To many, vermouth is just something that splashes well in a martini. To fine diners, it's the wine of choice before the meal gets started.

According to spirits lore, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates invented vermouth. The other component of the dry martini, gin, didn't come along until the 17th century, and even then it took another couple of centuries before anyone thought about combining the two. In the intervening martini-less years, people had to drink their vermouth in other ways. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you. Even in its simplest guises -- served on the rocks with a twist of citrus peel -- vermouth makes a bracing aperitif.

"So what the heck is vermouth?" you're probably asking right about now. The closest most of us usually get to this fascinating product is the aromatic film that remains on the cocktail shaker after the bartender tosses the initial swirl down the drain - a waste of good vermouth, but the accepted technique for making a proper dry martini. Vermouth is actually a wine, spiked with spirits, flavored with herbs and spices, and then aged in wood.

The recipes for specific brands are kept secret, and the composition of the stuff varies markedly from label to label. One of the traditional botanical ingredients gives vermouth its name - wormwood (Wermut in German), the same plant used to make the outlaw beverage absinthe.

These three bottles show that Hippocrates knew what he was doing. For a change of pace, next time skip the gin and try your vermouth straight.

Dry white vermouths with bitter, astringent qualities (the kind used in the dry martini) have traditionally been associated with France, while the reddish, sweeter versions were generally associated with Italy. These days, most manufacturers produce both styles, but one firm comes especially to mind when I think of red vermouth: Martini & Rossi.

The company, located in Turin, in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, has been producing this famous Rosso vermouth since 1863. It remained the company's sole product until it was joined by Martini & Rossi Extra Dry in 1900 and Bianco in the 1910s. The vivacious Rosso has a bittersweet quality that comes from a good balance between the caramel (source of the color as well as the sweetness) and the bitter botanicals. Martini & Rossi sticks by tradition in including wormwood in the recipe for the Rosso. This is a classic European afternoon café drink, but it also makes a great before-dinner stimulant for the taste buds.

Mix it with bourbon or whiskey for the perfect Manhattan.