A Tale of Two Vermouths
In Italy, the age-old vermouth giant Martini & Rossi practices what might be called industrial spirits craftsmanship; in the U.S., a new breed is popularizing more irreverent spirits. Our correspondent visits both in search of their essences.
By LAURA FRASER
It all started when I was in the mood for a Negroni—a classic Italian cocktail that is herbaceous, bitter but balanced, and made from a combination of equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, with a twist of orange. But I was out of Campari, and wanted something less lethal than a martini, which left only the vermouth.
Vermouth’s reputation has been tainted in the U.S. partly because it’s been made cheaply and in bulk, the herb flavors masking poor-quality wine. But vermouth—perhaps the most complexly-crafted of wines—is usually much, much better than that.
But who drinks vermouth by itself? It’s the dusty bottle at the back of the liquor cabinet, brought out only for the occasional Manhattan or martini–and viewed, in the latter case, with a good deal of suspicion. Winston Churchill’s instruction for a martini was, allegedly, to “drink a tumbler of gin and bow in the direction of France.” Alfred Hitchcock’s martini recipe called for “five parts gin and a quick glance at a bottle of vermouth.” The mania for the dry martini, beginning in the 1950s, made vermouth unfashionable. Only Julia Child championed the much-maligned, herb-infused wine, inventing the “reverse martini,” where the vermouth took center stage, with only a splash of gin.
Well. In matters of taste—and with nothing else open in the liquor cabinet–are you going to listen to gin-guzzling gourmands or a French-inspired gourmet? I poured some vermouth on the rocks, added a twist, and drank it more or less straight—the way, it turns out, Europeans have been drinking it for centuries. It was surprising: light and refreshing, while satisfying that Negroni-like urge for something complex with a bitterness that bites back. I did glance at the bottle, as Hitchcock suggested, and considered that if I’d opened a fresh one sometime within the past seven years, it might have tasted even better. Vermouth is mainly wine—and wine, once opened, even if infused with herbs and fortified with brandy—doesn’t keep forever.
Intrigued, I began tasting other vermouths, starting in Italy, and spreading out to new artisanal varieties being made in the United States. It turns out that while I was rediscovering vermouth, so were the craft cocktail crowd and small-batch vintners, who have made this old-fashioned drink hip again. “Fifteen years ago, no one in the U.S. knew what a Negroni was, and even in Italy, vermouth was out of fashion,” says wine expert Claudio Villani of InoVino in San Francisco, who is from Florence. “Then the bar became central in restaurants, and you needed a mixologist, seasonal ingredients, and hand-crafted cocktail mixers, including vermouth.” In Barcelona, people have been going mad for vermouth bars, drinking the aperitif during “La hora de vermut,” which usually lasts three hours, not one; Spaniards tend to like their vermouth poured from the tap over ice with an olive and an orange twist, accompanied with a selection of anchovies, olives, mussels, and other savory snacks.
These days, if you take a seat at a bar with a serious mixology program in Brooklyn or San Francisco and ask for a vermouth, they don’t look at you like you just asked for a glass of your grandmother’s sweet sherry. They’ll ask which of the many new artisan brands you’d prefer. There’s even a bar in my neighborhood in San Francisco, the Alembic, that serves Brown Label vermouth on tap, made on the other side of town by a man named Carl Sutton. This made me curious to compare his vermouth—and how upstarts like him make it—with the Italian giants who’ve been concocting secret vermouth recipes since the mid-18th century.
The invention of aromatized wine, which is the family vermouth belongs to, has been credited to Hippocrates, who used a variety of Greek herbs to create a medicinal wine that would aid digestion. One ingredient that became central to vermouth is “wormwood,” so named because it was used to treat intestinal worms.
Despite the vermouth revival, most Americans—including me, until recently—don’t understand what vermouth is, nor do they necessarily care to find out. When I opened a bottle of Italian amber vermouth for friends before a dinner party—a delicacy I’d bought in a musty shop in Turin and carried home—it was met with wrinkled noses and a request for white wine. Part of vermouth’s tainted reputation in this country is that it has mainly been made cheaply and in bulk in California, the herb flavors masking poor-quality wine, and it’s often the choice of down-on-their-luck drunks. But vermouth—perhaps the most complexly-crafted of wines—is usually much, much better than that.
