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Carpano Antica

March 2, 2012

The Facts:

Name: Carpano Antica Formula
Category: Vermouth — red (sweet); apertif
Proof: 33 (16.5% ABV)
Origin: Turin, Italy, since 1786
Nose: pungent sweetness; caramel and citrus peel
Taste: caramel, licorice, spices — cinnamon and vanilla, red fruit, figs, wood, orange peel, bitterness on the end, dry and lingering finish

The Story:

Carpano Antica is, plainly, the best sweet vermouth on earth. There are some who put forth a convincing argument for Dolin Rouge, and there are a small smattering of Martini & Rossi apologists, but for the most part, we all agree: it is objectively the most flavorful, most complex, and most muscular. Deploy in any recipe calling for a  sweet vermouth, and content yourself with the certainty that at least that part of the drink is as good as it can be (a blanket claim which is almost always true. See below.)

First, a quick word on vermouth: vermouth is not gross. If you think vermouth is gross, you don’t know what it tastes like, because it’s been shit on for so long by the extra dry vodka martini. The vodka martini is like that vindictive guy in The Last of the Mohicans, trying to not only kill vermouth, but make sure its seed dies with it.

This is because while vermouth is glorious in a gin martini, it does not belong anywhere near a vodka martini. Vodka needs a strong man on her arm or nothing at all, and vermouth is too weak, too delicate, and ends up making a vodka martini taste like overproof diluted vermouth. Which, even I will admit, is gross. So, people ordered less and less vermouth, making the open bottles sit behind the bar for longer and longer. And as it’s wine-based, it will go bad over time. So a self-perpetuating cycle began where the only vermouth anyone is exposed to is so old to be worthless, which makes people order it even less, and so on.

Vermouth is what happens when you add sugar, a little alcohol, and aromatic plants, spices, and herbs to wine. The latter’s called aromatizing and they’ve been doing it at least since ancient Greece. The word “vermouth” comes from the High German “wermut” meaning wormwood, one of the plants added to help fight intestinal parasites, and wormwood wine was popular in Germany and England as “vermouth” as early as the 1600s. But a modern drinker (such as myself) wouldn’t have recognized any of these. Vermouth in its current form joins us in 1786, when the experiments of a 22-year old liquor shop assistant named Antonio Benedetto Carpano culminated in what would become Carpano Antica, at once inventing the categories of both modern-day vermouth and the apertif. He infused a white wine base** with “over 30″ different herbs, roots and spices, livened it up with some sugar and (almost certainly) grappa, and as his cordial contained wormwood in a wine base, he, too, called it “vermouth.”

Carpano’s elixir was nothing dramatically new but for its quality, and that he had the good sense to send a sample to Victor Amadeus III, the ruler of that little corner of what would become Italy who reportedly found it exquisite and helped along its popularity. Not that the Carpano vermouth needed it — it was so good, and in such demand, the store reportedly had to stay open 24-hours a day(!!!)… which sounds to me like one of those bullshit liquor stories that everyone repeats because no one can say it isn’t so. Why the hell would people need to buy vermouth at 4am? Are we really to believe that they couldn’t service all their customers in the allotted nine hours a day, in a 250,000 person city-state in 18th-century proto-Italy?

Far more likely is that production had to be extended late into the night, possibly even 24-hours a day. Nonetheless, it was an unprecedented success and is now made and distributed worldwide by Fernet Branca, still according to the original recipe and even with the original label.

The Uses:

Carpano Antica, as I said before, is the best commercially-produced sweet vermouth that exists in the world. If pressed, almost everyone would concede this point. It’s certainly the best to have on the rocks on a summer day, packing the most complexity and flavor, sweet without cloying, bitter without real challenge. Yes, sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist can be completely delicious. Andie Macdowell had a little taste after all. Who knew?

In cocktails, pretty much everyone would also agree that Carpano is the only vermouth for a Manhattan. But it’s there where we diverge. Some professionals think Carpano is too big for lighter cocktails. “Carpano is a linebacker and Cinzano is a soccer player,” says Jamie Boudreau, and he’s right. Though I will say this: I love Carpano as much in a Vieux Carre as I do in a Negroni. I have yet to identify a cocktail in which I wouldn’t want full, complex flavors, but that’s just personal taste.

The worst thing that could be said about Carpano Antica is that it’s too full, too robust and too flavorful for some cocktails. But how are you doing to keep them on the farm once they’ve seen Paris?

See the full list of Carpano Antica cocktails here.

Trivia!: No one seems to be totally sure if its base is red or white wine. Which is, believe me, incredibly frustrating. I will find the answer to this question, but in the meantime, the evidence:

For white: pretty much all vermouth, even the red stuff, is white wine based. Several people claim the white grapes muscat and/or tribbiano make it up, as seen here and here and here and (indirectly) here. The wiki claims he started with white wine, and if it’s the original recipe, must still be. Additionally, I asked sommelier Adam Stemmler who is almost positive of the muscato and trebbiano pedigree, additionally contending that we would get tannins if it were red-wine based. This is a compelling argument.

For red: it’s not much, but it nags me… this post on an Orange County bartender’s forum seems to know their stuff, and claim red. If someone says, “all red vermouth is red-wine based” they don’t know what they’re talking about and we move on. But they say “the only one I am aware of being made out of red wine,” and I can’t stop wondering how they came to this and why they think it.

I have calls in to the writer of that blog and the brand ambassador. Again, I will find the answer. Will update when I know.

Update! (3/5/12): Carpano Antica is white wine based, a mix of Piedmont Moscato and “the strong wines from southern Italy.” Trebbiano is frequently used, but maybe not here. But regardless… the claim to red wine is mistaken. Thank you Forrest for offering a 45 page pdf from Carpano themselves. (Forrest, it’s worth noting, does believe that 24-hour a day business, so who knows?)

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