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The singular greatness of Italian vermouth is a function of the area’s access to high-quality wine and fresh, vibrant botanicals.

Brad Japhe
December 11, 2017

Virtually every region of the world imprints at least one lasting legacy upon the global culinary landscape. Then there’s Turin. Perhaps you associate the northern Italian city with the birthplace of Eataly, or Slow Food. But long before these modern phenomena were conceived, Italy’s original capital gave birth to something even sweeter: vermouth. The aromatized wine, which is now produced and enjoyed everywhere from America to Asia, can trace its basic blueprint back here, circa 1786. Over two centuries later, Italian vermouth went on to play a formative role in shaping today’s craft cocktail movement. Here’s what separates the style, and why bartenders can’t seem to get enough of it.

All vermouth starts its life out as wine (white or red), before an array of herbs and spices —including Artemisia—are added to affect flavor and smell. A spike of spirit preserves its shelf life, in a process known as fortification. Ultimately, it must be composed of at least 75% wine, with a proof ranging from 29 to 44. The singular greatness of Italian vermouth is a function of the area’s access to high-quality wine and fresh, vibrant botanicals. The resulting liquid lends a great deal of spice to the nose and tongue. Think of it as drinkable potpourri.

One of the first brands to bring it to the global stage was Martini & Rossi. Their success was a combination of several key factors. The company was founded, in part, through the partnership of a prominent wine merchant and a successful herbalist, fusing the necessary components of production. They opened their factory in Pessione di Chieri — a small village just outside Turin, positioned alongside a vital, transnational railway line. The artery connected the factory directly to Genoa — Italy’s most significant port, at the time. Production started in 1863, and before long the company was the world’s largest exporter of Italian vermouth.

Throughout much of the 20th century, America’s only exposure to the liquid was as a minor component in martini-making. That most classic cocktail, itself, likely clipped its name from the popular vermouth brand. But as recently as 2010, bottles of the stuff were collecting dust on liquor shelves across the country. This placement, it turns out, was a big part of the problem. “Vermouth should be stored in a fridge and never on a backbar because it speeds up oxidation and changes the flavor,” explains Cooper Cheatham, a New York-based liquor consultant. Martini’s failure to gain traction as a quality standalone entity had to do with its faulty handling, he reasons.

But one brand’s loss, was another’s opportunity. The craft cocktail boom heralded a renewed interest in bitter-forward drinks such as the negroni — a full third of which is pure vermouth. Suddenly, an elevated entry into the category was crucial. Carpano Antica Formula checked all the boxes. “Martini & Rossi is a fine vermouth, but generally was never stored correctly,” Cheatham reiterates. “Antica has a richer, fuller body and mouth feel, which is probably why [bartenders] fell in love with it.” A sophisticated, Old World-style bottle presentation certainly didn’t hurt, either.

As the oldest official example of Italian vermouth, it’s ironic that Carpano’s contemporary relevance is viewed as something of a trend. “Antica Formula was created in 1786 in Torino, Italy and still uses the original recipe,” explains Erik Ginther, ambassador for the brand. Why is it so in fashion now? “In a nutshell it comes down to a few factors: superior herbs and spices, high quality wine and a deep-rooted understanding of extraction methods.” So, ‘craft’ — from long before the term was a watered-down buzzword.

“Bartenders love Carpano Antica Formula because it has a great herbaceousness to it,” confirms Rob Pate of Péché in Austin, Texas. “It adds depth and interest to any drink. I love it in any whiskey cocktail – it’s so big, you want something big that matches up.”

Back in Italy, Martini & Rossi maintains the world’s largest museum dedicated to all things vermouth. An adjoining tasting room showcases a litany of new — properly stored — products that are gaining steam in the States. “I don’t need to make the case for Martini & Rossi— they made their own case with Ambrato,” says Joel Caruso, a Los Angeles-based bartender, of the brand’s well-received special reserve. “Most bartenders start off learning the proper use of spirits in classic cocktails. But as our palates evolve we realize that, for better or worse, it’s actually the vermouth that plays a defining factor.”

On the other side of the stick, even the most casual of drinkers are broadening their horizons — embracing increasingly complex flavors. As those tastes elevate, so goes the stature of Italian vermouth. Those bottles aren’t collecting dust, anymore.