Vermouth is basically a drink made from wine, with a couple of spices and herbs added for flavoring. Vermouth can also be depicted as fortified wine flavored with aromatic spices and herbs. Note that a fortified wine is one that has alcohol added to enhance the alcohol content strength, but with vermouth, fortified means the alcohol is used purely for flavoring.
Vermouth traces its origin back to the late 18th century where it was traditionally used as a tonic drink, thanks to the herbs used during the process of making it; herbs such as coriander, nutmeg, juniper, wormwood, chamomile, orange peel, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and marjoram to name but a few. The name of the drink was derived from a German word Wermutkraut, which happens to be the name of the main herb plant that makes Vermouth - the wormwood plant.
Although the aromatic herbs found in Vermouth today form the signature taste for the drink, they were initially used as a simple way of concealing the cheap flavored wines which were used to produce large amounts of vermouth. Vermouth is famous for the role it plays in the famous martini cocktail. In addition to making cocktails, it can also be used as a substitute of white wine in the kitchen. This is because vermouth is shelf-stable and is fortified, hence cannot sour when used for cooking.
There are three main types of vermouth, sweet, semi-sweet and dry vermouth i.e. dry, white/bianco and sweet/red. Originally, vermouth was made sweet, from both white and red wines, and it was used mainly as an aperitif. Today, sweet red vermouth has assumed the role of an aperitif, used to arouse the appetite before the main meal. Sweet vermouth can be consumed clean or mixed in drinks such as the Manhattan and martinis. The alcohol content of sweet vermouth is about 16%, with a sugar content of about 14-15%.
Sweet vermouth is shelf-stable, at least until when open, hence should be kept in a cool dry place before opening and refrigerated on opening, where it can stay for up to a year. On the other hand, dry white vermouth is the main ingredient used in mixing martinis, alongside gin. It is a fortified wine which is macerated with spices, herbs, caramel and all other ingredients. The alcohol content of dry vermouth is around 15-18% (30-36 proof), with a sugar content of 5-7%. Typically, dry vermouth is white.
The half dry or half sweet vermouth is the blend of both the sweet and dry vermouth. It can be used to cook, in mixed drinks or can also be consumed as an aperitif. Thus, when buying vermouth, it is important to read the labels sparingly to ensure you select the type of vermouth that you want. This is because the different varieties feature unique mouthfeels, unique flavors and of course their functions are different.
It is not uncommon to find red vermouth being referred to as Italian vermouth while white vermouth referred to as French vermouth. This is because Italy and French are credited for the invention of the two respectively.
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