I was once asked by Roberto Bava of Cocchi (and the main man behind the campaign to regulate Vermouth di Torino) ‘what is Vermouth?’.
I must have reeled off a hundred different answers including ‘damn delicious’ but he just kept shaking his head until I gave up and he said, ‘Vermouth is Vermouth’.
This has stayed with me and rings true as Sweet Vermouth is not just a cocktail ingredient nor something to be understood in the context of something else. It was created as a drink to be sipped in the fashionable Cafes of Turin. It’s a drink to be enjoyed alone, over ice or with a splash of soda, as an aperitif, a little something to tease the palate and get your taste buds working before dinner.
We are spoilt for choice with the huge selection of sweet vermouths on the market today - from classic Italian Rossos and sweet spicy Biancos, steeped in history and the unmistakable taste of Turin’s terroir. There’s also Spain’s bolshy Rojo, big bright and herbaceous, often with lovely Sherry notes.
Elsewhere in Europe and you’ll find deep rich reds and rosés that transport you to the forests of southwest Germany, while in Australia, they are showing off their new world wines and combining them with unique native botanicals.
It’s not just happening “elsewhere” either. British distilleries are teaming up with local vineyards and showcasing the best of British hedgerows, orchards and coastal paths in their wonderful liquids.
Recently, I have also had the pleasure of tasting a rather delicious, sweet vermouth from China - which leads us to where it all started.
In this “history of” article I’ve focused on the origins, birth, rise, fall and revival of Italian Sweet Vermouth. Hold tight for a similar entry for Dry Vermouth next year, which for now has been deliberately taken as a separate timeline..!
The history of modern sweet vermouth as we know it today starts towards the end of the Renaissance period in the 18th Century in Torino Italy. But let’s take a look back at how the addition of Wormwood (Artemisia) and fortification of wines came about.
In 2004, a team of Archaeologists led by Dr Patrick McGovern, a historical expert of booze, (AKA the ‘Indiana Jones’ of Ancient ale, wine and extreme beverages). McGovern was asked to analyse shards of pottery found in Jiahu in the Henan Provence of China where the Huai River meets the Yellow River.
He and his team found that the shards had come from vessels that had contained wine made from either grapes or hawthorn fruit with honey mead and rice wine.
Shortly after this discovery McGovern analysed the liquid contents of an ornate bronze vessel found in the ancient city of Yinxo, about 300 kilometres north of Jiahu. Yinxo was a busy metropolis at that time and the vessel would have been used for serving wines to the gentry of the city. Despite it being almost 3000 years old, the liquid inside was only slightly oxidised, a little like Sherry and still highly fragrant with a sweet perfumed bouquet, but the liquid was different to what was found in Jiahu, there was no honey or fruit. Instead there was millet wine aromatised with either chrysanthemum flower or resin from the elemi family of fragrant trees (Olive trees).
McGovern also tested samples from an upper-class tomb from the late Shang Dynasty. Yet again these still contained liquid, rice wine that had been aromatised with botanicals including tree resin from china fir, chrysanthemum and herbs from the Artemisia family most likely to be mugwort. Further excavations in the Shang Dynasty city of Taixi uncovered more wine infused with peach, plum, sweet clover, jasmine, hemp and sweet wormwood.
McGoven’s finding are well documented, but there are many other examples which indicate that aromatised wines were prevalent in ancient China. The Middle East was not far behind either.
Pottery shards found in a small Neolithic village in the Zagros Mountains of modern day Iran revealed wines infused with terebinth tree resin (a member of the pistachio family).
The difference with these jars was that the pottery shards came from home kitchens rather than grand tombs, suggesting that at this time the aromatic wines were being enjoyed by a much wider range of the population, irrespective of class.
During the Bronze Age in Persia (now Iran), there’s evidence that they were enjoying herbal wines infused with poppy, ephedra and marijuana as well as hemp flowers, seeds and artemisia. It would seem that the drink was often used as part of a prayer ritual. I visualise it as an early 90’s rave, bronze age style, with everyone tripping joyously into oblivion.
Early iterations of Vermouth were widespread, varied in their recipes and clearly part and parcel of daily life.
Keep moving the timeline and the geography and you’ll shift your gaze on India ca 1000 BCE. Here, wormwood played a key part in medical principles handed down by oral tradition and then enshrined in the texts of Atharvaveda – some of the first written texts of Indian knowledge, wisdom and culture.
