So-called varietal wines are made with at least 51 to 75 percent of a single grape type (Le Brumate Barolo). Others rely on a blend of two or more grapes to determine their substance and character (Valpolicella Superiore Mara Riposo).
Then there's vermouth, in which various wines are fortified with a potpourri of herbs, spices, fruit, seeds, roots, flowers, bark and wormwood. All of which defines vermouth as a classic example of an aromatized wine for all seasons, and for almost all reasons, too. It reportedly first appeared in China around 1,000 BC as a propitiatory medicine for stomach and intestinal disorders. It later was traced to Greece, India and France, where other botanical components were added to increase its medicinal potency.
Further chapters in venerable vermouth's history include 16th century European monks who diluted it with wine to neutralize the harsh, bitter taste. By the 18th century, the image of a homemade medicinal concoction began to fade when winemakers envisioned it as a new product with promising commercial potential.
Over time, vermouth was recognized by two distinct versions -- pale, dry and bitter, and red and sweet. It was classified as an "aromatized wine obtained from other wines and including alcohol, natural substances and/or aromatic flavoring additives." It must be composed of at least 75 percent wine, 14.5 percent alcohol and 22 percent artemisias (wormwood).
Vermouth is Available in Sweet, Dry Versions
Ver-moo-th is the French pronunciation of the German word "wermut" for the wormwood that has been a main ingredient for centuries. Wormwood is a European plant with silvery leaves and drooping yellow flowers that yields a sharp, dark green oil used in liqueurs and recipes.
In Turin, Italy, 1786, wine merchant Antonio Benedetto Carpano initiated the commercializing of vermouth by producing both dry and sweet versions. His new product was marketed as an aperitif that stimulates the appetite before a meal, not to be confused with a digestif that aids digestion following dinner. In the early 1900s, the tradition of having a drink before dining began to gain traction in the U.S., thus, the cocktail was born. Today, Italian aperitifs are divided into three general categories -- spirit, bitter and wine-based. Vermouth is the epitome of the latter.
Similar creations caught on in France as well, though the French rendition is dryer and more mild than the bitter, spicy, caramel-toned Italian brand. As aperitif became more fashionable, master mixers attempted to attract patrons to bars and restaurants by concocting secret house drinks like apertivi della casa.
Vermouth makers jealously guard their recipes. In general, they start by producing a base wine that's blended and aged to provide an ideal foundation for the eclectic botanicals and plant extractions.
Cinnamon, Ginger, Cloves Added to Vermouth
Italian -- or sweet -- vermouth uses Moscato wine as its base, adding cinnamon or ginger for "warmth" and cloves for "coolness." A tingling sensation from compounds developed by plants as a defense mechanism against animals is another trait associated with sweet vermouth.
Dry vermouth involves a dry white wine with about 18 percent alcohol. Compared to the sweet product, the dry kind fuses a hodgepodge of cinnamon, quinine, cardamom, marjoram, chamomile, coriander, juniper, hyssop and ginger. The flavor comes up as floral, herbal and saccharine, all at once.
Resulting from demand, vermouth manufacturers have created additional styles such as extra dry white, sweet white, amber and rose.
Today, dry vermouth is regarded as the essential element in the classic martini. Hence the term "dry martini." It also can be served straight up, chilled over ice as a frappe embraced with a dash of Angostura bitters. Movie fans can recall that the martini is the preferred libation of British secret agent/hero James Bond, who uttered the famous catchphrase "shaken, not stirred."
What dry vermouth did for martinis, sweet vermouth does for the legendary Manhattan. As the name implies, it originated in New York around the 1870s, assembled with whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, garnished with a Maraschino cherry. According to industry sources, more martinis are consumed than Manhattans.
As might be expected, not everyone embraces the common practice of mixing a martini with vermouth. Larry Nicola, owner-chef of Nic's Restaurant and Martini Lounge in Beverly Hills, Cal. says "We don't use vermouth because it basically dilutes the gin or vodka."
Right Chemistry in Cocktails
The next time you're at a bar, ask the bartender if he/she can make one of the lesser known vermouth cocktails such as Latin Manhattan (rum, sweet plus dry vermouth, bitters), Bombay (brandy, curaco, sweet and dry vermouth) or Sanctuary (triple sec, curaco, dry vermouth). Don't be surprised if he admits he never heard of them.
Speaking of mixologists, they are being challenged to come up with more innovative ways to serve vermouth. But they have to be careful that substituting multi-flavored vermouth for a milder version is risky chemistry that can knock the flavor out of balance.
An example of the right chemistry is the Waldorf cocktail, composed of equal parts of bourbon, absinthe and sweet vermouth. The strong bourbon and vermouth combine to tame the aggressive absinthe.
There are at least 31 brands of vermouth. Best-sellers, in no particular order, are Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, Carpano and Noilly Prat.
The fortified, aromatized potion is on a mission to work its way into the hearts and mouths of more people. That's why manufacturers and bartenders are adding more couth to vermouth.