Vermouth: a history of changing attitudes towards alcohol, health and pleasure
Cafe Elena sits on the corner of the monumental square Piazza Vittorio by the Po river which divides the east side of Turin’s city centre from the hills around it. The historic cafe is where a man named Antonio Benedetto Carpano was credited in 1786 for the creation of the first commercial vermouth using local white wine and dozens of herbs and spices.
Above the cafe’s patio entrance an old brown-and-gold sign advertises: “Vermouth Carpano”. Inside there is dark wooden panelling on the walls, vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, and elegant antique furniture. On a Sunday evening in March it is nearly full by 6pm with people gathered for before-dinner drinks.
Groups of friends and couples ranging from their late twenties through their fifties sit at its tables. The atmosphere is lively, but not wild. In their hands are various cocktails as well as amari. These bitter liquors are commonly drunk before meals as ‘aperitivi’ to open the stomach and afterwards as ‘digestivi’ to help you digest what you’ve eaten.
On a visit to Cafe Elena in Turin, I ordered a glass of Carpano antica formula – ´Carpano’s ancient recipe’. It was the most expensive vermouth on the menu at €7 a glass, brown-red in colour and both very sweet and very bitter at the same time. Trying to pick apart its contrasting flavours is not an easy task, the flavour is one of its own.
Though exact formulas are usually kept secret, vermouths are infused with a range of herbs and spices including: bitter wormwood, citrus skins, dried flowers like chamomile and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, or ‘balsamic’ ingredients (like oregano). The resulting drink is characteristically bitter and sweet, a quality that lends to vermouth’s history as a quasi-medicinal beverage.
Since Carpano’s time, vermouth has found its place in popular cocktails sold in hip bars around the world including classics like martinis, manhattans, and negronis. These are popular in Italy too but cocktails are a relatively recent part of its history. Vermouth’s traditions spring from a centuries old practice of infusions drunk for health reasons, specifically gut health. To this day, places like Cafe Elena offer vermouth to be enjoyed on its own: not to get drunk, but before or after (and never during) meals, to help with digestion.
In the book A Spirited Guide to Vermouth, mixologist Jack Bevan explains the medical use of infused spirits and wines can be dated back to around 400 BC in the records of the famous Greek physician Hippocrates and further record of their use to battle illnesses along with recipes is found in 17th century British books like The England Physician. Vermouth though, is specific to Turin, Italy, and gained major popularity in the 18th century.
While Turin is where vermouth was industrialised and standardised – if not strictly ‘invented’– when Carpano named his vermut, infused wines “were everywhere, and people had the time and money to drink them,” writes Bevan.
According to the Consorzio del Vermouth di Torino industry group, the addition of wormwood to wine to “treat stomach and intestinal problems,” existed for centuries but it is in Turin where more and varied flavours were introduced to these infusions. The Consorzio shares that the vermouth we recognise today blossomed in the 18th and 19th centuries when “the liquorists of Turin enjoyed wide fame” and were transforming their infusions “from a medicinal drink to a convivial aperitif.”
Today there are numerous brand-name vermouths like Martini & Rossi and Punt e Mes that can be found globally. The mass production of these recognisable brands kicked off in the 18th century in Turin, then the capital of the Kingdom of Savoy. It was a wealthy and influential city less than 200 kilometres north of the major port city Genoa where spices arrived from around the world, and also not far from the Alps and its precious mountain botanicals. As such, it was uniquely positioned to benefit from globally traded spices and local ingredients to make specialty infusions.
Pierstefano Berta, vice-president of the Consorzio, says the 18th and 19th century was a time of experimentation for herbal liquors and flavoured wines – some of which were made for medicinal purposes and sold in pharmacies.
According to Berta, Vermouth was different from other medicinal formulas : “ [Vermouth was] created by Turin’s bartenders…as a pleasant drink to open the stomach.” Unlike herbal tinctures made strictly for medicinal purposes, vermouth was crafted for pleasure to be enjoyed on terraces for aperitivi and digestivi. Taste and medicinal quality were of equal importance.
Though formulated as a drink for enjoyment, the medicinal qualities of vermouth are still crucial to its understanding. “It is what is defined by biochemists as a ‘pure bitter’,” says Berta, he shares that a bitter taste signals a potential poison and “sets in motion a whole series of physiological mechanisms… your entire digestive system kicks in to try to destroy the substance, so you digest something with that taste as quickly as possible." In short, vermouth’s bitter qualities can help quicken the digestion process.
Turin’s proximity to Genoa’s global trade ports also meant Vermouth was introduced to a global audience aiding its exportation. “In the 19th century it was already sold all over the world, from Korea to the United States,” says Berta.
