Anyone who has enjoyed a martini, Manhattan, or a negroni already knows that one of the critical ingredients in their beloved cocktail is vermouth. And yet somehow, vermouth continues to be one of the least understood and least respected bottles in the bar. (First things first, your vermouth belongs in the refrigerator, not oxidizing in your liquor cabinet.)
Vermouth is believed to have evolved from a simple blend of wine and herbs or roots that dates to 1250-1000 BC in China, and was historically consumed in ancient Greece, the Middle East, and throughout Europe. Modern-day vermouth is a fortified wine that is aromatized with botanicals including herbs, roots, barks, seeds, spices, and flowers, and the city credited with its Renaissance is Turin, Italy. Vermouth is traditionally consumed as an aperitif—served on ice with a twist of citrus—but it’s also an essential ingredient in many classic and contemporary cocktails. While vermouth was historically served as a medicinal elixir, a delicious vehicle for fibrous botanicals that were believed to have healing properties, it was in the 19th century that vermouth was officially put on the map as companies began to bottle the herbaceous libation for mass consumption.
One of the pioneering companies in vermouth’s international takeover was Turin-based Martini & Rossi, founded by Alessandro Martini and Luigi Rossi. It’s a company that continues to be a household name in vermouth. Martini & Rossi launched in 1864 with its vermouth Rosso, and today the company makes a range of vermouths: Extra Dry, Bianco, Rosso, and their newly released Riserva Speciale Ambrato and Rubino (which are nothing less than exquisite).
Each bottle of vermouth contains a blend of Italian wines specific to each style of vermouth, which is then fortified with neutral grain spirit, and aromatized with a secret blend of botanicals that may include orange peel, dittany, lemon peel, rose, cinchona bark, yellow gentian root, holy thistle, dandelion leaves, rhubarb root, quassia bark, ceylon cinnamon, cloves, chamomile, mugwort, lemon balm, hyssop, St. John’s Wort, cascarilla bark, santoreggia, salvia sclarea, orris root, violet, raspberries, and artemisia, commonly known as wormwood, the origin of the word “vermouth.”
These botanicals are either distilled in copper pot stills or extracted through a 15 to 30-day maceration process, removing different flavor qualities of the botanicals before moving on to the blending process. There, the wine, distillates, extracts, sugar, and caramel coloring are combined in massive stainless steel tanks. While Martini & Rossi carefully vets the botanicals that it sources from all over the world, it takes the most pride in the botanicals sourced from the region of northern Italy that Martini & Rossi calls home, Pessione.
Visiting the botanical fields in Pessione feels like stepping back in time. Wooden carts are overloaded with fresh herbs, and giant warehouses are filled with stacked pallets and massive piles of drying botanicals and flowers. Workers use wheelbarrows to transport piles of herbs from one area to the next followed by fluffy dogs who bark sharply despite their friendly appearance.
A short walk down the dirt road next to the botanical facility leads to a small convent where the nuns have gathered for lunch, singing their praises to Italy’s fresh cheeses and charcuterie.
Pessione is most famous for its highly aromatic mint, Menta Piperita, which is made into delightful confectionaries—minty candies and chocolate covered mint bonbons, the original York Peppermint Patty. Martini & Rossi works with local farmers to grow botanicals used in their vermouths, including Artemisia Pontica (Roman wormwood), a bitter wormwood that is essential to the Martini & Rossi flavor profile because of its herbal and floral top note, Artemisia Absinthium (absinthe wormwood) the most bold and bitter of the artemisa varietals, Taraxacum Officinale (common dandelion), and Anthemis Nobilis, also known and Roman Chamomile. While many of these botanicals can be grown in other locations in Europe (and the world), Martini & Rossi prefers those grown in northern Italy because of the flavor nuances attributed to terroir and the region’s micro-climates. Annual weather patterns can change the flavors of the botanicals from year to year, but those discrepancies are blended out so that the final vermouth matches a specific flavor profile.
While vermouth can sometimes feel like an old-world beverage, Martini & Rossi has positioned itself to be very much a part of contemporary culture. As early as 1948 Martini had created exclusive branded clubs called Terrazzas in Paris and Milan that were frequented by movie stars and celebrities.
Today, the group owns Bar Martini, a bar and Sicilian restaurant that spills into the courtyards behind the Dolce & Gabbana Milan store, a modern-day piazza for the city’s most fashionably chic inhabitants. The bar is lined with back-lit bottles of vermouth and bitter aperitivo, massive glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and every spritz-filled goblet is printed with the ever-recognizable Martini logo. The bar serves a range of cocktails, complete with a small plate of snacks traditionally served for aperitivo hour. It is Martini heaven.
While vermouth may go through phases of being massively popular to the misunderstood bottle on the shelf, one thing is undeniable: vermouth is one of the oldest beverages in humanity’s history and it, like Martini & Rossi, isn’t going anywhere.
Images courtesy of Martini & Rossi