We just got a Total Wine & More in our area and they carry this as a mid tier vermouth. (BTW, Total Wine & More destroys BevMo in terms of prices — bye, bye BevMo).

Neat

Sweet with a touch of cherry cola. Low bitterness. First sip on the rocks is tasty, but then it wears out its welcome.

Negroni

Similar to Cinzano in that it adds a slightly different note to the drink. Acceptable.

Manhattan

Not bad! The hints of cherry cola worked pretty well with Bulleit. Not spectacular, but not bad either.

Best For

You’re shopping at Total Wines and you want an inexpensive change of pace. But really you should reach for M & R or Cinzano instead.

15. Dolin (11.99 750ml Total Wine 7 More)

A French vermouth that confirms my impression of French vermouths: while Italian vermouths strive to make a statement, French vermouths are more reserved and prefer to rest in the background of a cocktail.

Neat

Light and mild, Dolin is not too sweet, not too medicinal, low bitterness. Dolin is nicely restrained which makes it very good on the rocks with a twist of lemon.

Manhattan

If you’re a bourbon Manhattan drinker then Dolin seems pretty run-of-the-mill to me. Bold whiskey benefits from a more substantial vermouth backbone.

On the other hand, if you’re a Canadian (or brandy) Manhattan drinker, then Dolin hits the spot. Pleasant, restrained, tasty, it makes for a nicely balanced Canadian Manhattan — although I would still put Cocchi ahead.

 Negroni

A pass for me. Dolin is a bit tame for a Negroni.  Viva l’Italia!

Best For

Canadian Manhattans with a French slant, and on the rocks with a twist.

16. Imbue Sweet Classic Vermouth

Imbue Cellars is a small vermouth producer from Oregon. I was given a bottle as a gift from a dear friend.

Neat

A bit drier than a typical Italian vermouth the Imbue was lightly herbal with some vanilla and a lightly bitter finish. It is slightly wine forward which makes it reminiscent of a port or sherry. It was very tasty neat and on the rocks.

Manhattan

Not the place for this vermouth as it was over powered by the bourbon. Might work in a Canadian or brandy Manhattan — but certainly not better than Cocchi (or Dolin for that matter).

Negroni

Surprisingly this vermouth faired a bit better in a Negroni where the sweetness and bite of the Campari made up for the lack of herbal sweetness, and the slight vanilla hints came through in a pleasantly subtle fashion. No problems here, but no fireworks either.

Best For

Neat. This vermouth is more suited as an aperitif than as a cocktail ingredient.

17. Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Rubino

A specialty vermouth from Martini & Rossi. My brother had a bottle that I was fortunate enough to taste on a visit. Ruby red in color, this vermouth promises something different.

Neat

Exotically colored, the Rubino looks great on the rocks. Warmly herbal with a nice bitter finish, this vermouth makes a terrific aperitif. Would also be excellent with some soda.

Manhattan

I did not have a chance to try, but I predict a Manhattan is not the place for this vermouth.

Negroni

The flavors that delight on the rocks falter in the Negroni where the Rubino and the Campari compete. Also the resulting Negroni is oddly colored. Not a deal killer, but esthetics is an important part of cocktails. This is a case where the the parts are greater than the whole.

Best For

An aperitif on the rocks or with soda. As with many speciality vermouths, the characteristics that make this vermouth tasty on the rocks are either lost or misplaced in a mixed drink.

Summary and Recommendations

  • Best for a Bulleit Manhattan: Carpano Antica Formula
  • Best for a Canadian or Brandy Manhattan: Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
  • Best for a Negroni: Martini and Rossi Rosso
  • Best on the rocks: Punt E Mes
  • Best on the rocks everyday: Cinzano Rosso
  • Best on the cheap: Ponti Sole Rosso (Trader Joe’s)
  • Best everyday/all-around: Martini and Rossi Rosso

Tip: keep your good quality vermouths in the refrigerator and consume them within a couple of months.

And the fun doesn’t stop here.  If you want to go beyond the world of Vermouth see my review of some popular Italian Amari. And for some great cocktails made with sweet vermouth see From the Manhattan to the Negroni: A Tour of the World’s Finest Cocktails

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Converting Protected iTunes Audio Files So You Can Play Them Anywhere

Music purchased in iTunes in Mid 2007 and earlier can’t be played on any non-Apple (iOS/MacOS) device. These music files are protected with Digital Rights Management (DRM) and are labeled in iTunes as Protected AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4p. Apple introduced iTunes Plus in 2007 — a DRM free, higher quality format. These files are labeled as Purchased AAC audio file and have a file suffix of m4a and can be played on (most) any device. By 2009 Apple stopped selling DRM encumbered music and all was iTunes Plus.