A century after Carpano was credited with inventing vermouth, an 1885 Italian government manual boasted that vermouth from the northern Italian city of Turin was “well-known across the world”. This document was meant for wine exporters and sellers in Argentina and is part of a trove of historical documents digitised and uploaded by research institutions which provides a fascinating window into how locally-produced goods like vermouth were sold and consumed on a global scale.
Vermouth di Torino producers were regular fixtures at World’s Fair exhibitions throughout the 19th century. A report about the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris says it sits “between wine and liquor, without being perfectly one or the other… vermouth is a blend of white wine and wormwood extract and other drugs.”
While there existed a long, global history of wormwood-infused wines, this report claimed: “[Vermouth] is indigenous and typical of Italy, and precisely from Piedmont, and under the name of Vermouth di Torino more than 10,000 hectoliters go abroad every year.”
The report draws attention to the existence of similar concoctions citing that France “already emulates us in this preparation” and sees similarities of vermouth in the United States’ entry of “the Bitter, composed of roots, strong orange peel, sugar and alcohol.” Like many regional products that came onto the global market during the 19th and 20th centuries industrial boom, there was incentive to define the specificities of Vermouth di Torino so it would stand out in the market.
Today ‘Vermouth di Torino’ is a protected distinction that determines the methods, location and alcohol content of the spirit. There are different subtypes under this label categorised based on colour (white, amber, rosé or red) and the amount of sugar used (less than 30 grams per litre for ‘extra dry’ varieties, for example, to more than 130 for ‘sweet’ types).
To qualify as Vermouth di Torino, the mixture must use particular types of wormwood found in Piemonte: Absinthium and Pontica). Sweetening can only be done with sugar, honey, grape must, caramel. The base can be red or white wine and the wormwood plus other herbs of choice are infused in the wine base, for 15 to 20 days. Then the sweetener is added and the beverage filtered until it’s ready to be bottled. At bottling, the vermouth must be between 16%-22% abv.
In Italy it still sits behind the bar at restaurants and cafes, alongside other herb-infused ‘digestivi’ (digestives) and ‘amari’ (bitters) such as Amaro Lucano and San Simone, though its alcohol content is lower. It’s a mixture of many things, but also unique.
Berta says that today between 60-70% of the vermouth made in and around Turin is exported, though the Consorzio reported a sharp fall in production during the COVID-19 pandemic, because of its reliance on exports and, increasingly, on ‘cocktail culture’.
A “tradition that is coming back”
In Turin you can visit historic cafes where vermouth has been drunk for centuries and go on Vermouth Tours that showcase this drink and its history. On a sunny Sunday afternoon in March, I joined about 20 other people for one of these tours.
We gathered at the tour’s starting point in one of the city’s biggest and most monumental squares of Turin, Piazza Castello. From there, over the next two and a half hours we wound through the city centre, stopping at elegant bars and local liquor stores each with their own version and history of the drink.
From the late 1700s people used to meet in these places to talk about absolutely everything from politics to gossip, says our guide Francesca. She shares that by the 1800s there were many small producers making different varieties of vermouth. People drank it before meals – even breakfast.
Today, many people in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, particularly older people, “have this memory of a bottle of vermouth in a cupboard or in the fridge at home,” Francesca says, describing it as a “tradition that is coming back”.
“About 10 years ago, some wine and liquor producers started re-discovering vermouth,” she says. “At the same time, bars for younger people decided to have it back on their menus. Not just the famous Martini [brand], but a good selection of artisanal vermouth.”
During the tour, she brought us into a restaurant where we sat down at a long table and were served three different types of vermouth from Drapo, a local producer of Vermouth di Torino.
The classic ‘red’, made with wine, herbs and a large dose of caramel giving it a darker colour, tasted strong with the flavour of citrus skins piercing through.
The ‘white’ Vermouth we tried was lighter and easier to drink; the different herbs are not as present and the resulting drink not as bitter. The third, a ‘rose’, was a mix between the two, it’s well balanced flavour made it a favourite of most tour participants.
Mario Grignani, a fellow tour-goer, told me he was surprised to learn “how widespread vermouth is, and was,” even centuries ago. When asked how he would describe the concept of an Italian digestivo, to international drinkers? He pauses and suggests: “It’s about flavour compared to alcohol content. When it comes to gin, rum, whisky, the weight of the alcohol content is quite overwhelming, while in the case of vermouth there’s a reduced alcohol content dominated by very strong flavours.”
While many associate vermouth as something mixed into an after dinner drink, there is a centuries-old case for drinking it straight at the end of the evening and expanding your bar with artisanal varieties.
Simone Lai is a freelance reporter, researcher and translator based in Turin, northern Italy, focused on culture and travel.