The Ancient Egyptians not only used the medicinal qualities of wormwood tonics (Ayurvedic herbal wine recipes were prescribed to treat the likes of worms, anaemia, heart conditions and loss of appetite), but there’s more than enough evidence that points to the fact that it was used to get them rather tiddly pom…
Dioscorides, the first century Roman physician of Greek origin, wrote that the Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra with a highly fragrant drink made of Juniper, myrrh and aromatic herbs mixed with honey and wine. It’s possible that it was the earliest version of gin, but was it in fact just Vermouth?
Dr Patrick McGovern analysed samples found in a multi chambered tomb at Abydos on the middle Nile River in Egypt, which has been dated to ca. 3150 BCE. It is thought that the wine was infused with savoury artemisia sieberi and blue tansy. The compounds found in the vessels is also present in cassia, coriander, germander, mint, sage and thyme. Many of these botanicals are commonly found in sweet vermouths today.
Adam Ford author of ‘Vermouth’ – The Revival of the Spirit that created America’s cocktail Culture and founder of Atsby Vermouth is of the opinion that “The story of vermouth is the story of the silk routes, the chain of pathways connecting China, India, Persia and Arabia in the east and to the west, the Mediterranean, Roman Empire and Armenia, linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks and adventures as well as goods.”
I agree. The routes allowed the wealthy citizens of the Roman empire access to exotic spices, perfumes and silks. It also led to the exchange of knowledge of herbs and spices, ultimately leading to the creation of new flavours and new aromatised wines. It may not have been Vermouth as we know it now, but it was transformative for how it tasted, evolved and how it was enjoyed.
The Romans improved upon these wines by adding more herbs and spices in addition to salt water. They also had many different recipes for drinking during festivals and rituals such as myrrh, aloes, gums, cassia, pepper, poppies, spikenard, wormwood, milk, chalk, bitter almond - while cypress was a popular recipe choice.
Dioscorides wrote about wines made with wormwood being purely drunk for medicinal reasons, while Pliny the Elder (a roman author and naturalist), wrote of these wines being drunk for pleasure with no mention of any health benefits. I know which of the two I’d rather have a drink with… He also talks of wines made with the ripe grain of millet, palm and figs from the Parthians and countries to the east.
The Greeks and the Romans also used radish, asparagus, oregano, parsley seed, artemisia, wild mint, rue, catmint, wild thyme and horehound (another member of the mint family). Pliny also wrote about wines made from turnip, sweet wines with calamus, scented rush, costus, Syrian nard, cassia, cinnamon, saffron, palm dates and foal-foot (dandelion) along with mentions of aromatised wormwood wines.
All in all – Vermouth as we understand it today, a wine that’s flavoured with botanicals, had its roots in early history where it was commonplace. When you read the variety of botanicals in ancient recipes – arguably it was far more adventurous and exotic in terms of ingredients too.
The growth of Tonic Wines.
Skip to the Late 13th early 14th Century and the story of Vermouth evolves once more. The likes of Arnaude de Villeneuve (one of the greatest physicians and alchemists of his time), Ramon Llull and others began experimenting with distillation. They created a still designed upon the al-ambiq stills used by Arab alchemists back in the 700s.
In his book of 1310 ‘Liber de Vinis’, Villanova documented his method of distilling wine. He termed the result ‘aqua vine’ water of wine but noted “some call it aqua vitea this name is remarkably suitable since it really is a water of immortality. Its virtues are beginning to be recognised, it prolongs life, clears away ill humours, revives the heart and maintains youth.”
Villanova published his own recipe for an aromatised wine called ‘Piment’ meaning spice, the recipe called for ‘an ounce of cinnamon, ginger, a dram of cloves, nutmeg, lavender, long pepper, galangal, 2 drams of grains of paradise a half a once of black pepper, all pulverised with a pestle and mortar then soaked in two pounds of brandy, that was distilled twice, and kept there for 15 days. After straining off the botanicals, three or four drops of this brandy added to a bottle of good wine, made a good quality piment.’.
This recipe is believed to be the birth of fortification in aromatised wines. He had discovered that by adding spirit to the wine or must that it significantly slowed the oxidisation process and the wines natural qualities stayed intact.
Thanks to the arrival of the printing press in Rome ca. 1467 translations of ancient texts and important literature became readily available. Liber de Vinis became a hugely influential manuscript.
By the mid seventeenth century there are accounts of Londoners enjoying the wormwood wines made in Germany’s Rhine region from Riesling and Silvaner grapes. In Pepys diaries of 1660-1669 he mentions trips to Rhenish wine houses in the city, and his enjoyment of not only wormwood beer but wormwood wine.
Wormwood, Cinchona, Juniper and other barks, roots and botanicals became synonymous with therapeutic benefits. Tonic wines of all kinds were developed and while predominantly consumed for medicinal purposes, as with Pepys’s testimony - many were also enjoyed for their flavour.
