Vermouth is a pre-dinner drink made from wine fortified with a spirit that is then flavoured with an infusion of herbs and spices. Some European vermouths have been awarded ‘protected designation of origin’ status.
Turin - the birthplace of vermouth
The cities of Chambéry and Turin have been jostling for the title of the birthplace of vermouth for a long time now, following the division of the Duchy of Savoy between France and Italy in the 19th century. Yet the name ‘vermouth’ was most definitely first used in Turin, invented in 1786 by Antonio Benedetto Carpano based on a German aperitif made from wine and Wermut (‘absinthe’ in German). King Carlo Alberto’s coronation as ruler of the Duchy in 1831 elevated Turin to the status of official international capital of vermouth.
In a prosperous and influential city like Turin, vermouth quickly became a popular drink, mainly enjoyed at the end of the day at ‘aperitivo’ time. As a direct consequence of its success, an aristocracy of Turin-based vermouth manufacturers emerged.
The vermouth barons from Italy to France
A number of well-established and reputable Italian families began to distribute their own vermouth, including the Cinzano family. Once the family had established their company in Turin, they quickly developed a network of salesmen to expand their vermouth sales to France, where the aperitif was widely emulated. In 1813 for example, French liqueur and absinthe manufacturer Joseph Noilly introduced his recipe for a dry vermouth, made from the white wines of Languedoc. His son Louis took over the company in 1829, and began exporting his absinthe, liqueurs and vermouth beyond France’s borders. In 1843, his brother-in-law became his partner and the company was renamed Noilly-Prat. In 1844, the first order was shipped to the United States (New Orleans and New York). Simultaneously, in 1821 Joseph Chavasse developed his own vermouth in Chambéry. Made from local herbs, this vermouth was named Dolin and was the first to be awarded the AOC label a century later (1932). The Dolin brand was also responsible for selling and marketing the first white vermouth.
Vermouth takes America by storm
Carlo Alberto was displeased by the market share taken by French vermouth manufacturers, particularly in the United States. He quickly recognised the dangers of having restricted sales of Turin vermouth to the local market. He decided to join forces with the Italian Cora brothers, who had founded a company in 1835 and were exporting massive quantities of vermouth to the United States to be sold on to Italian expat clients. To protect Turin’s vermouth from potential copycats, Carlo Alberto granted them the first licences in 1840. In this spirit of international expansion, the Distilleria Nazionale de Spirito de Vino was founded in 1849. In 1860, driven forward by new CEO Alessandro Martini, the distillery became a key player on the global vermouth market. In 1865 (in Dublin) and in 1867 (in Paris), his vermouth won a number of awards, and in 1868 the company exported its first bottles to the United States. In 1879, the Martini company became Martini & Rossi, following the departure of one of its shareholders. It was ultimately due to Martini & Rossi, and Cora, that vermouth enjoyed incredible expansion in the United States, the United Kingdom and France.