You may have a bottle of vermouth languishing in your liquor cabinet right now. (Incidentally, if you do, and it’s an open bottle from last New Year’s, throw it away and pay close attention.) It’s the other liquid component of a Martini–now often (wrongly) reduced to a few drops swilled in the cocktail glass and flung out–and a key player in the Manhattan, the Negroni, and other classic cocktails. But it’s worthy of consideration on its own, and makes for a lovely soothing sip, neat or on the rocks, with a twist of lemon or orange.
Vermouth is a fortified wine–that is, it’s made from a blend of wines to which pure grape alcohol is added, bringing the alcohol percentage up to around 18%. It’s then infused with herbs, spices, fruits and other botanicals, sweetened with sugar, and mixed with water. The practice goes back to ancient times, when the Greeks and Romans infused their wines with plants and spices for medicinal purposes. Vermouth as we know it today was introduced in Turin in the late eighteenth century, where it was thought to stimulate the appetite and aid digestion, two beliefs to which I happily subscribe.
Vermouth is made mostly in Italy and France; it is either red or white, and sweet or dry, but you won’t be overwhelmed at the liquor store either by available varieties or by the price (which runs about $7-$10 for a 1-liter bottle). The flavors vary greatly from brand to brand. My favorite is Noilly Prat: the dry version is pale yellow with a grassy green, herbal flavor, and the sweet vermouth is offset by a bitter finish. You can mix the two in any proportion you like; a cocktail containing equal parts sweet and dry vermouth is called “perfect”, and suitable for before- or after-dinner sipping. Served in equal parts on its own, it’s called a French Kiss, and suitable for people who like to drink cocktails with naughty names.
Vermouth goes off quickly, so store it in the fridge and use it within about a month of opening it. You can substitute dry vermouth for dry white wine in recipes. It’s especially good in the simplest risotto, where the herbal flavors add richness and depth.