In America we see vermouth in small amounts in the martini… but it is safe to say that few know what vermouth is or what it tastes like on its own.
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.
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%.
After flavoring and fortifying, the vermouth is ready to be drunk. 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, Vya 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.