Essentially, vermouth is neutral-tasting white wine that has been flavored with aromatic herbs, roots, and bark, and fortified with a neutral grape spirit, like must or brandy. In Italy, the definition of vermouth is stricter, requiring that caramel may be the only coloring, that it ranges between 14.5% and 22% alcohol, and that it contains one essential ingredient: artemesia, otherwise known as wormwood. The word “vermouth,” it turns out, is derived from “wermut,” the German name for the bark of this tree. Artemisia absintheum is the variety of wormwood that goes into absinthe, and all types contain the compound thujone, which has been considered dangerous and hallucinogenic, though recent scientists have ascribed the supposedly psychoactive effects of absinthe to overindulgence in the alcohol itself. In any case, thujone was banned from the U.S. for many years, and continues to be strictly regulated, which has made it difficult in this country to make what the Italians consider a “real vermouth.”
The invention of aromatized wine has been credited to Hippocrates, who used wormwood, dittany, and other Greek herbs to create a medicinal wine to help with digestion; “wormwood” was actually a treatment for intestinal worms. It became known as “Hippocratic wine” throughout antiquity, and the Romans improved the recipe by adding more herbs, including thyme, rosemary, and celery. But vermouth didn’t achieve its modern character until the Middle Ages, when Marco Polo introduced spices to the region, and the Venetians began their monopoly trade in cinnamon, myrrh, cloves, ginger, rhubarb, and other exotic botanicals.
Piedmont, a wine region in the north of Italy, which had been producing Hippocratic wines since the 18th century and grew abundant aromatic plants in its hills, was one of the first areas to begin cultivating the new exotics. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, of the Fratelli Branca’s Carpano Antica distillery, took aromatized wine one step further and is credited with creating the modern vermouth. (To this day, Antica Formula remains a popular brand worldwide). The Carpanos’ success inspired others around Turin, including the Cinzano family, which opened its vermouth facility in 1816. Three years earlier, in southern France, Joseph Noilly produced a style called “dry vermouth,” which is still popular. In 1863, Alessandro Martini, a salesman—along with Teofilo Sola, an accountant, and Luigi Rossi, an herbalist and liqueur expert—turned vermouth into big industry. Martini & Rossi is now the world’s largest manufacturer of vermouth, selling six million cases each year, 70 percent of which is still produced in Piedmont.
The recipes for Martini & Rossi’s signature vermouths are such a secret that only four people on the planet know them. According to company protocol, those four people are never allowed on an airplane at the same time.
My interest in vermouth seemed like the ideal excuse to travel to the Piedmont region of Italy, where I could see how the original aperitivi, which contain dozens of different botanicals, were made. About 45 minutes outside of Turin lies a small town named Pessione that is almost entirely devoted to the manufacture of vermouth. Near the train station are the gates of Martini & Rossi; behind it sits Casa Martini, its original building, which holds a wine museum, events space, and bar academy. The charming historic villa plays façade to a vast production facility.
After joining a standard tour, I met with the company’s master winemaker, Beppe Musso. I imagined him in a lab, sniffing different botanicals and blending a pinch of this and that according to his palate; the reality, with the vermouth made in 200,000-litre batches, was rather different. The recipe, too, is a highly-prized secret–both the ingredients and the process. “The Martini & Rossi secret is a complex of secrets,” Musso told me. It is such a secret that only four people on the planet know how to make Martini & Rossi’s signature vermouths—classic sweet red, dry, rose, amber, and more recently, a special edition “Gran Lusso” to coincide with the company’s 150th anniversary (and with the rise of artisanal competitors in Spain and the U.S.). According to company protocol, those four people who know the secret recipes are never allowed on an airplane at the same time.
