A few years ago, asking for an American vermouth would have been as crazy as asking for an Italian bourbon. Not anymore. Andrew Quady, a northern California winemaker who specializes in dessert wines, was asked by a restaurateur friend to develop a vermouth to use in his establishment's dry martinis. Quady took up the challenge and began experimenting. After two years of tests, Vya was ready, in both dry and sweet versions.
The base wine for Vya Extra Dry is made from Colombard (for its herbaceous qualities) and Orange Muscat (for its lovely aromatic character). In the process of taste tests, Quady decided to eliminate the bitter wormwood from his version. Intending it to be more than just a mixer for martinis, Quady kept the herbal profile low, striving for a vermouth that could be enjoyed on its own. He succeeded. This is very dry, crisp, and nicely balanced vermouth with a touch of astringency.
LILLET BLOND ($13)
Although it's classed with vermouth, Lillet is not technically a vermouth and doesn't use the word on its label. Unlike vermouth, it's not flavored with herbs but is enhanced with liqueurs made from citrus and other fruits from around the world. I'm including it here because, simply put, I love it.
Quinine, the bitter root also found in tonic water, has been a component of Lillet since the original batch was concocted by the Lillet brothers back in 1887. Maybe the presence of fever-relieving quinine explains why Lillet was popular, not only on the steamy boulevards of Paris, but also in French colonial outposts, where malaria was a constant threat.
The firm is now owned by famed vintner Bruno Borie, whose family also owns Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, and the product is still produced in 19th-century cellars just south of Bordeaux. The classic way to serve Lillet is very chilled but without ice, garnished with a twist of orange peel. It also makes a fab martini.
BUYER'S GUIDEMartini & Rossi Rosso, $8
Vivacious and Bittersweet
Sip it on the rocks with a splash of club soda.
Vya Extra Dry, $16
Crips and Astrigent
Great with a twist of lemon or an olive.
Lillet Blond, $13
Lush and Sophisticated
Serve very chilled, straight up with a twist of orange