After decades of decline, vermouth seemed stuck with a reputation as a drink for grandparents, or as a component in cocktails like the Manhattan or the Martini. Then, starting right around the turn of the millennium, old companies began reviving ancient recipes and pioneering brands sprung up around the world, causing a swell of new options to arrive on the market.
Over the last few years, countless journalists, bartenders and industry insiders have declared a new golden age of vermouth. I recently hopped between three historic vermouth cities—Turin, Italy; Chambéry, France; and Reus, Spain—to talk with the producers of three leading brands about how they’re handling the market surge.
Cocchi | Turin, Italy
Though there are records of wine macerated with herbs and spices going back thousands of years, most people consider the product that Antonio Bendetto Carpano created in Turin in the 18th century to be the first vermouth. (Its name likely comes from the German wermut, meaning wormwood, which is vermouth’s primary bittering agent.) In the years to come, Cinzano, Martini and Rossi, Riserva Carlo Alberto and others grew out of Carpano’s legacy, establishing Turin as the world’s vermouth-producing hub.
Gulio Cocchi launched his vermouth later, in 1891, and the company’s garrulous rooster logo is now a hallmark of quality in the world of sweet vermouth. But, when the winemaking Bava family bought the company in 1978, Cocchi’s vermouth had become nearly extinct, replaced by other aperitivi, like Aperol, that better-suited Italian tastes.
It was past midnight in Cocconato, a medieval hill town outside Turin, when Roberto Bava insisted we join him for one more drink. He waved our group through his family’s courtyard into a room richly decorated with antiques and pulled out a magnum of Cocchi Brut. When the Bava’s acquired Cocchi, the sparkling wine was all that was keeping the brand alive.
Since relaunching Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino in 2011, which is based on a historic recipe, Cocchi has become premier cocktail ingredient, but Bava isn’t content for his product to be a top-shelf mixer. Settling into a chair at the head of the table, Bava explained to a group of bartenders, distributors and importers that he had spent the day at a conference for the Instituto del Vermouth di Tornio (he is the group’s president) to try to identify a path forward for the category. This March, they won recognition from the Italian government that has helped define the drink—less strictly than the DOCG laws that classify the better-known local specialty of Piedmont, Barolo, but a step in that direction—and now they wanted to make vermouth di Torino a household name around the world.
The group suggested that the Instituto might partner with a celebrity chef or start a slick pop art campaign, but Roberto said that they had done that before. He wanted to something new—to find a way to convince tastemakers to start drinking vermouth straight.
Finally, Eric Seed, founder of Haus Alpenz, Cocchi’s importer, jumped in: “Well, really, you need to get Italians to drink more vermouth.”
Dolin | Chambéry, France
Across the Alps in Chambéry, Maison Dolin is riding the vermouth wave with strong backbar cred as the original vermouth blanc.
Joseph Chavasse started the still-family-owned company in 1815 after traveling across the historic Savoy Kingdom to Turin, where he became acquainted with the burgeoning vermouth scene. Inspired, he opened up shop in Chambéry and began selling his more herbal, blanc version of vermouth.
By 1900, Chavasses’s vermouth blanc had established a new global standard, winning a medal at the World’s Fair, influencing the creation of Italian vermouth bianco and, in 1934, prompting France to create an official AOC for Vermouth de Chambéry.
But tastes soon changed.
First came the taste for pastis, which had spread upward from its home along France’s Riviera. Then, according to Dolin’s current CEO and the fifth generation of family owners, Pierre-Olivier Rousseaux, came the American GIs, who swept through France during World War II and left a taste for whiskey and Coke in their wake. By the 1960s, Dolin had almost stopped making vermouth entirely, mostly selling their Marie Dolin line of fruit syrups, and pushing Coeur de Génépi and Génépi de Chamois as après-ski shots at alpine restaurants and resorts.
But, said Rousseaux over lunch at a local bistro, “I think it’s in the blood of this family to make vermouth.”
In 2009, at the urging of bartenders looking for quality vermouth, Seed came to Chambéry and made a deal to start importing Dolin’s blanc, rouge and dry vermouths to the United States. Since Seed’s deus ex machina appearance, Dolin’s sales have spiked. Last August, the company hired two new employees, growing their staff for the first time in 20 years.
“We are investing in people and production capacity to respond correctly to growth,” explained Rousseaux. But that growth hasn’t translated into local recognition. “Here, vermouth is a name… well, I won’t say forgotten, but a little,” he continued. “In France, if you go for an aperitif, you get Champagne.”
Right now, around 50 percent of Dolin’s sales are come from the U.S. on-premise market—i.e. bars and restaurants. But French sales are growing, slowly, as the cocktail movement spreads beyond Paris. Still, there is tons of work to be done, said Rousseaux as he motioned across the room to the bartender: “He doesn’t know how to make an Americano or a Negroni.”
Miró | Reus, Spain
Vermouth didn’t make it to Spain until end of the 19th century, brought over by Italian immigrants who set up shop in Reus, in the heart of Catalonia. But Spanish vermouth (vermut, as they call it here), unlike its older cousins in Italy and France, has maintained its own customs throughout modern history, relying on local tradition rather than American cocktails for the recent revival of hora de vermut.
Vermuts Miró launched in 1957 and has since become one of Spain’s leading producer. They sell a range of styles, from their cheap and cheerful Vermouth Casero to their gently sweet, light Rojo to their Reserva Etiqueta Negra, which is aged solera-style for 12 months, to their pre-mixed Vermu Cola, aimed at millennials. Currently, they produce 4 million liters per year between their own line of products and the vermouths they make for 12 other brands.
Spain currently accounts for most of Europe’s vermouth consumption, but, as elsewhere, the current renaissance comes after years of decline. After former Prime Minister Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, many Spaniards rejected their parents’ customs, turning to beer and cocktails instead. But, in the last few years, particularly in the north, vermouth’s reputation has turned around entirely. As we walked around the town of Reus, Mar, our young tour guide, explained that, “here in Catalunya, we don’t just drink vermouth, we do vermouth”; in other words, it’s more about the cultural act of taking vermouth than the vermouth itself.
Mar’s tour ended at the hip Museu del Vermut, a restaurant and bar where the walls are packed floor-to-ceiling with decades of memorabilia. As we sipped vermouth in one of the private dining rooms, Carles Prats, Miró’s CEO, explained how the category’s revival could be traced directly to the 2008 economic crisis. The global downturn hit Spain particularly hard and, when unemployment spiked, people stopped drinking expensive imported spirits and turned instead to their grandparents’ cheap, low-alcohol, local alternative. Suddenly, explained Prats, “the number of brands grew from around 30 to around 150.”
Today, the vermouth renaissance is being fueled, at least in part, by the new generation. This homegrown, next-generation growth is what has allowed Miró, which has doubled its production since 2008, to grow at such a remarkable pace. To go back to Seed’s point at Cocchi, it seems that staying power has a lot to do with inspiring the cultures that gave birth to these beverages to enjoy them anew.