The tour did offer a few clues about making vermouth—but first, the museums. The Martini & Rossi wine museum is the largest of its kind in the world, worth a visit to see its 1000 pieces of winemaking equipment, from ancient times to the present—though few had to do with vermouth. Next to it is a history museum of Martini & Rossi’s marketing and branding—skills that the company practically invented. From its inception, Martini sold his vermouth using celebrity endorsements, of a kind. He traveled to many of the royal houses in Europe, giving them samples, gaining the royal imprimaturs so that everyone would want to drink what the king was having. He also traveled internationally to world’s fairs, racking up customers and ribbons for his vermouths. By 1900, Martini & Rossi was in 70 countries. In 1910, the company developed a special formula for ladies–a more delicate bianco, with light vanilla notes–opening up yet another market, at a time when most women only indulged (in public) in a thimbleful of sherry before dinner. Martini also dreamed up “Terrazas,” swanky branded clubs in Milan, Rome, and other cities, where wealthy entrepreneurs and actresses such as Sophia Loren were photographed drinking his vermouth—a kind of early Playboy club. Along with this publicity, Martini and Rossi created iconic, graphically bold advertising, hiring some of the best artists of the day to do their posters (including Andy Warhol). Ironically, in the rest of the world, the brand is simply “Martini,” but because of the cocktail by that name in the U.S.—eponymously, after the vermouth—the company must use the “Martini & Rossi” label in the U.S.
After exploring the museums, visitors enter an enormous brass door that resembles a barrel, complete with dramatic sound and lighting effects, to the “academy.” The room is lined with botanical jars and perfumed with bags of herbs, some of which make up the secret recipes—iris, bitter orange, gentian root, red primrose, lavender, turmeric, sweet violet, and, of course, Artemisia. Most of the botanicals, Musso tells me, are grown in nearby Pancalieri, as they have been since Marco Polo first arrived with his spices. But the company has also scoured the world for special products and tastes, prepared to exacting specification. The cloves come from Madagascar, dittany from Crete (where Hippocrates found the herb), quinine from Ecuador, roses from Morocco, and gentian from France. The cascarilla bark from the Bahamas must be washed in sea water and dried on the beaches to provide a taste of sea air. The quassia wood, one of the most bitter substances in nature, is foraged from Jamaican hills. “Don’t taste it,” Musso warns me. More than 40 herbs, roots, seeds, nuts, fruits, and other natural flavors go into each vermouth recipe. The biggest challenge, Musso tells me, is making the recipe exactly the same way each time, in 200,000-liter batches.
The flavors from the botanicals are extracted by being either macerated in alcohol, or distilled (other vermouth makers macerate the botanicals in wine). Martini uses an enormous cylinder to distill its botanicals, rotating it twice a day for about a month. All the processing of the herbs goes on in Switzerland—even those that are grown nearby—at the headquarters of its parent Bacardi (which also distills herbs to make its Bombay Sapphire gin). After the botanicals are distilled, they are returned to Pessione and blended with bland white wine using high-tech testing equipment in the vast production facilities behind Casa Martini. They rest in a room nicknamed “Manhattan” because the huge steel vats resemble skyscrapers. The new vermouths are then refrigerated so that solids precipitate to the bottom before the liquid is filtered and bottled.
At one point, in Martini & Rossi’s “academy,” Musso encouraged us to blend our own vermouths. Though I had imagined choosing from a rich variety of botanical extracts–a little iris here, some gentian root there, a sprinkle of cinnamon and cloves–the company gave us three basic distillations to use: bitter, herbal, and top notes. That’s as much of their recipe as they were willing to reveal. My husband Peter and I hesitantly began by adding drops of each liquid to a fortified wine base. “You have to compose something for the mouth, the nose, and the aftertaste,” Musso instructed us. “Then you have the magic.”
Let’s just say that Peter and I have a consistent difference in our culinary relationship: He likes things sweet, I like them bitter. Naturally, we blended our own vermouths accordingly—each of us sure that Musso’s sophisticated palate would approve of our respective version. For good measure, I added a little more of the bitter concoction than recommended, thinking it would appeal to the dry European tastes. When we were done, Martini & Rossi’s master blender tested our creations. He tried mine first, and wrinkled his nose. “Very bitter,” he said, nearly spitting. Obviously I’d overdone it—vermouth, apparently, is all about playing the sweetness against the bite. Peter’s, on the other hand, met with approval; Musso called it “light and well-balanced,” which Peter has been reminding me of in the kitchen ever since.
