Maybe it's the glass—that tiny stem and flared, angular bowl are imprinted on the public mind as surely as its contents. Fill it with a little gin or vodka, a little vermouth and a big olive to bring out the spices, and you've got a martini, fabled in literature and song as America's classic cocktail. Even the country's onetime sworn enemies gave it up for the martini's hypnotic effect. FDR turned Joey Stalin on to it, and Nikita Khrushchev, who a half-century ago vowed that the Soviet Union would “bury” our nation, lost his bravado amid the martini's shadow, calling it “the U.S.A.'s most lethal weapon.”
And guess what active ingredient is central to its success? Bet you didn't know that vermouth is actually—yep—a wine.
Like its fortified cousins port and sherry, it's got way lots of sugar in it and, because of its long shelf-life, is often used in cooking in place of white wine. The thing that sets it apart is the use of herbs and spices in its manufacture. One of the chief ones is wormwood, supposedly the bitterest herb known—but if you swig a little dry vermouth by the French distributor Boissiere, you'll wonder exactly where that acrid taste is supposed to be hiding. I found a smidge of it under the chamomile aroma; beyond that, I thought I was eating coriander seeds. Vermouth, it turns out, has its place as a mainstream drink by itself.
So remember that the next time you're in your favorite beverage store: Even the classic martini points to wine, in the form of vermouth, as part of its great tradition. I've found several Boissieres ranging from $8.98 to $13.98; the wetter the drink, the higher the price. The bottom line is there's no escaping wine as a major factor in the nation's finest alcoholic traditions—at least one iconic cocktail, after all, wouldn't be at least one iconic cocktail without it.