Balsamic vinegar is not what you think. The dark brown vinegar sold all over the world and used in countless salad bar balsamic vinaigrettes is a cheap replica of its namesake. Like comparing a Honda Fit to a Ferrari LaFerrari, it’s not even close. Most vinegars are made quickly when a common bacteria converts the alcohol or sugars found in wine or fruit juices into acetic acid. Traditional balsamic vinegar takes over a decade to make, and in that time, it condenses down to a glossy, thick syrup unrecognizable as a vinegar.
White trebbiano grapes are the most commonly used to produce balsamic. The must, which is a freshly pressed juice that also contains the skins and seeds, is cooked down to reduce the sugars—the first step in concentrating the liquid to produce balsamic. From there, the juice is aged for years in a succession of shrinking barrels to compensate for the loss of volume to evaporation over time; each barrel is made with different woods to impart new and complex flavors during the aging process.
In 1977 Chuck Williams (founder of Williams-Sonoma) imported the first balsamic vinegar to the United States, kicking off an explosion of demand for the product that drove manufacturers to create the imitations commonly used today. Balsamic was never intended to be a commercial product. Originally, it was made as a dowry. Mothers would begin the process when their daughters were born, and a barrel of the finished balsamic would be included in the dowry for their marriages. In addition to its use as an ingredient, balsamic was used medicinally to soothe sore throats and digestive ailments. The word balsamic has the same Latin root as the word balm, meaning a fragrant substance used to soothe.
The best balsamic vinegar comes from Modena and Reggio Emilia. Both regions have denominazione di origine protetta (protected designation of origin) (DOP) status for balsamic vinegars produced in the traditional style there. Another protected name is Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. This mass-produced vinegar is widely available in stores, but it is not an authentic balsamic vinegar. Instead, it is a standard wine vinegar with added grape must and caramel coloring, to give it some of the flavor and appearance of traditional balsamic.
The time and loss of volume required to make balsamic means it demands an extremely high price and is very difficult to produce on a large commercial scale—similar to fine wines or liquors that are barrel aged and then cellared for years to reach a mature flavor. By the end of the aging process, balsamic is reduced by about 90% (100 gallons of grape must will yield only 10 gallons of finished vinegar). If you have the chance to try a traditional balsamic vinegar, do it. The silky texture and complex balance between honey sweetness and dark fruit acidity is a wonderful celebration of tradition, time, and commitment to superior quality.