The exercise, while not a subtle one of blending various herbs, nevertheless gave us an idea of how many variables go into making a vermouth, and how a dash of one type of flavor can influence the batch. It’s a complicated process—hundreds of years of knowledge distilled in each bottle.
When an American winemaker got interested in vermouth, he found a recipe on the Internet and tried it–“place herbs and spices in a stockpot, cover with white wine, boil, cool, and add sherry.” When it was finished, he declared it “disgusting.”
Back in the States, I was curious how nouveau vermouth makers could possibly match this level of sophisticated alchemy, particularly since recipes are such closely guarded secrets. The idea of west coast winemakers just starting in on making vermouth–willy-nilly, despite all the years and secrets and travels to foreign lands to forage for ingredients that go into Italian vermouths—seemed audacious. I started with Carl Sutton, the vermouth maker who supplies the Alembic in San Francisco, and who inspired the first of the new wave of artisanal vermouths in California in 2009.
To meet Sutton, I ventured to a warehouse that is the home of Sutton Cellars’ Brown Label dry vermouth (he now makes a rosé and sweet red style as well). Sutton’s operation is in a light industrial section of the city’s wharf area, now devoted to all things artisanal, with a strong scent of hipster—beer, bicycle bags, sausages, and outdoor gear. In his workshop, cluttered with barrels, bottles, and demijohns, Sutton produces about 500 cases of vermouth a year. When I told him that I visited the vermouth mother ship in Italy, he compared Martini & Rossi with all the artisanal vermouths produced in the U.S.: “They spill in a day more than we collectively make in a year.”
Sutton, who has been making wine since 1996, didn’t set out to make a vermouth, but was persuaded into the idea one night, when he was not entirely sober. He was closing down the bar at NOPA in San Francisco, a chef’s hangout, when the bar manager, who was trying one of Sutton’s dessert wines, suggested that he make a sweet vermouth so he could play around with it in cocktails. It was not an idea that had previously crossed Sutton’s mind. “The first thought that went through my head was, ‘What the fuck is vermouth?’” he recalls.
But the idea intrigued—and then obsessed–him. The next day Sutton began researching and realized, first off, that he didn’t need a special license to produce vermouth, since it is wine-based. He found a recipe on the Internet and tried it—“place herbs and spices in a stockpot, cover with white wine, boil, cool, and add sherry”—and when it was finished he declared it “disgusting.”
This might have deterred most people, but Sutton persisted. He threw away the recipe and started from scratch. He went to a hippie grocery that sells a vast collection of herbs—“I took samples of everything that looked palatable and interesting”–and began testing. Wanting to differentiate his vermouth from others on the market, he focused more on the fruit and floral botanicals than the herbal.
An Oregon vermouth, from Ransom Spirits, contains an entire forest of more than 20 different ingredients: wormwood, red cinchona bark, dandelion root, orris root, cardamom pods, thistle, arch angel root, coffee beans, and medjool dates, to name but a few.
Sutton’s first challenge, even before blending, was to figure out a base for macerating the herbs (maceration involves putting herbs in wine at room temperature; infusing uses boiling water, and distillation uses evaporation, usually with heat). “I had a gridlock moment where macerating everything in 170% proof brandy was too strong, and wine was too weak,” he says. He ended up fortifying a neutral white wine first to his desired alcohol level (17%) and then adding the herbs. After 40 or 50 iterations over a couple of years, balancing the bitter elements with the other herbs, he finally hit on a recipe that pleased his very picky chef and bartender friends.
Sutton’s first recipe contains relatively few 17 botanicals, only three of which he will divulge (rosemary, orange peel, and chamomile). His vermouth is light and so dry that the twist of grapefruit he adds to a “Sutton & Soda,” along with a spurt of soda water, balances it with a little sweetness.