While there were no singular moments to define several centuries of evolution, with the two cornerstones in place across the continent (fortification and the use of wormwood), the 1200 – 1650’s set the foundations for what was about to come.
The rise of Italy’s Golden Era
In Turin, the popularity of aromatised and fortified wines continued to evolve, mainly due to the presence of the Savoy Court. For those not in tune with court antics outside of the Henry VIII’th or a couple of beheadings in Versaille - The Piedmont region was part of the Duchy of Savoy, which stretched from Bourg-en-Bresse in the West, across the Alps to Turin, North to Geneva and South to Nice.
Its presence meant that Turin became of great cultural and commercial importance. It’s not surprising that this is where the birth of the modern Vermouth legacies happened. A key part of this was because Piedmont was already home to the university for confectioners and brandy producers, which was where Royal Patents to practice such professions were issued. The making of liqueurs and grappa were already common practice in the region too.
If this wasn’t an advantage already, Piedmont had a rich history of incredible vineyards, with an abundance of fragrant Moscato, Trebbianno and Malvasia grapes of the highest quality. Production of aromatised wines was a little easier for those based there as they benefited not only from the spices coming into the ports of nearby Genoa and Nice - but also from the abundance of herbs, flowers, barks and roots, growing wild in the surrounding areas.
Turin was a city abuzz with ornate Cafés, chairs and tables spilled across the pavements. There were over 17 kilometres of covered walkways in the city centre, welcoming all walks of life from street hawkers to courtiers.
It’s here in Turin that Aperitivo is born – the social ritual of an early evening chat about the day’s adventures, sitting and watching passers-by, debating art, music, sipping on a new liqueurs, amaro or fortified wine served with a selection of appetisers.
Herbal shops that had previously sold local and exotic herbs and spices for medicinal purposes now also sold aromatised wines, liqueurs and tonics for culinary and recreational use.
During the 1780s, Signor Marendazzo owned a wine shop in the heart of Torino on Piazza Della Fiera, now Piazza Castello (pictured above). The Piazza was the power base of the Duchy of Savoy and given the location of the royal palace and the close proximity to an elite clientele who demanded his products, Marendazzo hired an assistant named Antonio Benedetto Carpano.
Carpano was born in Bioglio Biellese around 70km northeast of the capital. It’s thought that this is where he learnt his family’s formula for wormwood wine before moving to Torino, as was common to many in the region.
In a coincidence, it was also at this time that spices became widely available and thanks to the Portuguese finding a short cut around the Cape of Good Hope, and the Spanish bringing back crops of spices from the new world. Prices plummeted and spices and perfumes were no longer just for the wealthy and well-travelled.
At the age of 21 in 1786 Carpano created his own wormwood wine and re-named it Vermut, a blend of 30 botanicals macerated into sweet floral Moscato wine. Marendazzo loved it and allowed Carpano to sell it in the shop, while a basket of the wine was sent to Duke Vittorio Amedeo III. The Duke found it so exquisite that he suspended his annual order of Rosolio in favour of Campano’s richly spiced, aromatic Vermut.
There are many theories on how and why he chose to call it Vermut, the German word for wormwood. I rather like the notion that it was a nod to his love of German poetry, but it’s far more likely that it was for a shrewder reason - to keep favour with the Savoy household and their close ties in the north.
Vermouth was now commercially available, thanks mainly to the Savoy household and courtiers loving it so much that it become the fashionable drink of Turin.
Carpano would eventually purchase the business from Marendazzo. Sparked by the success of Caparno, other vermouth brands started to pop-up all-over Turin and the surrounding areas. Some like Cinzano were well established companies that had been making eaux-de-vie and liqueurs, while others were Methodo Classico Houses famed for their sparkling wines like Contratto.
The Cinzano family may have been known up to then, but this is the era in which they began to build their dynasty. They held a royal warrant to distil and supply eaux-de-vie to the Savoy families residing in Peccetto and Torino. Key to their rise was when Francisco Cinzano opened a hugely successful shop on the Via Dora Grossa in Torino (now Via Garibaldi) selling eaux-de-vie, fruit liqueurs and Vermouths.
He then hired agents to distribute his Vermouth across the Duchy of Savoy stretching his influence from Italy into France.
Meanwhile, French companies Noilly and Dolin were also gaining in popularity. In a bid to protect his beloved vermouth, King Carlo Alberto of Savoy issued licenses to trademark the Vermouth Di Torino, differentiating it to others in the region and abroad.
As all vermouth would have been amber in colour, the use of Italian to describe a sweet vermouths and French to describe the slightly drier vermouths starting to become by-words for the various styles.
