Vermouth is an indispensable ingredient in many Italian (and non!) cocktails, like these four classic recipes.

It’s been a long day of sightseeing. You’ve worked up a bit of an appetite and your muscles are just begging for a rest. Dinner, however, is still a couple of hours away.

Aperitivo time - © Rosemarie Scavo

Aperitivo time – © Rosemarie Scavo

You notice some locals sitting around tables in the bars and cafes lining the piazza. They’re sipping drinks and nibbling on nuts, olives, and stuzzicchini like pizzette and other tiny, savory pastries. Some are drinking from flutes and stemmed glasses filled with what looks like the local sparkling white. Others have gone the cocktail route and are drinking from ice-filled tumblers, highballs, and conical stemmed glasses.

You may not know this yet but what you are witnessing is the Italian ritual known as the aperitivo, whetting your appetite before a meal with an alcoholic drink accompanied by some savory nibbles. As for those cocktail drinkers, there’s a good chance that their beverages contain vermouth, a fortified Piedmontese wine infused with artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, and other botanicals.

Wormwood wine

Using wormwood to aromatize white wine appears to date back to ancient Greece. For many centuries, Europeans believed that the shrub that grew on rocky slopes had medicinal properties. Wine infused with this bitter herb was often consumed to combat stomach troubles and other maladies.

Wormwood - by mwms1916

Wormwood – by mwms1916

We have Piedmontese distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano to thank for the modern version of “wormwood wine.” In 1786, he concocted a white wine aromatized with over 30 herbs and spices, fortified with spirits and sweetened with sugar. A lover of German literature and Goethe, Carpano called his drink vermouth, believed to be the French pronunciation for the German wermut, meaning “wormwood.” His drink quickly caught on with the royal Savoy court in Turin. In fact, local legend has it that his beverage became so popular that his liquor shop just off Piazza Castello had to remain open 24 hours a day. In the 19th century, others in the region—winemakers Carlo Gancia and Luigi Rossi and herbalists Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo Cinzano—followed suit and aromatized and fortified wine with their own formulas that remain closely guarded secrets to this day.

White or red, sweet or dry—what are the different types of vermouth?

All dry vermouth is white, but not all white vermouth is dry. Sweet vermouth, on the other hand, can be white, rose, or red.

Sweet vermouth has an alcohol content of at least 14.5% and a sugar content of at least 14%; a dry vermouth has an alcoholic percentage of 15-16% and less than 5% sugar content. An extra dry has less than 3%.

What gives vermouth its color? Red vermouth may get its color from the mix of botanicals used, added red wine, or, more prosaically, caramel coloring. Rose-colored vermouth is made by using both white and red wines as its base.

Classic vermouth-based cocktails

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, vermouth was served liscio or straight in Turin’s fashionable cafés as part of the city’s nascent aperitivo ritual. Over time though, bartenders in Italy and around the world have discovered that the drink’s aromatic complexity lends itself perfectly to mixed drinks. Here’s a guide to four of the best-known appetite-stimulating cocktails made with Carpano’s 1786 invention:

Americano

First served at Milan’s Caffè Camparino in 1860, this low-alcohol highball was originally known as the Milano-Torino for the provenance of its two main ingredients—Campari from Milan and sweet vermouth from Turin, respectively. During Prohibition, however, the story goes that tourists and American expats began adding fizzy soda water to the mix, and it became known as the Americano.

  • 30 ml Campari
  • 30 ml sweet red vermouth
  • a splash of soda water
  • Garnish: orange half wheel or orange zest

Build the Campari and sweet vermouth in a highball glass or old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Top off with soda water. Stir and garnish with an orange half wheel or zest.

Martini

Vintage Vermouth - by Toho Scope

Vintage Vermouth – by Toho Scope

Of all of Piedmont’s vermouth producers, Martini & Rossi have no doubt been the best at marketing their brand. The company has been involved in motor racing since the 1960s and they’ve also made many memorable advertising campaigns under their Terrazza Martini logo. Not an Italian invention, but it’s still fair to say that James Bond’s favorite drink—bearing the same name as the Pessione, Piedmont-based company—has also done much to raise the profile of vermouth since the 1950s and 60s.

  • 60 ml gin
  • 10 ml dry vermouth
  • Garnish: lemon zest or olive

Build the gin and dry vermouth in a mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled martini cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon zest or olive.

Negroni

In 1919, the fashionable cocktail of the period was the Americano, or, as it was still then known, the Milano-Torino. Legend has it that one day, Florentine Count Camillo Negroni walked into Caffè Casoni (now Caffè Giacosa) and was unconvinced by the Americano that bartender Fosco Scarselli had suggested preparing for him. Instead, the eccentric customer, inspired by a recent trip to London, instructed Scarselli to stiffen his drink with gin.  Half a slice of orange was also used to garnish and distinguish the Count’s aperitivo from the other patrons.

  • 30 ml sweet red vermouth
  • 30 ml Campari
  • 30 ml gin
  • Garnish: orange half wheel or orange zest

Build the gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir and garnish with orange half wheel or zest.

Or combine the gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a rocks glass filled with ice. Garnish with orange half wheel or zest.

Negroni sbagliato - © Rosemarie Scavo

Negroni sbagliato – © Rosemarie Scavo

Negroni sbagliato

Don’t care for the higher alcohol content of gin in the Martini and Negroni? Well, there’s always the “messed up” version of the Negroni, the Negroni sbagliato, which was first served in the early 1970s in Milan’s Bar Basso after a bartender accidently swapped the gin with a bubbly white, nowadays most often a Prosecco.

  • 30 ml Campari
  • 30 ml sweet red vermouth
  • 30 ml Prosecco or sparkling white wine
  • Garnish: orange half wheel or orange zest

Build the Campari, vermouth, and Prosecco in an old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir and garnish with the orange half wheel or orange zest.

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