If your basic cocktail recipe was a party, it would work something like this: a bottle of gin, tequila, or whiskey actually throws the party; big-mouth guests like Campari, mint, and Absinthe make a lot of noise around the karaoke machine; and bottles of vermouth — dry and sweet — bring a bunch of snacks but end up hanging out quietly on the couch for most of the night. A reliable guest, but no party animal.

That’s not to say vermouth isn’t interesting. If you sit down next to vermouth at the party, you’re almost guaranteed to have a complex, layered conversation despite the fact that Campari just cued up the Les Mis soundtrack on the Karaoke Master 3000. Vermouth is actually incredibly generous with flavor, but its complexity makes it more of a backbone/background component to cocktails (compared with the pronounced bitter grapefruit of a Campari or the cool anise intensity of Absinthe). And that applies whether you’re talking about sweet or dry vermouth.

Of course, chances are you’re not talking about sweet or dry (or, for that matter, white) vermouth, precisely because they’re background players. Sure, you might see vermouths splayed across cocktail menus, and you’re maybe vaguely aware that they’re key supporting players in some of your favorite classic cocktails (think Martini, Manhattan, Negroni). But you’re probably not discussing the merits of sweet vs. dry vs. white vermouth with your imbibing friends the same way you might discuss oaky Chardonnay or hyper-hopped IPA.

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Clearly, we’d like to change that. But not because we’re getting subsidized by Big Vermouth, or because we drank a bunch of sweet vermouth in the sun and now we’re tipsy in love with the stuff. Vermouth is actually an incredible thing, on its own as a ridiculously classy aperitif or as a cocktail ingredient. Sure, we’ve avoided vermouth bottles ourselves, mostly because their labels are typically, albeit classily, befuddling (in another language, at that).  But once you get past the surprisingly simple distinctions you’ll see below, you’ll actually be able to navigate the world of vermouth like a pro. And by pro we mean classy-Italian-person ordering a vermouth apertivo on the piazza. Or Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day.

But before we delve into the styles themselves, three essential things to know about vermouth generally: no matter the final color, all vermouth starts life as white wine; all vermouth is aromatized, albeit with highly proprietary (super private, as in junior-high-school diary private) blends; and all vermouth is fortified, which basically means the ABV is dialed up a few notches above standard wine. It’s especially important to understand what “aromatized” means, since it’s central to the character of any vermouth. Fortunately, it’s also a very simple concept, meaning other flavors are added to the base, aromatics such herbs, bark, roots, citrus, and spices. We don’t really do stuff like that today for a couple reasons: wine production quality is a lot higher than it was a couple of centuries ago so added flavors aren’t necessary, and there’s no longer a need for the kind of medicinal power certain aromatics were thought to bring to the bottle. We have our wine, we have our medicine cabinets, and most of our bark stays outside, on trees.

The Wormwood plant, courtesy of TJDemoGarden.com

But when vermouth was invented in the late 18th century, things were a bit different. Wine could be improved, theoretically turned into a medicinal “cure,” with the addition of aromatics. In fact, that’s how vermouth got its name. “Wermut” in German means “wormwood,” a reference to the bitter shrub that was used in early, so-called hillside wines and in old-school medicines. And while a lot more goes into all styles of vermouth, the name stuck.

As for the styles themselves, it’s actually all pretty simple. The O.G. vermouth is the “sweet” or “rosso” (red) version, originally created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano in 1786. We should note: the version Carpano created, which became the standard, isn’t sweet and red the way something like Hawaiian Punch is. In fact, most every vermouth made in the sweet/rosso style pours out almost a cola brown, with similar cola flavors (bark, spice), thanks in part to the aromatics themselves but also a little friend no one really talks about called “caramel coloring.” There’s definitely residual sugar but also an edge of bitterness and a surprising acidity that hoists everything up — and explains why Europeans like the style as an aperitif. Although today, sweet red vermouth is a common cocktail ingredient, probably best known for its place in our beloved Manhattan.

Dry and white vermouth came in the early 19th century, courtesy of French producer Dolin. A quick point of clarification: all dry vermouth is white, but not all white vermouth is dry. But don’t worry, it’s still pretty simple. Dry vermouth will actually have less residual sugar (and also notably less spiciness) than sweet red vermouth. It’s more herbaceous (though nothing approaching Chartreuse and its 130 herbs and florals) with a light to medium body and a cooling sensation. White, or “blanc” or “bianco,” vermouth has noticeable residual sugar without being cloying or heavy, with nice acidity and some underlying, balancing bitterness, not dissimilar to the bitterness in sweet red vermouth (though there’s little to no spice here). Even if you think you haven’t really tasted dry vermouth, you probably have — that is, if you’ve had a properly made Martini. (The “Martini” vermouth is actually an Italian brand, Martini & Rossi, which produces dry, white, and red vermouths.)

Most of the vermouth you’ll encounter will be either French or Italian. And while there are some lingering geographical associations with the different styles of vermouth based on its history (e.g. sweet red vermouth is Italian, dry white vermouth is French), today any kind of vermouth — sweet, dry, or white — can be made by Italian, French, and even American and Spanish producers. But even within that variety, the terms you need to know are Rosso/Rouge, Bianco/Blanc, and Dry. As ever, the best way to get to know them is by tasting. Fortunately, unlike other essential cocktail ingredients (citrus juice, simple syrup, fresh herbs and so on), you won’t look or feel crazy consuming this one on its own, ideally while you hang out all quiet and hip at a party while everyone else knocks back vodka shots and argues over the emotional validity of the Swift-Hiddleston connection.

Header image via Alessia Pierdomenico / Shutterstock.com