In the middle of the 19th century, the Italian province of Turin was the epicenter of the cocktail culture. It was in Turin in 1860 that Gaspare Campari concocted his famous blend of 60 herbs, spices, barks and fruit peels into a mixture of alcohol and distilled water. Campari’s invention became world-famous due to aggressive and sexy marketing, but it fit into a strong tradition of drinking bitters that is still popular in modern Italy. It also succeeded because it represented a backlash against the sweetness of many other libations---most notably vermouth.
Three years after Gaspare Campari devised his glistening red potion, a trio of men came together in a village outside Turin. Alessandro Martini was a businessman and Luigi Rossi was a winemaker and liqueur manufacturer; they were joined by their accountant, Teofilo Sola. Sola sold out in 1879, and the firm was known as Martini & Rossi, a name that gradually became synonymous with vermouth (although they also produce the sparkling wine that some cynics refer to as Nasty Spumante). The company remained family-owned until 1977, and merged with Bacardi in 1993.
Today, as Martini & Rossi celebrates its 150th birthday, the brand accounts for a staggering 56% of worldwide vermouth sales. Even more remarkably, it is not the most distinctive variety of vermouth on the market. Carpano is fuller and richer, Dolin is more herbal, and Cocchi di Torino is somewhere in between. Martini & Rossi has succeeded for one main reason: They are the most mixable vermouth you can find, a beverage that enhances the flavor of many cocktails without calling attention to itself and stealing the show.
Martini Rosso, the original created by Luigi Rossi in 1863, probably remains the most popular. Consumption is heavy in Europe, where it is traditionally drunk on the rocks with a slice of orange, as well as in the U.S., where it forms the base for classic cocktails such as the Manhattan and the Negroni. Extra Dry first appeared in 1900, and was geared for use in the Dry Martini that was becoming popular. Bianco followed in 1910; with its overtones of citrus and vanilla, it was initially aimed at the female market, and today accounts for 90% of bottles the company sells in Russia. Rosato, a blend of white and red wines with overtones of herbs, spices and fruit, is the latest addition to the lineup---delightful on a summer’s day with crushed ice and a squeeze of orange.
mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com