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The Truth About Vermouth
Things used to be so uncomplicated. Now, there's more vermouth than we know what to do with. The Italian solution? As always, a protected designation.
Torino (the city we call “Turin” in English for some reason) is the spiritual home of vermouth. The first time I visited Torino was in 2007, the year after it hosted the Winter Olympics. This trip resulted in the first spirits column I ever wrote, which happened to be on vermouth. That experience eventually made its way into Boozehound:
In the nineteenth century, nearly every major café in Torino produced its own vermouth, and some of these formulas exist to this day. I visited the small but stately century-old Caffè Mulassano on the Piazza Castello, with its lovely marble bar. Caffè Mulassano claims it was the favored gathering place of the Royal House of Savoy. The white-jacketed waiters still serve the bar’s own sweet vermouth—a recipe dating back to 1879—a red, bitter house liqueur called Liquore delle Alpi, which looks and tastes like Campari. I took my Mulassano vermouth on the rocks, per tradition in Torino, and enjoyed a complimentary plate of little panini and tramezzini and olives.
After Mulassano, I walked a few blocks on sidewalks covered by ornate porticos to the grandest of Torino’s historic cafés, the San Carlo, which opened in 1822. I entered between its gilded pilasters and under the huge, glitzy chandelier, and the tuxedoed bartender mixed me an Americano. A local guy was also sipping an Americano, while his dog slept at his feet. He told me I should check out Eataly, a new food emporium situated in the old Carpano vermouth distillery near the edge of the city. Apparently, one of the hippest new spots in Torino happened to be the supermarket.
Ah, 2007. Things were so quaint and simple back then. In those days, a drinks journalist could just wander around Torino, regale people with 750 words on vermouth history, tell them to use more vermouth in their dry martini, and then implore them to always refrigerate their vermouth…and their work was done.
Vermouth has gotten a lot more complicated since those halcyon days. As the years rolled along, we’ve learned that there is also a rich vermouth history in Spain and France. We’ve seen Americans try their hand at making non-traditional vermouths. New vermouths appear on the market all the time. There is now more vermouth than we know what to do with. Which is why we now have vermouth experts.
In Italy, they have a time-honored tradition for dealing with this sort of situation: Create a protected designation! Thus, in 2019, the European Union recognized Vermouth di Torino as an official EU designation.
“The designation was important for the Italians, because the Italians want a designation for everything,” said François Monti, author of El gran libro del vermut and the most expert of vermouth experts (and also a great friend of ours at Everyday Drinking). “There was a worry that as the vermouth thing was blowing up, everywhere else—such as the U.S.—people would push back and say ‘We can do whatever we want, vermouth is whatever we decide it to be.’ So they needed to protect their know-how. And that’s the way we Europeans protect our know-how.”
Among the Vermouth di Torino regulations: it must be made in Piedmont, using only Italian wines; it must be bittered mainly with Artemisia (wormwood); it must be bottled between 16% and 22% abv; it must include wormwood that is grown or gathered in Piedmont. Further, the flavor must be “soft” and with balanced bitter components, led by wormwood, and sweetness, depending on the sugar content. Extra Dry must have a sugar content lower than 30g/L; dry must have less than 50g/L. There is also a Vermouth di Torino Superiore category that must be at least 17% abv., and must be made with at least 50% Piedmont wines and flavored with herbs (not just the wormwood) all grown or harvested in Piedmont.
All the Piedmont vermouth brands that cocktail people know and love now produce within the designation—Cocchi, Carpano, Mulassano, Del Professore, Gancia, Chazalettes, etc. Most of those have already been producing according to the guidelines, but now the bigger players like Martini and Cinzano have released “premium” bottlings that fit the regulations.
The danger, of course, in any official designation is that it becomes conservative and averse to experimentation and evolution. So far, that’s not been the case with Vermouth di Torino. “What I’ve seen over the last two years is that quite a few new brands who make bold styles or bold versions of Vermouth di Torino have been allowed to come under the umbrella,” Monti said. “The vermouth world is always changing and we’ll see if the Vermouth di Torino appellation will change with the world.”
The ringleader of the Vermouth di Torino designation is not from the big brands, but an old friend named Roberto Bava, whose Cocchi line of aromatized wines have been cocktail bar staples for more than a decade. His vermouth, Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino, is my go-to Italian vermouth, especially for a Negroni. “Having an appellation is also a protection for the consumer,” Bava says. “A barman, too, can see the name Torino as a safe guarantee.”
I met Robert Bava on my first trip to Piedmont in 2007. Bava’s winery also makes fine Piedmont wines from nebbiolo, barbera, etc. At the time, I became fascinated with Bava’s Barolo Chinato, a nebbiolo wine infused with quinine bark and other herbs and spices, including rhubarb root, star anise, citrus peel, gentian, fennel, juniper, and cardamom seed. I talked about Barolo Chinato in Boozehound:
In the 1920s, Giulio Cocchi opened a chain of Barolo Chinato bars in cities including Milan and Torino and as far away as Caracas, Venezuela. But by the 1960s and 1970s, Barolo Chinato had gone out of fashion, swept away by the tide of amari, mass-market vermouths, and aperitivi such as Punt e Mes that began to flood the Italian market. Cocchi persisted, selling its spumante, and eventually was bought by the Bava family in 1977. But its Barolo Chinato languished for decades.
That is, until the all-important chocolate-Chinato connection came to light. Bava is president of something he referred to as the “Italian Chocolate Association.” Several years ago, he says, the association’s members began searching for the best after-dinner drink to pair with fine chocolate, another Piedmontese specialty. After supposedly rigorous testing, Bava says, “We learned that Barolo Chinato was the absolute best match for chocolate.” Regardless of how subjective that research must have been, it seems to have been a eureka moment in the history of food and drink pairings because, believe me, it is true. “Now,” Bava says, “if you ask anyone in Italy, ‘What do you pair with chocolate?’ They will say, ‘Barolo Chinato.’”
Bava says the chocolate pairing concept has saved Barolo Chinato from extinction and spurred other producers to put their versions on the market. “I’m proud of this. It’s probably the only idea in this life that I will leave behind,” he says, with a wink.
When I met up with Bava on my latest trip to Torinuring Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference, he was pitching two things. First, his new Extra Dry Vermouth di Torino. Which, to be clear, is fantastic and you should add it to your martini repetoire as soon as possible (you can find here).
But Bava is also a mastermind of unconventional pairings. During Terra Madre, he was running packed tasting seminars with the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium, pairing chilled Cocchi vermouth with wedges of aged parmigiano. I saw a lot of people flash each other that classic Italian shaking-hand gesture of the palm turned upward, thumb-and-middle-finger clenched as they tasted vermouth and parmigiano together for the first time.
Proving, once again, another truth: The best vermouths are often best consumed outside of a cocktail.