Since we were an early iTunes adopter our iTunes library had a lot of protected files. Over a thousand. In the last year or so I’ve started using the Amazon ecosystem more and more. We use Amazon Prime music, we have an Amazon Fire TV Stick and Echo, and I’m considering getting an Amazon Fire tablet. With Amazon Prime I can upload my purchased iTunes music — yeah! — but NOT if it is Protected AAC. Boo! And if I do get that Fire Tablet, those protected iTunes files won’t play. The more recent stuff will — but not most stuff purchased before 2009.

Bottom line is: you do not want any DRM protected music in your music library. So how do you get rid of the iTunes DRM?

There was a period of time where you could upgrade protected files to iTunes Plus for a fee. But that option is no longer available. Fortunately there is still a way — it’s just a little indirect and will cost you $25.

Before doing this process you should check your iTunes library and see how many protected music files you have. One easy way to do that is to create a smart playlist where Kind contains “Protected AAC audio file”. You can then see how many you have and if it is worth the $25 to convert them.

iTunes Match

Apple introduced iTunes Match in early 2013. The concept is simple. iTunes Match scans your iTunes music library. Most of your music files Apple already has sitting on their servers (“in the cloud”). For those that don’t match, iTunes uploads them to your own private corner of the cloud. Once the scanning/uploading is complete your music is available to you on any iOS device. You no longer have to sync the music files from your Mac to your phone. And you don’t even need to keep local copies of the files on your Mac if you don’t want to.

The catch? It costs $25 a year. But for the $25 you get another bonus. Since all the music in Match is iTunes Plus (DRM free) you can convert your m4p files to m4a by simply forcing a re-download of the files. Once you do that you can upload them to Amazon Prime, copy them to your Android tablet, etc.

Here’s How

1) Subscribe to iTunes Match

You can do this in the iTunes store. It will cost you $25.

2) Turn off Auto-Renewal

If you are primarily using iTunes Match to convert your library, then go to your iTunes Account settings and turn off auto-renewal now so you don’t forget. When iTunes Match lapses in a year you won’t get the cloud benefits, but all the converted files you have downloaded will stay converted.

3) Click on the Match tab in iTunes

After subscribing to Match it will go through three phases:

  1. Gathering info about your iTunes library
  2. Matching your music with songs in the iTunes Store
  3. Uploading artwork and remaining songs

I stopped the process after it finished #2. I will likely go back and start it up again to finish #3, but it’s not critical at this point.

4) Examine Your Library

Now click on My Music. Bring up the Songs menu in the upper right corner and make sure “Kind” is checked in the Show Columns menu.

Next click on the Kind column to sort your music by file type. Scroll down to your “Protected AAC audio files”. These are the files you want to upgrade.

5) Delete a protected file and re-download it

First try just one file to make sure things are working as you expect. Do this:

  1. Select one of your Protected AAC audio files
  2. Press the Delete key
  3. Click Move to Trash
  4. In iTunes the song will now be labeled “Purchased AAC audio file”. There will be a ready to download icon next to it: available
  5. Control-Click on the selected song and choose Download off of the menu
  6. The music file will download as an m4a file! Yipee!

6) Repeat for the rest of your library

I did it this way:

  1. Sort by Kind to identify Protected AAC audio files
  2. Some of my protected songs had the Waiting cloud icon: waiting. From what I could tell these are songs that did not match and iTunes wanted to upload them. This seems like a bug, since one would think that any song I purchased in iTunes would match, but for some reason they did not. Less than 1% of my Protected songs had this icon, so I decide just to ignore them for now.
  3. For the other protected songs I selected large chunks of them and hit Delete then Move to Trash.
  4. Once I was done deleting the protected songs I sorted the song list by the cloud icon column, then selected all the “ready to download” songs and downloaded them
  5. It took a couple hours to finish the downloads

7) You iTunes Library is now DRM free!

I then uploaded some Nirvana to my Amazon Prime account and listened to it on my Echo (Alexa! Play Nirvana). Something I could not do before the conversion

References

  1. Subscribe to iTunes Match
  2. iTunes Match: Understanding the iCloud Status icons
  3. About iTunes Plus and Converting DRM music