The drink ($30, 375 milliliters) served as my introduction to real vermouth and sent me on a path of rethinking the French term aperitif.
The meaning would seem to be fairly obvious: An aperitif is something to drink before a meal to stimulate the appetite.
I often sip something before dinner without thinking much about it. Almost by default, it is a glass of sparkling wine. Sometimes, it is a little Manzanilla sherry, perfect when served with Marcona almonds or olives. I don’t often drink cocktails.
But sparkling wine, wonderful as it may be, is more about emotional preparation for eating, for getting in the proper mood. And with sherry and its accompaniments, you are already eating. In the strictest sense of the term, I have found little else that serves as pure an appetite-whetting function as a good vermouth on ice.
What is vermouth? It’s a fortified wine infused with herbs, spices, botanicals, fruits or vegetables. It is made with anything, really, that the chef, I mean, winemaker, believes will benefit the outcome. At 16 percent to 19 percent alcohol, vermouth is stronger than table wine. But when well made, vermouth wears it easily.
It can be sweet, like the Matthiasson blend, and, more familiarly, like the often innocuous products used in cocktails like the manhattan. It can be dry, like the kind you wave over the extra-dry martini (though for me, it’s not a martini without the vermouth).
In Europe, vermouths generally start with wormwood, an aromatic plant from which the word vermouth is said to have evolved. Like so many infused beverages, vermouth most likely started out as a palliative, meant to alleviate various ailments and physical imbalances.
Despite its unfounded notoriety as the mind-altering ingredient in absinthe, wormwood is not a hallucinogen, but it does stimulate the appetite…