I like wine, I like bubbles, and I like cocktails. But, until recently, Martini & Rossi hasn’t been a brand I’ve pursued. I remember ads, from the time I was a kid, for Martini & Rossi vermouths. And I’ve seen the name on glasses, umbrellas, and the like in European cafes and bars. It’s a venerable and highly respected Italian company, formed in 1863, just two years after Italy was unified. Yet I couldn’t say if, let alone when, I’d actually tried one of their products.
That changed recently when I was invited to learn more about them during a lunch at Perbacco, an excellent Italian restaurant in San Francisco. I was a bit frazzled that week, though, by deadlines and a crazy schedule. By the time I arrived, a couple months after having RSVP’d, all I remembered was the time, location and that Prosecco was involved.
I checked in downstairs and was swiftly led to a private room upstairs, where I was greeted and promptly handed a glass of sparkling wine. Sip. Sip, sip. Slurp. Hmmm.
“Excuse me,” I said, “This tastes like Champagne, not Prosecco.”
“Absolutely,” the nice lady beamed back.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I responded. “I seem to have been directed to the wrong room.”
“No problem,” she smiled. “Enjoy the Champagne.”
So, disoriented, but bright of mood due to the French fizz, I set off for the correct room. Soon I was even more cheerful. I found smiling faces I knew. I saw Prosecco bottles. And someone handed me a cocktail which looked like an over-sized, but well-prepared, Negroni.
I’d fight a bear for a good Negroni. And there I stood with Champagne in one paw and something Negroni-ish in the other. The stresses of SF traffic, being on the edge of late, and my circuitous route vanished in a puff of botanicals.
Sip. Sip, sip. Sluuuurp. I tried not to gulp the totally delightful, not-exactly-Negroni Negroni. It had great Negroni flavor, but was lighter and more refreshing. My hosts quickly explained, in perfect English enhanced by charming Italian accents, that I was drinking a Negroni Sbagliato, which loosely translates to “erroneous Negroni.” That was a new one on me.
A classic Negroni is made with more or less equal parts of gin, Italian bitters, and sweet Italian vermouth. It’s served on ice with a shaved orange peel garnish, which is flamed in high-class joints. The Negroni Sbagliato, accidentally “invented” in about 1967 at Bar Basso in Milan, replaces the gin with Prosecco. That dramatically lowers the ABV, adds a dose of festive effervescence, and dials back the herbal component. It’s served in a big glass—use a Pinot Noir bowl—over lots of ice. It’s also garnished with a juicy orange slice, rather than just the peel. The result is gorgeous to look at and even better to drink. Which makes me wonder why I’m not enjoying one at this very moment.
Back to Martini & Rossi. This Negroni Sbagliato was 100% them. They made the Prosecco (more on that soon). They make Italian vermouth, of course. And they had just rolled out a bitter, red Italian aperitivo. (If “Italian aperitivo” doesn’t mean much to you, other products in that category include Campari and Cappelletti.)
The new aperitivo is called Martini Reserve Speciale Bitter. It was launched last fall in select markets, going into bars and restaurants first. Distribution is broadening now and it retails for about $27. Note that this product is branded “Martini,” not “Martini & Rossi.”
While the ingredient list for any Italian aperitivo is a closely guarded secret, Martini has offered some details. Their concoction is based on an original recipe, created by the company’s founder, Luigi Rossi, in 1872. Like it’s sister product, Martini Speciale Vermouth di Torino, it features some Artemisia from Italy. Artemisia is a plant genus which includes things such as wormwood and sagebrush.
Among the other ingredients in the Martini Reserve Speciale Bitter are saffron, Angostura bark and Calumba. Angostura bark comes from a couple types of South American citrus tree. It isn’t associated with Angostura bitters, which is named after the Venezuelan town in which it was first made. Calumba is a climbing vine, native to Africa and Madagascar, that has been used in traditional medicines. That’s a whole lot of botanical complexity which I simply choose to think of as curing whatever ails me when administered in a Negroni or Negroni Sbagliato.
I’m going to make one of those now… Come back Tuesday to learn about Martini & Rossi Prosecco, Martini Sparkling Rosé Extra Dry, and Martini Asti.
Text and cocktail photo copyright Fred Swan 2018. Other photos courtesy of Martini & Rossi. All rights reserved.