I’m on a roll lately: our house has been Food & Drink 101! It started with researching why we smell butter (along with other odd aromas) in wine, continued with an in depth look at balsamic vinegar, and today, it has morphed into a new question: what IS vermouth?

In America we see it in small amounts in the martini… but I think it is safe to say that few know what vermouth is or what it tastes like on its own. A little research (and one impromptu vermouth tasting later) I had my answers.

The Origins of Vermouth

According to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible” (Workman Publishing 2001), vermouth originated in the Piedmont region of Italy in the 1700s, where it was originally Moscato wine flavored with a secret recipe that used over one hundred different ingredients—including anise, tree bark, chamomile, cinnamon and saffron—to make either a sweet red or a semisweet to dry white liquor. Before it was banned, absinthe was also an ingredient; in fact, the word “vermouth” actually comes from the German word vermut, which means “wormwood” in German. (Wormwood is, of course, what absinthe is derived from.) Obviously, today’s vermouth does not include this ingredient… but the name remains a symbol of its origin, and the true recipe for making vermouth remains a secret. They’ll never tell…

After the wine is flavored, it is fortified (alcohol is added to it to increase the alcohol content). This increases the alcohol in the vermouth significantly: Moscato wines are anywhere from 12 to 14%, but vermouth ranges in alcohol from 15 to 21%.

Common Uses

After flavoring and fortifying, the vermouth is ready to be drunk. But how? In the United States, it is a key ingredient in the ubiquitous martini; in fact, the word “martini” is derived from the more famous vermouth brand, Martini & Rossi. Most Americans prefer the slightest amount of vermouth in their martinis; however, in other parts of the world, a “martini” will actually be a drink that is predominantly (sometimes solely) vermouth.

Famous Vermouth Producers

The more famous producers are the above-mentioned Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Punt e Mes, all made in Italy. However, the United States just recently jumped into the vermouth-making market: in California, BLANK produces high-end red and white vermouth. They recommend serving them together (2/3 red vermouth and 1/3 white) on the rocks with an orange slice. I can attest that it is an absolutely delicious drink.

All of this talk of vermouth has me craving a martini! I personally love a Kettle One vodka martini, slightly dirty… and I’ve always had a pension for blue cheese stuffed olives. I would love to hear what your favorite cocktails are!

Amanda