Photograph by Christina Anzenberger-Fink, Redux
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A classic place to sip vermouth in Turin, Caffè Mulassano is tucked away in the shadow of the city's royal palace, the Piazza Castello.
Photograph by Christina Anzenberger-Fink, Redux

Discover Italy’s Aperitivo Capital

To most of us, vermouth is the stuff you use to make a Martini. Or a Manhattan.

Fair enough.

But as many of us are rediscovering, vermouth is among the most versatile of cocktail ingredients. What’s more, it’s great straight.

Vermouth’s origins, as with most quaffs, are hazy. But evidence unearthed in China suggests it just may be the oldest alcoholic beverage in the world.

No matter its provenance, the apéritif was likely first developed for medicinal purposes, says Adam Ford, author of a book on the spirit. Folks found that botanical remedies, often foul-tasting, were more palatable when mixed with wine. Over the years, better ingredients—and recipes—would transform vermouth into less a treatment than a genuine (if pricey) treat.

But it wasn’t until 1786 that the aromatized vino got the attention it deserved when Italian distiller Antonio Benedetto Carpano produced a version that combined higher quality wine with less expensive herbs and spices. “Carpano really created the first commercially viable vermouth,” Ford says.

Carpano’s home base of Turin (Torino) would become something of the world capital of vermouth, as local rival vermouth makers emerged and improved their offerings, including iconic brands such as Martini and Cinzano. Vermouth had finally become cool. Soon after, it was being mixed with other booze, and, voila, cocktail culture was born.

The Americano cocktail—first known as the Milano-Torino because its main ingredients, Campari and sweet vermouth, came from those cities—was what “really kicked off [Italian] cocktail culture,” explains Jacob Briars, global brand advocacy director of Bacardi, which has owned Martini & Rossi since 1993.

His personal favorite vermouth cocktail is the Negroni Sbagliato—or Wrong Negroni. The Sbagliato was supposedly born from a happy mistake, when a bartender at Milan’s legendary Bar Basso accidentally used spumante (sparkling wine) instead of gin when mixing up a Negroni. The result was an instant hit, and it’s easy to see why. The Negroni Sbagliato is a lovely drink.

Though traditionalists, old-school producers such as Contratto, Martini, and Cocchi have even begun concocting new recipes. To celebrate their 150th anniversary several years ago, Martini master herbalist Ivano Tonutti and his colleagues cooked up Gran Lusso, a limited-edition vermouth inspired by a recipe unearthed in the company’s archives.

During a visit then to Martini’s headquarters just outside of Turin, in Pessione, I had a chance to meet Tonutti and share a glass of this richly aromatic vermouth, served over ice with twists of lemon. “We wanted to create something completely unique in the vermouth world,” he told me.

Maybe it was the charming company and setting, but I confess I agreed.

A few stand-out places to sip vermouth in style in Torino:

  • Caffè Torino: Among the city’s most famous old-school cafés, it’s also among Briars’s favorite spots to score classic vermouth cocktails, such as the Americano and Negroni Sbagliato.
  • Caffè San Carlo: With its “riotously over-the-top” opulent décor, and vermouth-savvy staff, this is an excellent spot to sample the spirit in style, Briars says.
  • Caffè Mulassano: A cozy art nouveau-style café with an excellent selection of vermouths, this place also allegedly is where Italy’s now-popular tramezzino sandwich was invented.
  • Smile Tree: One of a growing number of newer bars appealing to a younger crowd, this one excels at traditional aperitivos and more avant-garde concoctions alike.
  • Mad Dog Speakeasy: Don’t be put off by the goofy name (that goes for Smile Tree as well). Bartender Walter Gosso’s cocktail-making chops won him the Martini Grand Prix in 2015. Ask for his triumphant entry, Un Americano a Torino.
  • La Drogheria: Casual and laid-back (with comfy couches), if often crowded, this inventive bar is known as much for its excellent drinks as for its people-watching potential.

Paul Abercrombie is a freelance writer who specializes in travel and wine-and-spirits coverage. Follow him on Twitter @paulabercrombie.