Three East Bay Drinking Itineraries in the July Issue of San Francisco Magazine
Tales of the Cocktail 2018: A Step Back and a Leap Forward

Bitter Ingredient Flavors and Use from Martini Vermouth Masters

Bitter martiniAt this year's Bar Convent Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ivano Tonutti, Master Herbalist for Martini & Rossi (and Bacardi products generally) and Giuseppe "Beppe" Musso, Master Blender of Martini & Rossi.

The timing was excellent, as I am preparing to give a talk on bitter ingredients for Tales of the Cocktail, and they were in town promoting the newish Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter Liqueur. 

The Bitter is part of the new premium Riserva line, along with Rubino (red) and Ambratto (white) vermouths. We spoke primarily about the new Bitter and and plants used in the Riserva line; but in some cases we were generalizing beyond that. So please consider this general information rather than super specific to any one product. 


General Stuff

  • The goal in using different bittering agents is to create a rounded bitter experience with multiple parallel bitters rather than a single-note bitter. 
  • Speaking of single-note bitter, they indicated quinine/cinchona bark pretty much gives that. 
  • When speaking about how different bittering agents impact the flavor, Tonutti would intuitively point to certain parts of his face, indicating where the individual bitter most impacts the palate - for example cinchona is a singular bitterness felt most in the far back of the mouth, different artemisia species were more forward. Gentian and rhubarb root impact the middle of the mouth more. It's interesting to see as we know the "tongue map" is false but yet we feel the impact of different bitter flavors in different parts of the mouth.
  • They use all dried herbs, rather than fresh, for all the many Bacardi products (including things like Bombay, etc.) with the exception of some fresh citrus peels in Oxley gin. Dried herbs are used to ensure consistency and can be more easily measured for water content, etc. 
  • All these bitter agents are infused rather than distilled into products (we're talking about the Riserva line). 
  • They use only yellow gentian root - not the blue stemless gentian that a few producers use. They prefer French gentian as it's particularly bitter and more aromatic than from other places. They say the blue gentian is not super bitter, and it can be thought of more like an herb with root rather than just the root. 
  • Holy thistle is used in salads. In their products, it's used to impart mouthfeel, not bitterness. It is used in most of Martini's products. 
  • Dandelion - Leaves, not roots, are used. In production, leaves must be dried immediately after picking. 
  • Roman Chamomile - The bitterness of it depends on the extraction technique (lower ABV extraction is better for bitterness in general, they say) and the concentration. (I asked about this as I've made chamomile infusions in the past and none were bitter.) 


  • Between the Rubino and Ambratto there are different ratios of the three artemisia plants used - absinthia, pontica, and vulgaris. (grand/common, lesser/small, mugwort)
  • Absinthium - boldest, bitterest, with a delicate herbal flavor
  • Pontica - herbal and floral, a signature note of Martini vermouth, top note
  • Vulgaris (aka mugwort) - aromatic, with a different and milder expression of bitterness. 


  • As noted, Cinchona bark gives a back-palate discreet bitterness.
  • Columba bark is an aromatic bitter with mid-palate bitterness.
  • Angostura bark is between cinchona and columba in its bitterness. 
  • Red cinchona (succirubra) is more bitter than yellow, with higher amounts of quinine, but they describe the flavor as more boring.
  • Yellow cinchona (calisaya) they get from Ecuador. It is slightly aromatic, but there is less of it available on the market. This is used in Ambratto and probably other products. 

Safety Stuff

  • The amount of thujone in artemisia and quinine in cinchona bark are regulated. They say that their approach to this is to get as far under the legal limits of the active substances as possible. For example, their artemisia providers grow a strains of the plants with super low thujone content, and though they may be plants like grand wormwood that supposedly have a lot of it, they use varieties that don't. Thus if the legal limits of thujone were ever lowered, or as in the case of the US where the legal limit is lower than in the EU, they don't have to worry as they're not close to the limits.
  • For quinine, there is a legal limit of 83 ppm allowed. That is just for quinine, not for quinidine and the other (two, I believe) active alkaloids present in cinchona bark. Tonutti said that rather than counting just the quinine, they keep the total number of all the alkaloids under the 83 ppm limit.  
  • Calamus is banned in the US and in Australia by name, meaning you cannot use it in a product's formulation at all, while in Europe and other countries, you may use the plant as long as the beta asarone levels are kept below a certain amount. [They noted the nonsensical nature of this, as if the problem with calamus is beta asarone, they why not limit the beta asarone?] Thus there are formula differences in some of their products in different countries. They also keep the beta asarone way below the legal limits in Europe anyway. 


This may all seem like random stuff to you, but it was extremely helpful for the talk I'm preparing!


For those of you new to these products, here's the basic info from the brand:


The new Bitter joins the Riserva Speciale Rubino and Riserva Speciale Ambrato as part of a dedicated craft of exceptional Italian Aperitivi for bartenders and drinks enthusiasts. To develop the new Riserva Bitter, MARTINI & ROSSI used 100% natural ingredients and the original 1872 recipe, created by MARTINI & ROSSI founder Luigi Rossi, as their inspiration. MARTINI & ROSSI Master Herbalist, Ivano Tonutti, has carefully selected three rare botanicals (Saffron, Angostura and Columba), to deliver a unique richness and complexity to its taste profile through different dimensions of bitterness. The Bitter is also rested in the same Tino cask that is used for MARTINI & ROSSI Riserva Speciale Vermouth di Torino extracts and shares the vermouth’s common botanical, Italian Artemisia, allowing its unique complex bitter taste to perfectly complement it. ($26.99)


The small parcels for full-bodied Langhe DOC Nebbiolo wines used to create MARTINI & ROSSI RISERVA SPECIALE RUBINO are blended with extracts of Italian Holy Thistle and Red Sandalwood from Central Africa to deliver a bright ruby red vermouth, which inspired the name of the expression. The delicate balance of botanicals creates a full-bodied herbal and complex style of Vermouth di Torino with a long aftertaste. ($14.99)


The floral and aromatic blend of small parcels of Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines, used to create MARTINI & ROSSI RISERVA SPECIALE AMBRATO, produces a beautifully honeyed Vermouth di Torino. The yellow Cinchona bark from Ecuador and Chinese Rhubarb create a light bitter taste profile that aromatizes and elevates the flavors of the wines. ($14.99)



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