Sit down for an Aperitivo in Turin at one of the historic cafes and you’ll probably see a menu of Wine, Spritz, and Vermouth di Torino. Wine we all know is Piemonte’s pride and joy; Spritz has spread its reach to be the defining cocktail of Italy, but Vermouth? What’s that?
Vermouth is an aromatized and fortified wine, whose true origins reach way back into ancient China and Egypt. But the vermouths we are more familiar with today have more recent origins in Northern Italy and France. The key ingredient to Vermouth is Wormwood, hence its name which comes from the German pronunciation “Wermut”.
Vermouth may come in Dry or Sweet, and Rosso or Bianco. The most common Italian Vermouth is Rosso and Dry. Bianco and Dry tend more often to be used in variations of cocktails, drunk straight in France, or even used in cooking. Vermouth Rosso’s popularity and “origins” dates back to 1786 with a recipe created by Antonio Benedetto Carpano (You can visit the old factory in Eataly Lingotto).
Vermouth had long been drunk as a medicinal drink but was often not quite tasty and very expensive due to the herbs inside. Instead, Carpano was able to tweak the recipe to create a more agreeable flavor using cheaper herbs and spices. This brought the drink closer to the people and instantly became a hit. It was then labeled Vermouth di Torino. It’s rise to fame is also thanks to the Royal Savoy family who quite enjoyed the vanilla versions of the Vermouth.
Not long after its creation, the popularity of the drink had spread so diffusely that Torino was soon exporting Vermouth to 150 countries and gained status as the primary manufacturer of the drink.
While many might drink Vermouth straight, with or without ice, a popular way of drinking it in the 19th century was with a slice of lemon peel and a mix of soda. This simple cocktail became known as “Vermuttino” (little Vermouth) and was accepted to be drunk by both men and women of the time.
Especially in Torino, there became the practice of Vermouth Hour, where social groups would gather for a Vermuttino and the bars would serve snacks to accompany the alcohol and fill the guests’ stomachs. This could be why Torino claims the origin of Aperitivo.
Vermouth is made with a base of white wine, grape must and wormwood, it’s then left to absorb a mix of herbs and spices. Most recipes include about 12 to 13 herbs and spices, though every company protects their recipe with pride. In true Vermouth, the red color is naturally obtained from the herbs and the burnt sugar used.
In 2017, producers of Vermouth began to see that some manufacturers would dilute their drinks, use imported goods, or even sell it as a “Torino Product” though it was made outside the region. They felt the need to protect this beverage as a part of Piedmont’s heritage, so they gathered together to create the Law 1826. This law defines Vermouth di Torino as ‘an aromatized wine obtained in Piedmont using Italian wine only, with the addition of alcohol, flavored mainly with Artemisia from Piedmont together with other herbs and spices. Further, a minimum of 50% of the base wine and, at least 3 of the herbs must come directly from Piedmont.
When you visit Torino, rather than popping over to the Carpano or Martini factory, check out some smaller producers that create unique and rich Vermouths. A favorite is Vermouth Il Reale, who uses a recipe based on the last king of Italy’s favorite Vermouth, handed over by his living descendants. They even have the most adorable bar right in their distillery, in Chieri. Just a quick train ride away, it’s the perfect spot to enjoy this royal aperitif.