In the last of the French Waterways guide to French liqueurs, we look at one of the world’s most famous aperitifs: vermouth.

Sharing the limelight with those made in next-door Italy, French vermouths form an essential part of pre-lunch preparations and the base for some of the world’s most famous cocktails. After all, where would James Bond be without his Vodka Martini?

vermouth french liqueurs

Classic French Vermouth

The French started making vermouth slightly after the Italians at the beginning of the 19th century. In Lyon, Joseph Noilly first concocted his version of white vermouth in 1813 by mixing fortified white wine with plants, herbs and spices. By mid-century, the family began to commercialise the brand and moved to Marseille, where Noilly Prat, the quintessential French vermouth, has been based ever since.

In the true tradition of French liqueurs, vermouth was originally made for medicinal purposes, but its taste quickly caught on as an aperitif. It now ranks among the most popular drinks in the world, not just in France where it shares centre stage with pastis before a meal.

What’s in vermouth

Vermouth brings together the best of French alcohol by mixing white wine with up to 40 plants, herbs and spices. At the heart of this aperitif lies wormwood. Indeed, the word vermouth is the French adaptation of the German ‘wermut’. Nowadays, wormwood rarely puts in an appearance in a vermouth and you’re only likely to taste it in a modern absinthe.

Like practically all plant-based French liqueurs, the recipe for vermouth remains a secret, known only to the master creators. Vermouths tend to contain a plant or root such as liquorice root, that provides the characteristic bitter after taste in the liqueur. All vermouths include some sort of citrus peel – the most common being orange, but lime and grapefruit are not unknown.

Vermouths also contain herbs and spices. These are typically juniper (that’s why vermouth mixes so well with gin), ginger and oregano, although the list of useable herbs runs long. When it comes to spices, cloves, cinnamon, star anise and vanilla are among the most common.

How to drink vermouth

The best way to drink vermouth is ice-cold (keep the bottle in the fridge) with a splash of soda water and twist of lemon. Add ice if you like, but not too much to avoid the liqueur becoming diluted.

However, vermouth comes into its full glory in a cocktail. Combined with vodka and topped with an olive (shaken not stirred) it becomes one of James Bond’s preferred tipples. The original 1950s version mixes three parts gin with half of vermouth and a dash of bitters to create the classic Martini. Another vintage cocktail, the Manhattan, takes equal parts of whisky and red vermouth plus a splash of bitters.

Dry white vermouth also adds great depth of flavour to food. In Marseilles, it substitutes white wine in many dishes. These include the iconic bouillabaisse where some chefs prefer a dash of vermouth to pastis.

Unlike other French liqueurs, vermouth doesn’t keep for long. This isn’t one to store in the drinks cabinet for months as you would a cognac or crème de menthe. Vermouth lasts for a few weeks only – keep it in the fridge to increase its shelf life.

The Byrrh vermouth

This French liqueur might be pronounced ‘beer’, but in ingredients and taste it couldn’t be further away. Originally produced in 1866 by brothers Pallade and Simon Violet in Thuir, not far from Perpignan in deepest southern France, Byrrh counts as one of the most unusual French liqueurs. The distillery too has an unusual claim to fame: its entrance, a vaulted train station hall, was designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Like so many other French liqueurs, Byrrh too had medicinal roots and for many years, its marketing catchphrase was ‘hygienic tonic wine’. Its fortifying effects made it a huge success among health-seeking Europeans and Americans until the 1920s. The drink then fell into disfavour and it wasn’t until 2012 that the liqueur was relaunched.

What’s in Byrrh

Byrrh uses a unique combination of red wine and cinchona bark (for the characteristic base of quinine) and adds coffee, bitter orange and cocoa. Unlike some French liqueurs, this one adds no sugar. Exact quantities are unknown and it’s no surprise to discover that this too is a secret recipe.

How to drink Byrrh

Like all French vermouths, byrrh is essentially an aperitif. Connoisseurs drink it chilled with a twist of lemon or orange and no added soda, sometimes on the rocks. In keeping with its recent come-back, Byrrh is making something of a name for itself in cocktail bars. The Casualty, served in New York, combines it with whisky, the Italian liqueur Amaro Montenegro and chocolate bitters. The result is reportedly more than warming.

Dubonnet vermouths

No guide to French liqueurs would be complete without a nod to Dubonnet, which mixed with lemonade was a classic tipple in 1970s Great Britain. The spirit also has British regal connections: the Queen Mother reportedly drank it every day mixed with gin and the present Queen is also said to be partial to a daily dose of Dubonnet.

Although it’s made with a different base than conventional vermouths, Dubonnet too plays an important role in the history of liqueur making. Its origins are medicinal since the drink was created in the mid-nineteenth century as a way of getting French legionnaires to take quinine. The adding of alcohol to the bitter cure for malaria became a hit among civilians too and Dubonnet became another favourite French aperitif.

What’s in Dubonnet

Unlike other vermouths, Dubonnet is mistelle-based. This liqueur undergoes no fermentation; instead it’s made with fortified grape juice to which the quinine is added. The taste is richer and sweeter than other vermouths so if you like your vermouth dry, Dubonnet probably won’t be in your drinks cabinet.

How to drink Dubonnet

If you fancy emulating the French Legion, drink it neat on the rocks with a twist of lemon. If you’re after a 70s throw-back, add a good dash of lemonade. And if you want to mix it like royalty, combine three parts Dubonnet and seven parts gin with a twist of lemon.

More sophisticated versions combine the spirit with Pimm’s, Crème de Cassis, Triple Sec, tea and lemonade to make Royal Pimm’s Punch. Or the Diamond Dubonnet mixes it with gin and champagne before adding a spoon of edible diamonds for real royal panache.

Dinner on board one of our luxury hotel barge cruises gives you the chance to try the best of French liqueurs, both as aperitifs and digestives. Book your trip now.   

Our step by step guide to French liqueurs: