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Vermouth is a liquor made from wine, with a number of different herbs added for flavor. It is known as an aromatized liquor, and some people refer to it as a fortified wine. Strictly speaking, however, a fortified wine usually has alcohol added to it to increase its potency, while vermouth uses it for the flavor it imparts. This liquor is probably best known for its role in the popular cocktail, the martini, and the most popular brand is Martini & Rossi, whose name most likely gave rise to the name of the drink. In America and Britain, ordering a martini will likely get a person a gin or vodka cocktail, but in other regions of the world, the term refers to sweet vermouth, which is popular as an aperitif.
There are a few different types of vermouth, ranging from the dry version used in martini cocktails to the very sweet white type used as an aperitif. Sweet red vermouth is also available, although it is less sweet than its white cousin, and the semi-sweet variety, which falls somewhere between dry and red, is used as a mixer sometimes. Dry vermouth is approximately 18% alcohol and has less than 7% residual sugar left, while sweeter liquors are around 15% alcohol and may have as much as 15% residual sugar remaining.
Vermouth was created in the late 18th century by an Italian and was originally used as a tonic drink because of the healing herbs that went into its creation. These herbs included wormwood, nutmeg, coriander, juniper, orange peel, cloves, marjoram, and cinnamon. The name comes from the German word Wermutkraut, which is the name for the wormwood plant. Wormwood, an herb also found in absinthe, helps to give the liquor its distinctive flavor. The aromatic herbs, although now a signature part of the drink’s taste, were originally used simply as an easy way to cover the flavor of the cheap wines used to produce it in large quantities.
Early vermouth was all sweet, made from both red and white wines, and enjoyed primarily as an aperitif on its own. The French are usually credited with the invention of the dry version sometime in the early 19th century, and to this day, France is often associated with drier whites and Italy with sweeter reds, though both nations produce both types in large quantities.