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When Italian monks first refined the taste of fortified red wine with aromatic herbs and roots, they are unlikely to have been aware that they were creating a drink that would become a symbol of the bohemian lifestyle, as in the film “La Dolce Vita.”
Venetian merchants brought spices to Turin from different countries, which opened up new possibilities to improve the perfumed wines used in those times for medicinal purposes. Production grew, and at the end of the 17th century the town became the center of European production of “herbal wine.” The refined taste of the drink pleased the king, and vermouth received the status of “official court aperitif.”
The name of this fragrant drink with a bitter tinge comes from the German word wermut, which means wormwood. Essence of wormwood makes up to 43 percent of the extract used to flavor vermouth, which also includes other components such as yarrow, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and a few dozen other aromatic plants.
Over the many centuries of its existence, the recipe for vermouth has remained almost unchanged. The art of making vermouth, as before, is based around great practical experience in knowing what ingredients to mix and in what proportions. However, the exact ratio between plant extracts, wine, spirit alcohol and sugar used in production are still kept strictly secret by each brand.
Vermouth can be white or red. White sweet vermouth with 10 percent to 15 percent sugar has a more delicate flavor with low bitterness. Sweet red vermouth, with at least 15 percent sugar, has a more intense flavor and the pronounced astringent taste, characteristic of vermouth. Dry vermouth, with sugar content not exceeding 4 percent, is exclusively white. These varieties are lighter than sweet ones and have a strongly expressed bitterness in the taste. The alcoholic strength of vermouth is typically 12 percent to 15 percent.
Thanks to its tart taste, which increases the appetite, vermouth is considered the ideal aperitif. Dry vermouth is served with ice in a whiskey glass, diluted a little with water. Adding a little water is believed to release the fragrance more fully. Just keep in mind that, when opening a bottle of red vermouth, it is best to not pour it into glasses straight away, but let the open bottle stand for a while to let it “breathe,” meaning that contact with oxygen will reveal the drink’s full flavor.
Sweet vermouth is good neat as well as in combination with spirits like gin, vodka or brandy. Cocktails using vermouth are in steady demand because of the way vermouth successfully sets off the sharp taste of strong alcohol. The easiest way to see this is to try a Manhattan cocktail, which is bourbon, vermouth and a drop of bitters, or a Vodka Martini which is vodka, dry vermouth and an olive, which James Bond always insisted must be “shaken, not stirred.”
Roasted peanuts, salted almonds or fruit are recommended as a snack to go with drinks made from vermouth.