All About Vermouths

“People think of it as different: Italian (red) and French (white) vermouths, but they’re very related.” So began our educational conversation with Roberta Mariani, an Italian mixologist (previously the General Manager of the famous Bar Termini in UK and now the brand ambassador for Martini), at Tales of the Cocktail to talk about vermouths and amari.

As it happens, both French and Italian vermouth regions were both once ruled by the kingdom of Savoy. The Savoys, an Italian-Alpine royal family, originally designated as their capital Chambéry, the modern-day France region famous for its vermouths (think: Dolin), before conquering Turin (Torino) in modern-day Italy and relocating there. Chambéry and Torino each became vermouth powerhouses in France and Italy, respectively. The major distinguishing characteristics between the two is that French vermouths tend to be drier (e.g. 4% added sugar) while Italian vermouths are much more botanically-driven and sweeter (10-15% sugar).

 Martini's vermouths and bitters (from left to right): Bitter 1872, white vermouth (Riserva Speciale Ambrato), and red vermouth (Riserva Speciale Rubino)

Martini's vermouths and bitters (from left to right): Bitter 1872, white vermouth (Riserva Speciale Ambrato), and red vermouth (Riserva Speciale Rubino)

The conversation then turned to much more recent history. Specifically, the history of the vermouths that Roberta was guiding us through tasting.

Roberta tells us Martini’s philosophy is to try to find “balance”. “It should not be too strong one way or another, and it should be consistent.” At first, this perspective may appear counter to the artisanal and small-batch renaissance where salmon-flavored vodka or millet grain whiskies are #trending, but its unadorned approach is what keeps them the dominant leader in vermouth sales. Vermouth is generally the supporting cast.

To stick to its guidelines,a panel of 12 employees that have been with Martini & Rosso for 20-25 years each, must taste batches every day and confirm that it tastes like a “Martini” product.

We followed her suggestion to try the red (rubino) vermouth first, since it was the least overwhelming to the palate. It’s cherry, fruity, moscato, and Christmas on the front palate, with a light hint of tannic wine at the back. We then sipped the ambrato, the white/amber vermouth, which Roberta described as “Roman chamomile, muscato, and bark, and then a kick at the end” and “excellent with some tonic water.”

After that, the finale: the Bitter 1872. Earlier, we had a negroni made with this bitter which one of us declared it to be “the best negroni I’ve ever had.” The bitter is based on Martini’s original 1872 recipe, and the brand’s hope is that the complexity of the liquer will set it apart from its rival Campari, with three layers of rare bitters built in: angostura bark, Columba root (for the mouthfeel), and saffron (the world’s most expensive spice).

 Advertisement for the Bitter 1872 strewn around Caffe Torino

Advertisement for the Bitter 1872 strewn around Caffe Torino

 "The best negroni I've ever had" - Michael

"The best negroni I've ever had" - Michael

Before we left, Roberta left us with some food for thought: “In Italy, you have a coffee during the day, then, when it switches to the beginning of the evening, we turn to vermouths and amari. This is the beginning of the night. Americans, they view Happy Hour as the end of the day: ‘thank god I’m done with work.’ But drinking should be seen instead as the beginning of the evening.”

 With Roberta Mariani, in front of the Negroni-making bull sculpture and a "Make Bitter Choices" sign

With Roberta Mariani, in front of the Negroni-making bull sculpture and a "Make Bitter Choices" sign