In the Mid 19th century, there was a strong emigration of Italians to the USA. Key in the story of Vermouth was when in 1835 Giuseppe and Luigi Cora purchased a small production company and registered it as Soietà G & L Fratelli Cora. The Cora brothers grabbed this opportunity to start exporting their vermouths to homesick expats.
In 1853 ‘The Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations’ was held in New York at the Chrystal Palace (which stood on what is now Bryant Park) and hosted over 4390 exhibitors. Included in the list were four relatively unknown vermouth producers M.Bovone, G & L Cora, Giuseppe Carpano and the Dettone Brothers.
Their vermouths didn’t become an instant hit, but their presence speaks to the standing of these companies. They were established, international companies and their work set about the seedlings of vermouths growth around the globe. Subsequent fairs around the world continue this pattern, notably in 1865 the newly formed Martini, Sola & Cia would win medals at the Dublin International exhibition and then again in Paris in 1867.
In 1868 Martini hit American shores. Martini, Sola & Cia soon took over the world of Sweet Vermouth outside of Italy with their slick marketing campaigns. By 1879 the Sola family sold its stake and the company became Martini & Rossi.
Between 1867 and 1889 the company exported 612,000 litres of Vermouth to America, entrenching itself with the rise of cocktail culture there. In 1922 the company simplified its name to ‘Martini’ and the brand name became both a bar call and a by-word for the entire category.
From a drinks perspective, the twentieth century begins with the ‘golden era of the Cocktail’ - where drinking cocktails in glitzy hotel bars became de-rigeur for New York, New Orleans and San Francisco hipsters. Vermouth was integral to the scene and many iconic cocktails of the late 19th century call for equal parts spirit and vermouth.
In 1896 Thomas Stuart published his recipe for a Marguerite cocktail, with half the amount of vermouth to gin. The drier cocktail had gained popularity and even appeared in the New York journal as the ‘Alaska Gold Rush’. Such was the demand for this new drier style of cocktail it lead to Martini & Rossi introducing a Martini Extra Dry Vermouth in 1910.
It’s said that the early cocktail names were quickly forgotten, and the Dry Martini Cocktail was born.
In January 1920 prohibition took a hold in the USA and it became illegal to sell booze. With it, the bar and cocktail scene moved underground where it thrived in speakeasies. Fortunately for us in Europe, it also meant that influential bartenders migrated to the UK and Paris. Chief amongst them was Harry Craddock who moved to London and inherited the position of head bartender at the American Bar from Ada Coleman.
The cocktail era thrived here and more classic cocktails were born (many of which had Vermouth at the heart of their recipes).
Post war Vermouth Era
As the second world war started to take hold, the export of vermouth from Italy and France become non-existent. Given the devastation left behind, it was slow to start back up again once the conflict was over.
In England Vine Products based in Kingston, Surrey (whom had been making British copies of Sherry and Port for some years) launched Votrix Vermouth advertising it as “Indistinguishable” from pre-war Vermouths from Europe.
They claimed it was made with the finest grape juice blended with genuine vermouth herbs. There was a lot of controversy and even several court cases as to how this grape juice was made (and if it was actually wine made from raisins rather than grapes). It was never any real challenge to the vermouths from Italy and France.
After the war, Italian vermouths slowly started to regain popularity. Martini’s magnificent advertising campaigns are now iconic parts of the era’s pop-culture. For example, the ‘Martini Racing’ sponsorship programme that started in 1958 with motor racing is intrinsic to the visual identity of the sport over that decade.
In the 60s they commissioned Andy Warhol as a poster designer. In the 70s they started advertising on the TV. The ads all depicted gorgeous people having a wonderful time in magical destinations. Their only real rivals at this time were Cinzano who challenged them with a wonderful micky taking of the their adverts using the marvellous Leonard Rossiter and Joan Collins in a spoof of the ‘martini’ lifestyle.
Ultimately, Sweet Vermouth fell out of fashion in the later part of the 20th Century as Vodka, garish cocktails and shots of repulsive layered liqueurs with silly names took over.
As it was for all ingredients with authentic heritage and a hesitance to engage in the excessive, ostentatious ways of an era – all vermouth was in the doldrums. Sweet vermouth didn’t really start to make any sort of comeback until the mid-noughties, with the resurgence of the classic cocktail and start of the Gin revival.
When it did - Martini still dominated the market, and by that time had merged with Barcardi in 1993 to form The Bacardi Martini Group. It was the only sweet vermouth to be found on most back bars.
