How vermouth became versatile

07 December, 2023

The craft drinks movement has brought excitement and quality into the fortified, aromatised wine sector.

A decade ago vermouth was a very different proposition. Shelves and back bars were dominated by Martini and Cinzano, maybe some Carpano Antica Formula if the place was serious. But that’s all changed now. Craft producers flooded into the market and the result is a category that has never been healthier with choices in styles as well as price points.

“I created my brand because I was disappointed with what was available commercially,” says Giancarlo Mancino, a bartender who created his brand Mancino Vermouth in 2011. His story, one of a classically-styled bartender dissatisfied with vermouth options, is a fitting encapsulation of where the category was at the time.

“When I started Mancino, I wanted to create a core ingredient for classic cocktails, it was important to be a classic style. What I saw though was brands not caring about their quality. If 75% of a bottle of vermouth is wine, you have to be able to say why you use a particular wine. That’s why I began printing which wine we use on our back label, because we use it for a reason. Now, vermouth is a really important Italian drinks category, no one gave a shit before. Mancino Vermouth started in 2011, in our first year, we did 5,000 bottles, now we’re at half a million.”

Coinciding with the continued reignition of cocktail culture, brands were listening to bartenders and using the knowledge to inform new product lines as well as the resurrection of traditional styles. “Bartenders’ creativity today is limitless,” says Ludovica Riciputi, global marketing manager of vermouth at Campari Group. “Bartenders dare to be trailblazers as well, experimenting with aromas that go beyond the traditional ones. The revival of classic cocktails and flavours has driven interest in categories with a strong heritage, which includes vermouth.”

It’s hard to overstate the importance that the classic cocktail revival has had on the category and, in turn, how the growing quality and variety of the category have sustained it.

In the recently published Drinks International Cocktail Report, which polled the world’s top bars for their most popular classic cocktails, 20% of the top 50 drinks call for vermouth in some form.

“Today's society is increasingly in search of news and new forms, reinterpretations, opportunities to experiment,” says Elena Branda, marketing manager at Perlino. “Vermouth is an extremely versatile product and lends itself well to new evaluations, new consumption habits. Now, it’s even widely used in gastronomy, with dishes by starred chefs using premium vermouth as a characterising ingredient.”

Beyond bars

If what’s happened inside bars has defi ned the past decade for the category, it could be outside of them that drives vermouth in the future.

“It’s being driven by consumer interest in lower-alcohol, lighter drinks and the adoption of aperitif culture around the world,” explains Victor Vernet, international brand manager at La Martiniquaise, brand owner of St Raphaël quina, an aromatised wine very similar to vermouth.

“Wine-based aperitifs may gain more recognition and consumer adoption in regions outside of their traditional home markets in France and Italy. Serves with vermouth as a key ingredient cater to consumers looking for balanced and lower-alcohol options. As health-consciousness and the desire for low-alcohol options grow, wine-based aperitifs could find a strong footing. It’s a way for brands to emphasise their lower alcohol content as a selling point.”

While it ticks so many boxes, outside of its already established regions a vermouth and tonic is still not a common bar call. “In traditional markets like Argentina and Spain, vermouth has always had a strong presence in the off-trade but mainly driven by mainstream brands and private labels,” says Riciputi. “In the past three years, we have seen two big phenomena: the increase of daytime and early evening drinking occasions and a rising interest of consumers around low-abv options during social occasions. Vermouth is a category with a high potential in this arena but, unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge by the consumers around vermouth. It’s bartenders who are able to drive the choice inside the bars and commit more to educating the consumers around our category.”

While vermouth’s versatility to tap into several current drinking trends has the potential to be a volume driver for the category, education has undoubtedly been important when it comes to brand selection.

“At the moment, it’s about 60% on-trade, 40% consumers, two or three years ago it was 80% on-trade, but it’s started to really shift,” explains Mancino. “And people are going to the bottle shop and just looking for craft brands, they want that quality. Covid might’ve helped with a bit of education but it didn’t generate volumes. I think a big change is that bartenders have stopped writing ‘sweet vermouth’ on the menu. What’s sweet vermouth? Our bianco is sweeter than our rosso. That small change has really helped to educate customers about what they’re drinking.”

Broad palette

Cocktail books published around the turn of the previous century often simply called for Italian vermouth for red varieties and French vermouth for white, but the delineation has disappeared. Yes, specific geographical indications, such as Vermouth di Torino, refer to a certain style, most Italian brands produce vermouths across the colour palette. But while Italy has been forging ahead, French houses have been less bullish. On the Whisky Exchange website, there are more vermouths from Spain and England than from France. That makes sense. Another of Italy’s exports, bartenders, have shaped the category like they have international cocktail culture – understanding French vermouth requires doing so on its own terms.

“The difference in innovation and the number of new brands in Italian and French fortified wines can be attributed to several factors, including historical traditions, cultural influences, and market dynamics,” explains Vernet.

“Italy has a rich tradition of producing wine-based aperitifs, particularly in regions such as Piedmont and Lombardy, nevertheless French wine-based apertifs also combine the charm of tradition with the modernity of an aperitif… and are deeply rooted in the hearts of the French people. If the tradition may not be as diverse as in Italy, the iconic recipes remain very dear to the bartending community.”

But Mancino is keen to bring some Italian bravado to the region. The brand is in the process of launching a French vermouth in collaboration with the Merlet family.

“There are some lovely products in the French market but they’re not exciting the category,” says Mancino.

“If you look at the market, there are some great brands but everybody is sleeping, so I’m launching a vermouth called Gauchier at the beginning of next year.”

It’s not the only iron that Mancino Vermouth has in the fire. This month, the brand is announcing Marino Mancino, the first-ever vermouth to be aged underwater, and has recently partnered with Eco Spirits in Australia to more sustainably supply the on-trade without the emissions-intensive process of shipping heavy glass bottles.

Vermouth finds itself at an interesting juncture. It’s widely known by consumers, the Negroni’s popularity appears to be no flash in the pan and the fame of the Dry Martini ensures that two of its core styles are present in pop culture. But recognising the category as an ingredient in these famous classics is very different to being confident enough to wield it at home. That education point is the next frontier for the category’s brands, the arrival of interesting modern styles coming to market can only help that, but ultimately it’ll be bartenders that bridge the divide.

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