So, @C.Oneal, coming back to your comments, here are a few thoughts on the forces that shaped vermouth.
When we think of vermouth today, what we have in mind is a range of options that dates back to the 1910s. That’s when Italian vermouth became ‘red’ (before that, most vermouth were golden), but, most significantly, that’s when the vermouth industry as a whole settled on the dry / sweet white / ‘red’ (ie sweet and bitter) format. There had been other styles — vermouth amaro, vermouth with vanilla, vermouth with quina etc — but by then they were marginal, with few exceptions (think Punt e Mes). Most French houses started to produce Torino style in the late 19th century. Most Italian houses launched their dry and sweet biancos in the years before 1910. This homogenization was driven by market forces. Although some brands have launched vermouths 19th century style, most ‘antica formula’ and variants that we enjoy today are basically reinventions of the 1910 style.
What happened before the emergence of modern vermouth, then?
I’d divide this in two phases:
- The birth of modern vermouth in Italy and France (1780 to 1840, roughly)
- Industry (starting in the late 1830s, but only taking real importance over the next couple of decades)
Let’s start at the beginning.
In Turin, vermouth was born as a cafè drink. This doesn’t just mean that you’d drink it in cafes: the stuff was actually made in cafes and liquor shops. Back then, there was no free market. You had tolls and ‘customs’ at the ‘boundary’ between country and towns. Cafè owners could buy wine, have it brought to the city and make vermouth on their premises but they couldn’t sell their vermouth outside of their places of business or outside of town. Cora and Carpano were among those cafè or liquor shops operators who made vermouth. In those circumstances, they were in no position to create a brand and sell outside of their (very) local market. On top of that, those early years where really… tense. Napoleon’s little transalpine escapade begins in 1796 and Turin is more or less occupied until 1814. Afterwards, the backlash against French revolutionary values is strong, so between 1814 and the mid-1830s, the regime in Turin is markedly reactionary with strong restrictions on trade. The first Turin vermouth to be exported appears to have been Cora in 1838 — this is when expansion can begin.
Meanwhile, in France, there’s very little (more on that in a bit) vermouth. The first notable producer, Louis Noilly officially invents dry vermouth in Lyon in 1813 (some sources may lead us to think it actually happened a little earlier). Noilly didn’t run a café: he was a professional distiller and, as far as we know (we know little) produced a wide range of spirits. Initially, vermouth was one among many and it’s not until a couple of decades later than the firm became known for what remains its star product to this day. Usually, French vermouth is described as a gallic imitation of Italian vermouth. The timeline puts this into doubt: Turin vermouth had no presence whatsoever outside of the city when Noilly launched his own. Plus, if you’re going to imitate a sweet product (whether wine + sugar or made with sweet moscato), why the hell would you make it 3 to 4 times dryer?
Maybe because the French didn’t imitate the guys from Turin. Maybe because both invented reasonably similar products at more or less the same time… by accident. Here comes what I call ‘The Hungarian hypothesis’ (because that’s what it is… a hypothesis).
‘Wermuth’ first appears in Italian, in a Tuscan book, in 1773. In French, ‘Vermouth’ makes its appearance in 1783. The earliest ‘modern’ (ie not a version of a Greek or Roman wormwood wine) vermouth recipe I have found is from 1782. The question, for me, has always been: why vermouth? Why not ‘vin d’absinthe’? Or ‘Vino d’assenzio’? Why German? None of the explanations you find here and there have been remotely satisfying. While I was studying the early days of vermouth, I realized that much of the early French sources all agreed on one thing: ‘vermouth’ was a Hungarian drink. And indeed you find reference to wormwood-infused tokay, made in very small quantities and sold to the Habsburg court. The Habsburg family was the most powerful dynasty of the 18th century. In 1773, the Grand Duke of Tuscany is… a Habsburg. In France, even after Marie Antoinette’s (another Habsburg) beheading, Hungarian vermouth is sold in some of the first prestigious restaurants of Paris — a glass costing the same price as a bottle of Chablis. My take (you’re welcome to disagree) is that ‘vermouth’ was the name of a desirable drink that wasn’t accessible for the emerging ‘middle-class’. Café owners in Turin and distillers in Lyon identified the same opportunity and turned it in an incredibly sophisticated (but much cheaper) drink.
Vermouth only became a thing from the 1840s and 1850s (for all their 1786 claims, Carpano — as a brand — was only launched round 1840). Two forces help explain vermouth’s expansion. First, immigration: Italians took their product with them — or, sometimes, discovered them in their new countries, since back home it was too expensive for them. More significantly in its home countries, the years following the 1848 revolutions saw a modicum of prosperity, more leisure and some ‘middle-class’ — all necessary conditions for the viability of the aperitif as a moment of the day. Italy’s unification in 1861 also helped.
Interestingly, when vermouth got really popular in France (from 1880), the French were mostly drinking… Italian-style vermouth (produced in Italy or by French imitators). Noilly had important sales but they were in a category of their own — and no one drunk it straight. It’s only when US bartenders adopted the dry style for their mixed drinks that Italian producers started putting out their own version of dry vermouth, leading to the homogenization I mentioned earlier.
Of the three traditional vermouth countries, Spain was the latest in the game. There was vermouth in Spain before 1870, with some importation of French and Italian brands and a couple of local, very small scale players, but the first real brand appeared in 1871. It’s not an accident: an Italian, son of the King of Italy and born in Turin, had just been crowned King of Spain. He lasted three years (the country was a mess and he said ‘I’m having second thoughts about this’), but this still gave time to an entrepreneurial Catalan distiller to try and introduce in Spain his version of Turin’s official aromatized wine. The brand disappeared a few years later and when vermouth got really popular (around 1900), the major players were Martini and Cinzano, not local brands.
You were asking about styles and I did give some elements but there’s a couple more things I think will interest you.
I always explain a big difference between Italian vermouths and French aromatized wines is that the former are made with wine + sugar while the latter are made with mistelle. But this is a post-phylloxera trend. There was such a production surplus after phylloxera that french winegrowers — especially in Languedoc — had no idea what to do with all the grape. Their lobby obtained favorable fiscal treatment for mistelle (in spite of the fortification), which made the product extremely interesting. At the same time, there was a trade war between Spain and France with both countries raising tariffs. Byrrh, for example, was made with Malaga wine. They started using French mistelle instead, and so on. Noilly Prat is now made in Marseillan, near Montpellier, at the heart of Languedoc. Initially, Marseillan was just a warehouse where wines / mistelles bought locally transited on their way to Marseilles, where the business had relocated a few years before.
Additionally, the Spanish tariffs from the early 1880s also cut off Italian producers from that market, which explains why quite a bit of Spanish producers were founded in the 1880s: they wanted to take over the — still small at this stage — Italian trade. Martini and Cinzano went around the tariffs by opening their own wineries / distilleries in Spain. They obviously saw the potential.
I guess I’m forgetting a few things and I haven’t even mentioned Chambéry but this will have to do for now.