In 2001 Carpano bought to life ‘Antica Formula’ - a reproduction of a recipe from Benedetto Carpano dating back to the 1780’s. Packaged in a wonderful blown glass bottle, sealed with a cork and a replica label from the original 1786 version, the vermouth not only looked great but tasted very different to Martini and Cinzano. Full in texture, and with its wonderful wafts of vanilla and spice both on the nose and palate, it soon became a bartenders favourite.
While the release marked a turning point in the modern history of the category, the revival of sweet vermouth as a drink to be enjoyed on its own has been led by the rebirth of incredible Italian brands. Between them, they have shown how to bring historical recipes back to life and engage with a new breed of bartenders, eager to learn more about history and provenance.
One of these is the Bava family, who took over Cocchi in 1983. As renowned wine makers themselves (in Monferrato and Langhe) they had a deep respect for vermouth and its history. Their first move was to resume production of Storico Vermouth di Torino in 2011, followed by Barolo Chinato, Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro, and an excellent Bianco and Rosa Americano.
Their range is now versatile and utterly delicious while also being authentic to its roots. More so, they pathed the way for drinkers to fall back in love with vermouth and for bartenders to show off its variety.
Similarly, in 2011 bartender and hotel consultant Giancarlo Mancino started working with a small family run distillery in Piedmont to make his vermouths. The vermouths launched in 2012 and have gained respect and popularity. The Mancino Sukara Vermouth shows his love of Asia and is a standout of the range.
While modern by intention and flavour profile, it also demonstrates that the old connections to the silk route and to a sense of exotic can be re-imagined for a new generation too, showing how millennia old ideas resurface in the category in novel and exciting ways.
In 2007 Georgio Rivetti of La Spinetta started talking to then owners Bocchino about taking over Contratto and bringing the house back to its former glory. In its heyday, it was known as being one of the best sparkling wine makers in Italy, but Contratto hadn’t been able to fully recover after the second world war, and after years of neglect was a shade of its former self. Their UNESCO World Heritage cellars may have continued aging wines, but they had stopped production of its vermouths and bitters in the late 1960s.
In 2011 the Rivetti family finally took the keys and started re-building the Contratto brand.
In 2013 they released three vermouths, a bitters and an aperitif all based on the original recipes of the early 1900’s. They remain a lesser known name to the modern audiences, but with a legacy now restored, it is only a matter of time before they regain their iconic status.
I think it is fair to say that the rise of these brands inspired Martini to ditch vermouth from their label and launch their premium sweet vermouth with nods to ancient recipes in 2015 - the Martini Reserva Speciale Rubino. Likewise, Cinzano’s Rosso 1757 was also released in 2015 (the date is a nod to their past) and with a notably bigger body and richer in flavour than their classic, as well as a lovely rounded bitterness.
Last year Torino Distillati, who been producing vermouths for over 100 years, were placed centre stage of the modern vermouth movement by producing Starlino Vermouths & Aperitifs on behalf of Biggar & Leith.
Hotel Starlino is a modern interpretation on an old-world classic and once again shows how the enormous heritage the category has can be re-purposed to new drinkers only just discovering it.
Here, Biggar and Leith have taken inspiration from the distillery itself to build the fictional Hotel Starlino - from its dramatic staircase to its beautiful view of the Monsivo mountains.
The way it’s wrapped in modern desirable packaging that’s attractive to the eye and marketed it in a way that’s easy for the average consumer to understand how it should be enjoyed is a timely reminder that history isn’t just baggage to be forgotten in a re-invention, it’s countless stories to regale future drinkers with. Vermouth has it all.
Also made under contract at Torino Distillati’s is Cucielo, another brand that started to make headway this year. They launched in 2019 just as we all went into lockdown, but the stunning bottles and modern look along with savvy marketing has seen it popping up everywhere. It helps that the liquid is equally as delicious.
There are so many wonderful producers re-creating ancient recipes, experimenting with new recipes or doing a bit of both. Italian made sweet vermouth is more than just a drink, it’s history in a glass.
What happened in Torino shaped the category as we know it today and that legacy lives on in both what is made their today and through new producers popping up all over the world. The thing is however, it’s always been bigger than just Turin. From ancient China, Persia, the Greeks and others – vermouth may have converged in Italy for a while and evolved. But now, just like light passing through a prism, the streams are emerging fractured and evolving in parallel once again.
I’ve written separately about the history of English Vermouth here, and of course, there are many other countries producing great expressions. Spanish made Lustau and El Bandarra, the German pioneers Belsazar, the lively Australian made Regal Rogue and Madenaii ranges or South Africa’s Caperitif to name just a handful.
Where it goes is anyone’s guess but if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that sweet vermouth, millennia old as it is, continues to find new ways to adapt, evolve and remain relevant to drinkers.