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Vermouth struggles to save itself

With the martini enjoying fame, you'd expect vermouth — a key ingredient — to share in the rising tide. Not so.  Most drinkers want their drinks with nary a drop of this fortified wine. How will it survive?

With the martini enjoying renewed fame, you'd expect one key ingredient, vermouth, to be happily floating in that rising tide.

Not so.

True, the martini has made a conceptual resurgence, but the word now speaks more of the shapely, conical glass than the gin-based libation of decades past. It can be found attached to the sugariest of concoctions.

Even the most scrupulous of bartenders, when asked for a would-be traditional martini, often leave out the vermouth, serving up nothing more than chilled spirits in a pretty glass.

"While there has been an explosion of martinis, to us traditionalists it ain't an explosion. Somehow when you put a chocolate bar in vodka, I don't consider that a martini," says David Morel, president of Distillerie Stock.

While Distillerie Stock, the second-largest U.S. seller of vermouth, has seen sales of both its sweet and dry versions remain steady in recent years, national sales for vermouth and apertif wines remain as flat as month-old soda. Just under two million gallons were imported in 2002, according to the Adams Wine Handbook, down about 5 percent since 1990. Most of the rest of the market is covered by Italian workhorses Martini & Rossi and Cinzano, and France's Noilly Prat.

Vermouth has a storied history. Its name derives from the German word for wormwood, a psychoactive plant also used to distill absinthe. First concocted in the late 1700s, vermouth remains a fortified wine infused with plants, herbs and spices — with exact blends a trade secret for each winemaker. The French largely pioneered the dry vermouth that has been a staple for a decent martini, while the Italians forged ahead with the sweet, or red, vermouth that is the backbone of a Manhattan or Rob Roy.

Long before they were relegated to backshelf status as mixers, vermouths were enjoyed as apertifs: light drinks intended to whet the appetite before a meal. U.S. drinkers may be familiar with Dubonnet and Lillet, which are often included in the category but sell as standalone drinks.

Martini vs. martiniThe martini, its origins muddled, appeared in the late 1800s, though not as the drink you know today: Made with sweet, low-grade Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth plausibly covered up the taste of the rotgut.

With the rise of London dry gin, which most of us drink nowadays, the martini evolved into something a bit crisper.

"People would go into a bar and people would say, 'I want a martini but I want you to make it with that dry vermouth,'" says Robert Hess, a cocktail historian and creator of the site Drinkboy.com.

Hence the dry martini. That term morphed over time as well, though, hastened by Prohibition's long, um, dry spell. "Dry" began to indicate less and less vermouth, aided in no small part by celebrities who advocated the driest martinis possible.

Winston Churchill's idea of dry was simply to nod toward France while pouring straight gin. (Hess and other vermouth fans often correllate this redefinition of dry with certain public figures' noted alcoholism. Less vermouth equals more hard liquor.)

The 1960s dry martinis of James Bond and Frank Sinatra, among others, further diminished vermouth's dwindling presence. By the 1990s martini revival, only an eyedropper of vermouth went into the glass, if that. Many bartenders simply wave the bottle over the shaker — and even then, some customers complain of too much vermouth.

"The majority of drinkers out there are neophytes. They're following the trends. They're listening to the people next to them," says Hess.

California winemaker Andrew Quady suspects something else as well: "The quality of the vermouth that's out there? Most of it doesn't add anything to the flavor of a martini."

An American version
In 1999, Quady was asked contacted by a friend, Michael Dellar of San Francisco's Lark Creek Restaurant Group, to create a high-end dry vermouth for top-quality martinis. Known for his dessert wines, Quady turned to the task, producing both dry and sweet vermouths, which he named Vya.

At the same time, California's Duckhorn Wine Company devised its own premium vermouth, King Eider. The two were arguably the first premium vermouths produced in the United States. (Duckhorn ended production of King Eider this summer after lackluster sales.)

While Vya's dry version is austere, it retains citrus underpinnings and a subtle herbal tinge, providing a clear, bright edge to a well-mixed gin martini; over ice, it's refreshingly full-bodied, far more than the average vermouth.

Quady roams the foothills of the Sierra Nevada for new herbs to include in his annually updated blends. He prefers to drink equal parts of his sweet and dry, and the sweet now outsells the dry — "which shows that people are drinking it more as an aperetif."

That's exactly what he and Morel hope for: that, martinis aside, more restauranteurs will provide regular apertif lists, enticing customers to begin their meals with something lighter than a mixed drink.

Since most vermouths sell for under $6 — though Vya averages around $20 a bottle — it may be hard to convince drinkers to pay that for just one serving. But the vermouth makers believe they can succeed, especially with their sweet offerings, which may better match the modern American palate.

"You've got to be innovative," Morel says. "You've got to persevere."