Turin Vermouth: three centuries of history

30 November 2020

It’s from Turin. And despite being 300 years old, it’s still a youthful product at heart, constantly reinventing itself.

Turin Vermouth has had its own institute since 2017, and since April 2019 a Consortium which unites a diverse range of businesses – both for their size and history – as well as cultivators and processors of medicinal herbs, bottlers… all the people whose work goes into the Torinese tipple.

To speak about Turin Vermouth we meet three different businesses whose, between them, demonstrates how complex and multifaceted this world is: Roberto Bava of Cocchi – as well as President of the Institute –; Alessandro Picchi of Gancia; Filippo Canedda and Antonio Salvatore of Peliti’s.

Giulio Cocchi – The rebirth of Turin Vermouth

“Cocchi has a strategic role in the story of Turin Vermouth. We’re a small business – the team is 14 people in total, as well as the family – but at the same time we have a long history with Turin Vermouth, just as long as the great labels of the 19th century. Thanks to our dynamic position we were able invigorate a market that had become static between the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, with the “premium” versions of the Ancient Formula of Carpano.”

That push forward might also have come from restoring a clear identity to their product. Today, with the right information a consumer can easily distinguish between a Turin Vermouth and any other vermouth, but up until a few years ago the differences were not well-defined. There was no regulation on the grapes, nor on the level of alcoholic strength, nor the medicinal herbs used.

As Bava expands: “There was a legal gray area. The denomination had existed since 1991, but production wasn’t regulated nor was the product linked to any specific geographic area.  We knew there was interest in vermouth, but without any clear rules the risk was that the product was banalized both in terms of its origin and its categorization.”

Today that risk has subsided. After multiple discussions between producers, and thanks to the support of the Piedmont Region, Turin Vermouth was officially recognized at the European level. “We’ve established the fundamentals. The wine must be Italian – either Piedmontese, Emilian, Pugliese or Sicilian – as it was originally; the alcoholic strength must be above 16%; the botanics are important too: mugworts of the Absinthium type and/or Roman wormwood, which must be from Piedmont. In the “Superior” type the wine must be at least 50% Piedmontese, 17% alcohol, and more herbs must be gathered in the region and present in a defined quantity. Then of course, the secret ingredient: il savoir-faire».

Gancia – When Vermouth supported the sparkling wine industry

“Gancia was born together with Vermouth,” says Alessandro Picchi, taking us back to the 19th century, when a young Carlo Gancia sees vermouth as the classic aperitif to drink in Piazza Castello in Turin. “Gancia founded the first production facility in Chivasso; the cellars in Canelli arrived later. At the beginning sparkling wine wasn’t the main product: it was vermouth, the profits of which supported these experiments with bubbles.”

Gancia was an experiment, and it was he that invented white vermouth. The process which led him to the result is held in dozens of recipes. “Gancia left us priceless heritage: these recipes are protected in a safe, where we don’t just store vermouth recipes but also those for toothpaste and a famous anti-burn cream that was still on the market until recently. We don’t use all these recipes today, of course. For example the Garus vermouth, which gives its name to a sort of local cake today: we don’t make that style anymore. We’ve ended up using just four main recipes, and only one for our superior quality Turin Vermouth.”

The recipes are updated with the times, and adapt to the market, regulations, and also to the variety of medicinal herbs on offer today, which is sadly less than it used to be. This is one of the ways that vermouth producers have adapted to modern times, part of what keeps vermouth young despite its age.

Peliti’s – Vermouth with Indian spices

From the cathedrals of Gancia we return to Turin, to the San Salvario neighborhood where Lanificio San Salvatore presents, among other things, its own Vermut: Peliti’s. If Gancia’s is a story that’s continued almost without interruption from inception to the present day, Peliti’s on the other hand was at one time list, only to reappear as if by magic in recent times.

The history of this product begins with another character with a great spirit of adventure. Federico Peliti, pastry chef and photographer, moved from his native Piedmont to India in 1872 – first to Calcutta and later to Shimla in villa named for his hometown of Carignano – following the viceroy. Here he hosts banquets, decorates cakes that seem like miniature cities and opens a luxury hotel. He experiments with vermut too, mixing Indian spices with the traditional Piedmontese herbs. He also left behind recipes, as Federico Canedda tell us: “his granddaughter, the wife of my business partner, proposed that we relaunch one of these recipes. It was almost a joke, but at the time we were working on producing an amaro. But when Letizia mentioned these ancient recipes, we took notice.”

A fascinating story which is told in the label, too. As Filippo tells us. “Federico Peliti worked as a graphic designer too, and our label pays homage to this Baroque Piedmontese style, with Indian influences.”

In this case too, the inventions and experiments were accurately transcribed and preserved, two of which were selected by Federico and his business partner Antonio: “A red vermut, whose recipe had originally been written upon request by the British royal family and provided to them between 1877 and 1940. Then there’s a white vermut which is born of a more exotic composition, made during Peliti’s last years in India.”

The Consortium

Recipes, resourcefulness, an entrepreneurial spirit and, today, the capacity to bring vermouth back to its root, establishing the fundamentals but giving the producers – big and small – the flexibility to put their own spin on the classic and make their own high-quality product. It’s a win-win situation. On the one hand, the smaller producers can take advantage of this launchpad, reaching markets that they might not otherwise, while the larger producers can see the young, wild creative spirit that surrounds them and take inspiration from it.

What they all have in common is a desire to restore an idea of quality to a product that had been banalized over time. They all work with this strong conviction. Nowadays, the quality of the product must take center stage to restore the name of Turin Vermouth both in the local and international markets.

Straight or mixed?

Gancia believes quality vermouthcan be drunk as it used to be: straight, to appreciate the flavor and balance between herbs and alcohol. With a quality vermouth a return to the Piazza Castello style is certainly possible.

However: let’s not forget that vermouth is perfect for mixing and experimenting with. In the Cocchi house, for example, they work strenuously to find new combinations in cocktails like the Alba-Torino which includes the famous Alba truffle. Another possibility is guided vertical tastings of vermouth of different ages, much like we do with wine or Parmigiano. They also work with chefs who use vermouth in their kitchens in creative recipes.

The Pelitis’, for their own part, tell us how in managing Lanificio San Salvatore their stockroom has grown ten times as large in recent years, now hosting lots of different vermouths and products which their customers don’t just want in cocktails, but also served straight. Turin Vermouth is headed calmly for a bright future, now finally accompanied by official declarations of its quality after centuries of hard work.

by Silvia Ceriani, info.eventi@slowfood.it


the founding members of the Insititute are: Berto, Bordiga, Del Professore, Carlo Alberto, Carpano, Chazalettes, Cinzano, Giulio Cocchi, Drapò, Gancia, La Canellese, Martini&Rossi, Sperone, Vergnano, Tosti. Calissano, Casa Martelletti e Peliti’s.