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Buying Guide for Vermouth

Close-up of a vermouth bottle with label

This fortified, aperitif wine, infused with aromatic herbs and spices, is the catalyst that transforms gin or vodka into a Martini or a Manhattan. Originating as a medicinal potion in southern Europe in the seventeenth century, vermouth shares much in common with herbal liqueurs, especially bittersweet Italian amaro. In Europe, both are traditionally served as aperitifs, chilled or on the rocks, to stimulate digestion; in the United States, both are celebrated as essential ingredients for the mixologist. Store your vermouth in the refrigerator for longer use.

Know the Label

These terms commonly appear on vermouth labels. For more information, please ask the staff at your Virginia ABC store.

Vermouth is "aromatized" by infusions of herbs and spices, which add distinctive flavors and aromas depending on the recipe (see also "Herbs").
Extra Dry
Lacking sweetness. Dry vermouth is usually pale colored, and derives its dry characteristics from infusions of herbs and spices. The relative "dryness" among brands of dry vermouth varies; within the same brand, "extra dry" usually indicates less sweetness than its "dry" counterpart.  Dry vermouth may sometimes be termed "French" vermouth; it is an essential ingredient for Martinis.
Herbs and spices impart distinctive aromas and flavors to vermouth. These "botanicals," which are infused into the fortified wine, may include wormwood, cardamon, ginseng, nuts, citrus fruit essences and aromatic herbs  (EC No 122/94). Unlike gin, which also is infused with botanicals, vermouth is not flavored by juniper, is lower in alcohol, and uses wine, rather than grain spirit, as a base. (See also "aromatized.")
By convention, French-style vermouth is dry and pale, and Italian-style vermouth is sweet and red-colored. This terminology is only historical: French producers can create vermouth in the dry, Italian style and vice versa.
Fortification means the addition of distilled spirits to increase alcohol content. Vermouth is typically fortified by the addition of brandy, creating a spirit that is generally around 18 percent alcohol by volume.
Sweet vermouth usually contains 10–15  percent sugar (although sometimes higher), approximating the sweetness of a dessert wine. Unlike wine (but similar to some cordials), the sugar in vermouth is added, rather than being a residual of the fermentation process. Sweet vermouth may sometimes be termed "Italian" or "red" vermouth; it is an essential ingredient for Manhattans.
Table wine
Vermouth is a wine-based spirit. Typically, to make vermouth, white wine is aromatized with herbs and spices and fortified with brandy. Occasionally, red wine may be used; however, the red color typical of sweet vermouth usually arises from caramelized sugar or other ingredients, rather than the wine itself.

Cocktail Conversation

Traditionally, the bitter characteristic of dry vermouth is imparted by wormwood (Artemesia absinthium), an herb also used in absinthe. The name "vermouth" in fact arose from the German word for this plant, and European law still requires wormwood to be an ingredient in vermouth (EU 251/2014). In the United States, vermouth is more loosely defined as "flavored with herbs and other natural aromatic flavoring materials"  (27 CFR 4.21). Accordingly, domestically produced vermouths may not contain wormwood at all—although some fans of the classic spirit  might argue that such products are not technically vermouth.
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