Perfect cocktail: When paired with gin in this classic cocktail, sweet and dry vermouths are well balanced. (We used Cinzano Rosso and Noilly Prat French Dry.) The simple proportions mean making a pitcher in advance is a cinch for summer entertaining. For a single drink, stir 1 ounce gin and 1 ounce each of sweet and dry vermouths in a mixing glass with ice until well chilled. Strain and pour into a rocks glass filled with ice. Add a few dashes of bitters to taste. Garnish with a twist of orange peel. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune / July 12, 2010)

Summer is a great time to examine the variety of vermouths, which go way beyond manhattans and martini mixers. Expand your summer aperitif regime: Dabble with varieties and splash with soda on ice. Cheers!

For years, I regarded vermouth as an offensive-smelling red or clear liquid best left in the back of the liquor store, bottled and sold in "sweet" or "dry" vials for a suspiciously low price.

Vermouth, I presumed, was meant for manhattans, and thanks to one really bad manhattan ordered in (where else?) Manhattan, I stayed away— from manhattans, from whiskey, bitters and, especially, from vermouth.

How naive I was.

The truth about vermouth is that it predates the manhattan, and every other cocktail in which it's featured. Born in Turin, Italy, in the late 1700s as an aperitif, vermouth is a fortified wine whose flavor has been enhanced (or "aromatized") with herbs and spices — notably wormwood, from which "vermouth" borrows its name.

Over the centuries, it has evolved into a cocktail ingredient capable of making or breaking a drink, depending on what kind is used and how much, and some of the better blends are still enjoyed by traditionalists as an aperitif on the rocks with a twist of orange.

The great Lillet debate

The Bordeaux-based French aperitif Lillet is often categorized with vermouth — literally, on store shelves, and figuratively, because it's a fortified wine. Introduced in 1895 in tandem with Europe's growing wine aperitif trend, Kina Lillet (blanc) was released as a "wine tonic": fortified wine aperitif plus quinine.

But while both Lillet and vermouth are based in wine and are fortified up to 19 percent alcohol, as Lillet's North American Brand Ambassador Nicole Cloutier explains, Lillet isn't a vermouth for two reasons: It contains liqueur, and doesn't contain wormwood.

"Lillet behaves a bit like a sweet vermouth in a martini," Cloutier says, "but it's very much its own thing."

Nevertheless, the attraction remains: We enjoy subbing Lillet rouge (released in 1962, $18) for sweet vermouth in Negronis, and sipping Lillet blanc ($18) on the rocks with a twist of orange.

Vermouth tasting

Carpano Antica
Details: The granddaddy of vermouths, invented in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano. This is as good as vermouth gets.
Taste: Smooth and well balanced, with a bitter edge.
Best enjoyed… On its own, or on the rocks. While it makes a great manhattan, it's good enough to sip solo.
Price: $28

Punt e Mes
Details: Developed by the Carpano family in 1870, this bitter incarnation is currently experiencing a renaissance.