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The straight truth about vermouth

Summer is a great time to examine the variety of vermouths, which go way beyond manhattans and martini mixers. Expand your summer aperitif regime: Dabble with varieties and splash with soda on ice. Cheers!

For years, I regarded vermouth as an offensive-smelling red or clear liquid best left in the back of the liquor store, bottled and sold in "sweet" or "dry" vials for a suspiciously low price.

Vermouth, I presumed, was meant for manhattans, and thanks to one really bad manhattan ordered in (where else?) Manhattan, I stayed away— from manhattans, from whiskey, bitters and, especially, from vermouth.

How naive I was.

The truth about vermouth is that it predates the manhattan, and every other cocktail in which it's featured. Born in Turin, Italy, in the late 1700s as an aperitif, vermouth is a fortified wine whose flavor has been enhanced (or "aromatized") with herbs and spices — notably wormwood, from which "vermouth" borrows its name.

Over the centuries, it has evolved into a cocktail ingredient capable of making or breaking a drink, depending on what kind is used and how much, and some of the better blends are still enjoyed by traditionalists as an aperitif on the rocks with a twist of orange.

The great Lillet debate

The Bordeaux-based French aperitif Lillet is often categorized with vermouth — literally, on store shelves, and figuratively, because it's a fortified wine. Introduced in 1895 in tandem with Europe's growing wine aperitif trend, Kina Lillet (blanc) was released as a "wine tonic": fortified wine aperitif plus quinine.

But while both Lillet and vermouth are based in wine and are fortified up to 19 percent alcohol, as Lillet's North American Brand Ambassador Nicole Cloutier explains, Lillet isn't a vermouth for two reasons: It contains liqueur, and doesn't contain wormwood.

"Lillet behaves a bit like a sweet vermouth in a martini," Cloutier says, "but it's very much its own thing."

Nevertheless, the attraction remains: We enjoy subbing Lillet rouge (released in 1962, $18) for sweet vermouth in Negronis, and sipping Lillet blanc ($18) on the rocks with a twist of orange.

Vermouth tasting

Carpano Antica
Details: The granddaddy of vermouths, invented in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. This is as good as vermouth gets.
Taste: Smooth and well balanced, with a bitter edge.
Best enjoyed… On its own, or on the rocks. While it makes a great manhattan, it's good enough to sip solo.
Price: $28

Punt e Mes
Details: Developed by the Carpano family in 1870, this bitter incarnation is currently experiencing a renaissance.
Taste: Bitter and citrus notes, like the pith of a lemon; astringent aftertaste.
Best enjoyed... In a strong cocktail, like a manhattan, or on its own with ice and sparkling water.
Price: $21

Cinzano Rouge
Details: Released in 1816 by the Cinzano family as a sweet, spicy aperitif.
Taste: Candied citrus, cinnamon and spice; mild, smooth texture.
Best enjoyed... In a manhattan or on the rocks. This stuff is too powerful for weaker cocktails.
Price: $7

Cinzano Bianco
Details: One of the first dry vermouths, worlds apart from its sweet cousin.
Taste: Sweet with a bitter finish; hints of pepper and herbs.
Best enjoyed...In a more delicate cocktail, like a martini; not strong enough to fly solo.
Price: $7

Cinzano Extra Dry
Details: Bianco's more offensive relative.
Taste: Initial bittersweet bite; dry finish.
Best enjoyed... In a lighter cocktail, preferably against something citrusy. Neat = not advised.
Price: $7

Noilly Prat French Extra Dry
Details: Born in 1813 as a French response to Italian vermouth; a popular classic.
Taste: Complex, floral and fragrant; lighter than the nose suggests.
Best enjoyed... The rare dry that's great on the rocks or chilled. Too strong for lighter drinks, like martinis.
Price: $9

Noilly Prat Rouge
Details: Less popular than its dry counterpart; strong and herbal.
Taste: Mild but powerful, menthol-like aftertaste.
Best enjoyed... In any recipe that calls for sweet vermouth, so long as it's a strong mix. Not so great solo.
Price: $9

Martini & Rossi Rossi
Details: Established in 1863; holds steady in popularity contests.
Taste: Prune, fig and nuts; one-dimensional, which is great for mixing.
Best enjoyed... In a negroni or similarly light cocktail; wouldn't play well in a heavy manhattan.
Price: $10

Martini & Rossi Bianco
Details: Aromatic almost to a fault; oregano and herbs reminiscent of Italian food.
Taste: Sweet, then bitter.
Best enjoyed... In a cocktail that enjoys a sweet edge, or on the rocks with soda.
Price: $8

Martini & Rossi Extra Dry
Details: Ridiculously strong and skunky.
Taste: Good luck.
Best enjoyed... When a powerful sweetener is called for. Not for sipping. Ever.
Price: $8

Martini & Rossi Rosato
Details: Introduced this spring, M&R's fruity newcomer marketed for cocktails.
Taste: Like a Campari knockoff: herbal, but too sweet to sip neat.
Best enjoyed... With a cheap prosecco, or in sangria or fruit-forward cocktails.
Price: $10

Gallo Sweet
Details: Half the price of others, which makes it popular for culinary use.
Taste: Like an Italian dessert: sweet, dried fruit and a medicinal bite.
Best enjoyed... In sturdier cocktails or dining recipes that call for herbal flavors.
Price: $4

Gallo Extra Dry
Details: The bargain alternative to Martini & Rossi's equivalent.
Taste: Thin, with an odd blend of candy and tropical florals.
Best enjoyed... In a lighter cocktail, but not meant for sipping.
Price: $4

lviera@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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