Sutton’s dry vermouth doesn’t contain wormwood, and he dismisses the Italian quibble than anything without artemesia isn’t real vermouth. “The EU regulations don’t say how much wormwood you need,” he says. “It’s like peeing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool and then saying it’s vermouth.”
Local mixologists took to Sutton’s vermouth, and soon other U.S. winemakers were reinventing age-old vermouths through modern trial and error, often with local and organic ingredients. When Sutton recently went to a bottle shop in San Francisco and, to teach a class, asked for Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat, the shopkeeper told him “we got rid of all the mass-produced stuff.” He then pointed him to a shelf of 40 different artisan vermouths. (“That’s partially my fault,” Sutton says.)
Most of these vermouth makers, like Sutton, refuse to divulge their myriad ingredients. Although one maker, Tad Seestedt, of Oregon’s Ransom Spirits, stands out by listing every single ingredient on his bottles. His sweet vermouth, for example, seems to draw from an entire forest. It contains wormwood, sarsaparilla, sassafras, wild cherry bark, red cinchona bark, dandelion root, hibiscus flower, orris root, cardamom pods, thistle, chamomile, orange peel, verbena, spearmint, cinnamon, arch angel root, lemon peel, vanilla beans, cacao nibs, coffee beans, walnuts, black figs, medjool dates, and dried cherries.
So how do these new spirit artisans compare with the old ones in Europe? One difference is freshness—an impossibility for large operations that cannot avoid a months-long process of shipping, storage, and distribution. “With vermouth, you want to taste the freshness of all the botanicals,” Sutton says. “After six months, those flavors kind of start to melt together, and while it still tastes interesting, it’s not as bright or focused.”
Jordan Mackay, a San Francisco based wine expert with a penchant for vermouth, points out that freshness in vermouth isn’t what many people think. “The practice from the beginning was to make these wines more robust to withstand the ravages of global transport,” Mackay says. “These are pretty sturdy wines, not ones with delicate sensibilities.” After a bottle is opened, however, it’s another story. Flavors dissipate quickly. Solution: use the fridge. Then throw away the old bottle in the back of your liquor cabinet. As Sutton says, “One reason people think vermouth is crap is that they’ve been doing everything wrong to it.”
In Mackay’s opinion, American artisanal vermouths stand out because they try to make more of a statement than European varieties typically do. “They pack more aggressive flavors into them,” he says. It’s not unlike comparing brash California Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons with much subtler, more complex, classic European wines. Not coincidentally, most American vermouths start out with California wines—“they’re already being harvested pretty ripe and fruity in the California style, whereas in France or Italy, they’re using base wines that are harvested much less ripe, with higher acid and a lower sugar level.”
When I asked Claudio Villani of San Francisco’s InoVino about California vermouths, he brought over a bottle of small-batch vermouth from Piedmont, which he said he sometimes serves after dinner—for a sweet drink tempered by bittering agents, a complex finish to a meal. “Smell this,” he said. I immediately noticed layers of history.
“When you start with no tradition, you have no memory, and no roots,” he said. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and those new vermouths can be delightful. Still, as careful as they may be in crafting their vermouths, nouveau winemakers have one missing ingredient: time. Villani takes a sniff. “When I smell this vermouth, it takes me back to a monastery in the mountains we used to visit when I was a child, where the Franciscan monks had been making vermouth forever. One smell, and I am there.”
I could not help smiling at Villani’s distillation. Yes, the California and Brooklyn-based vermouth-makers are just at the beginning of their history. Compared with European ones, they’re young, brash, and edgy, without the understated symphony of flavors that develop from more than a century of attention. But they are fun to experiment with, both in cocktails and straight, for fresh, unexpected flavors.
What I like about vermouths is that they are all so various, and suit so many moods. One can be a refreshing light cocktail before dinner, which gets the digestive juices flowing without too much of an alcoholic buzz; for that, I’ll take a Sutton & Soda. After dinner, I’ll have whatever small-patch vermouth rosso from Piedmont that Claudio Villani is pouring, and lose myself in its bittersweet layers of Italian soil and herbs. But in between, there’s a lot to experiment with, and it seems that la hora de vermut is now.