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.


The Water Innovators | Craftsmanship Quarterly, Winter 2017

Casa Martini & Rossi, in Pessione, Italy, near Turn, has been home to the storied vermouth-makers of this name since 1863. Photo by Peter Eckart

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.

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