The nature of modern commercial enterprise has meant a race to bottom in terms of cost. The restructuring of people, supply chains, and production processes to eliminate costs has become THE order of the day for businesses, large and small. Hmmm, what does this have to do with the ever-romantic craft cocktail scene, you wonder, and, in our specific case, aperitifs? Majestic, regal bottles with ancient aesthetics and an unmistakable old-world sensation must be free from this horrible race-to-the-bottom mentality. Why would small producers so devoted to and enveloped by the spirit of craftsmanship ever go down that road?
Well, kids, the truth about much of the beverage industry is the following: mass production, conglomerates, big business, disingenuous marketing, and above all misleading representation of products through labeling. Wayne Curtis, of the Atlantic, and Daniel Yeom, writing for PunchDrinks, have picked up on this in relation to the craft distillery movement in the US. Apparently many of those craft Vodkas, Gins and Bourbons are not so unique, but instead come from a few large industrial base alcohol producers, who then sell to the small distilleries for re-bottling. Not so romantic is it?
On my most recent vermouth trip to visit our newest supplier, Mancino Vermouth, owned, operated, and staffed entirely by none other the Giancarlo Mancino, I was thrust into an educational series on Italian vermouth production. What I quickly came to realize was the trend mentioned above applies in a big way to aperitif production in Europe. Giancarlo is an experienced and world renowned bartender with a highly successful beverage consulting firm. He has developed bar programs for numerous Michelin Star and critically acclaimed restaurants and bars, including some he owns himself. He also runs several innovative programs around bringing craft cocktail happy hours to the towering office buildings in Hong Kong, saving a long trip down the elevator and out the door in the gripping humidity. This is a guy who knows just about everything about every spirit, and just about everyone who matters in the industry.
When Giancarlo recounted to me a story of lining up 30 bottles of a highly popular, top-end vermouth which I will not name, purchased in 30 different countries, and tasting them all, I listened up. Apparently they all tasted different, all masking imperfection with vanilla, all very clearly being made on a mass manufacturing line alongside other products made by the same conglomerate, where quality control is hard, and the priority is cost not quality. He then elaborated on the trend of corporatization and corner-cutting in the vermouth industry in Italy, illustrating with countless examples how those antique looking labels, wax top bottles, and portraits of dudes from the 1800s are extremely misleading.
As it turns out, Carpano, Punt e Mes, Cocchi, and other supposedly artisan / craft vermouth are not outside the realm of mass production, cost-saving ingredient sourcing, and other modern race-to-the-bottom business practices. Branca Distilleries, owner and manufacturer of Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica, and Punt e Mes sold nearly 100 million cases last year. Shocking? Kind of. Carpano’s long unrivaled position as the end-all for authentic vermouth in the USA at least had me fooled that it is really special. Now, it is still a good vermouth, as is Punt e Mes, but what has become very clear from my trip is that it is in no way produced using original techniques, nor is it in any way a craft product. It is a vermouth di Torino that isn’t even made in Torino anymore.
What is the opposite of this trend I thought to myself? I did not even have a chance to ask the question before Giancarlo dove straight into the answer. “I felt it important to capture all those original nuances in the vermouth production process that ensured quality, at whatever cost. It was imperative that all my botanicals came in raw form, from countries that offered the best and brightest. This had two implications: first, I had to travel endlessly to many countries to sample countless botanical ingredients; second, I had to revive an original botanical milling machine from the 1930s, which enabled me to control the crushing process and thus retain as much flavor and aroma as possible.” He was unwilling to buy powderized botanicals en mass, like the other Italian vermouth companies, as there is a risk of lost pungency to the herbs and spices. So unwilling, in fact, that he spent a lot of money and over 2 years finding the best ingredients, including high quality base wine (Trebbiano), and a personally thought-up fortification spirit made from sugar beet. Commitment to quality? I think so. Craft? Definitely.
“I thought that would be enough,” Giancarlo told me, “until we starting macerating, mixing and filtering. The tanks heat up significantly when we splash around the ingredients – extract, alcohol, base-wine, caramel for the rosso – for proper integration and filtration. This warming effect jeopardized all that hard work we had invested in ensuring the complete extraction from our botanicals.” Luckily for Giancarlo, he discovered an original cooling device that had been designed and used specifically for cooling the vermouth mixture during the production process, a step in the process intended to avoid the loss of flavor and aroma. However, he was unlucky enough that it did not work, nor was it powerful enough to cool sufficiently for his purposes.
As with the mill, he repaired it and expanded its power to suit his needs. “I don’t think any producer in the world is milling their own botanicals, or carefully cooling during production to avoid loss of flavor. What we are doing is back to the roots of quality vermouth production, and at a significant cost I should add, but we are not willing to compromise on quality.” It takes Giancarlo 9 months to make a batch of Mancino Vermouth. Most vermouth producers do it in only two weeks. It is a trade-off of time and cost on the one hand, and quality on the other. Take your side.
Sadly, having an old looking label has been enough in the US to be considered craft, authentic, artisan, whatever you choose to call it. Thankfully, though, this is changing. The entry of more authentic producers and the work of some great investigative journalists are revealing the quality of these aesthetically positioned products for what they are: brands, fabricated by marketers through clever bottle designs and narratives. Vermouth has not been exempt to this issue. That is not to say that all vermouths on the market are disingenuous. A number of American and Old-World vermouth products are true to their production roots, and keep quality at the forefront of business decisions. Yet until now these have been the minority.
Luckily, we have found three classic proponents of quality and authenticity in vermouth, the old guard so to speak: Giancarlo Mancino at Mancino Vermouth, Luis Martinez-Lacuesta at Bodega Martinez-Lacuesta, and Josep Salla at Yzaguirre Vermouth. These are people who do not cut corners to increase profits, who safeguard the traditions of their ancestors when it comes to making beautiful wines and spirits. We need more of these people in the world – and more of these bottles behind bars in the US. If you don’t believe me, do a blind tasting. The correlation between mass production, scale of the business and poor quality scores is striking.