The Dry Side Of Vermouth di Torino With Cucielo

We talk to founder and CEO of Artisan Spirits, Andy Holmes about what makes the brand’s new Dry Vermouth di Torino so special

By: Tiff Christie|June 8,2022

As the summer in the Northern hemisphere progresses, most of us will at some stage, indulge in an aperitivo hour or even afternoon with friends and family.

The perfect time to unwind, the aperitivo moments are ideal for socialising as they are light, refreshing, and come with a low ABV.

And to make the moments more special, the Cucielo brand denoted with its brilliant blue migrating cuckoo has just introduced a new expression, a dry Vermouth di Torino that embodies all the flavour and craft essential for capturing the essence of golden hour, an Italian aperitivo culture.

To find out more about this new martini orientated liquid. We talked to founder and artisan spirit CEO, Andy Holmes about herbs, Italian vermouth and the perfect aperitivo cocktails.

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As the summer in the Northern hemisphere progresses, most of us will at some stage, indulge in an aperitivo hour or even afternoon with friends and family. The perfect time to unwind, the aperitivo moments are ideal for socialising as they are light, refreshing, and come with a low ABV. And to make the moments more special, the Cucielo brand denoted with its brilliant blue migrating cuckoo has just introduced a new expression, a dry Vermouth di Torino that embodies all the flavour and craft essential for capturing the essence of golden hour, an Italian aperitivo culture.
To find out more about this new martini orientated liquid, we talked to founder and artisan spirit CEO, Andy Holmes about herbs, Italian vermouth and the perfect aperitivo cocktails.

Thank you for joining us, Andy.

Andy Holmes:
Ah, nice to meet you Tiff

Now Cucielo is a relatively recent brand, as far as Italian vermouths go. What inspired its creation?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah, I mean, in terms of its age, I mean we launched Cucielo back in Berlin in 2018. At Bar Convent Berlin, October 18. And so I think when you look at what it inspired us, it really, I think maybe two or three main parts to it was, I set up Artisan Spirits in 2015. And at that time the backbones are in Angostura, their beautiful bitters, their rums, their Amaro. And then with Portobello Road Gin as well, a couple of years later.
And if you look at the cocktail menu was really where I was coming from. You've got rum, bitters, Amaro, gin. The next logical step for me was vermouth. And it also is a category that has been slow in premiumising. I was just looking at some numbers earlier and it's lost about 15 million cases of vermouth category, total category over the last 15 years.
It's a huge loss at the more value standard end of the market. So maybe sub 10 Euro in. And it is really, that's what made me think, "Well, absolutely don't touch it with a barge pole." And that for me strikes absolutely touch it because there's opportunity in there to try and buck the trend.
And if you look at premium plus then, since over the last five, seven years, it's double, tripled its volume over the area, albeit in a different volume scale. And I think for me, the other thing was that a lot of the brands which are out there, which I love, like Antica. You look at the classic brands of Carpano, you look at Cocchi. I mean, they're amazing, but a lot of them are heavily trade focused.
They're beloved by the trade and rightly so, but not many were talking to the consumer. And therefore that's what I wanted to try and change. And really going, making, keeping along with the way that we work is everything as natural, as original, avoiding plastic wherever we possibly could. And that's not just a new thing, that's been in our DNA.
And so there was a couple of those things that went there for us to jump into this category.

You were saying about talking more to the consumer. How are you going about that?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah. Well, I suppose first of all, it comes from the packaging and the design. I mean two parts: there's a marketing side and then there's a liquid side. The liquid side of what we've done is that again, we're wanting to stay true to di Torino vermouth, which I guess we'll maybe chat about in a minute. And so have beautiful, real rich aromatic vermouths that are great just in cocktails or also on neat or straight on the rocks, which I love.
But the other side is on the branding. And if you look at the branding, what we're really trying to work to is something that is very much a unisex design, but is very, hopefully engaging and appealing. And we won't put anything out that's not good enough. I mean, in terms of our marketing materials, the visuals, or any of the POS. It's all got to be right on point.
And that's what hopefully, I think, is appealing. Usually a lot of the people, they look at the branding and how it's done. We work with a company down in Argentina in Mendoza, two guys Ophasia and Remy,, and they're wacky.
And and I mean, geez, Remy is one guy I really love working with and in just his... Ophasia's the creative side. And just what they've managed to help us come up with is just, well, we love it. And we love working with those guys.

Well, speaking of slightly wacky, tell us a little bit about your symbol, the migrating cuckoo.

Andy Holmes:
Well that was it because, I mean, as you probably can tell, well, I wouldn't say probably but definitely can tell, I'm not Italian. But I spent a couple of years in Italy working with a Gruppo Campari based in Milan, and got to see and love and share the beautiful aperitivo culture and just what a style of consumption that they have and is in their blood basically.
And so the brand truth is really that. And if you look at what we do at Artisan Spirits, I mean, we cover 80 markets in terms of what we do with Angostura brand, Portobello Road and what have you. So we travel a lot and there's a migrating cuckoo that flies up from in late April, May from West Africa, up through Spain, across the English Channel, into the UK.
And those ones that make it north to Scotland, which is where we are from, then at the end of the summer, then they won't go back that straight direct route. They sort of hang a left and go through France and then down the whole of Italy, picking up all those beautiful aromas and smells of Italy before crossing the Med and back to the Congo Basin.
And it's a true migration story. And the bird is the cuckoo. And so when Remy and Ophasia were designing originally the brand, then what we had is the cuckoo was this lovely, innocent looking cuckoo that we had. And they said, "No, no, no, no, this ain't right. The cuckoo steals other bird's nests. The cuckoo is not this lovely, fun, beautiful animal. So we need to give him a bit more of an attitude."
And hence what we don't overplay Chuck, and Chuck is our cuckoo, but you can see with his pilot cap and his scarf and he's featured in some of the creative. Cucielo is a mix between cuckoo or cuculo in Italian, and cielo, which is sky. So, hence Cucielo.

With the rise of aperitivo hour and low ABVs and things of that nature, why do you think the numbers for vermouth are still falling?

Andy Holmes:
I'd say it's a bit like it's, if you look at so many other categories, so look at scotch for example, and that was how I got into the whole drinks business. And if you look at like the mature market, right? So blended scotch was 95, 97% of the volume. And you go back 15 years, single malt was emerging, but still small.
And then you look at now the value size of single malt to total, it's exactly the same thing is that a lot of those consumers, the way they were drinking vermouth, those consumers unfortunately, will have moved on. And also just what those who used to drink that, what they're now drinking will have gone into, Prosecco or Rose or whatever.
So now what you're seeing is a new generation, a new way of saying that, "Okay, if I'm going to make an Americano, a Negroni or any of your classics, or if you go into even your cocktails, your premium cocktails, why compromise on your vermouth?"
And you need to pay to get quality, not overpay, but pay because a good quality product, whatever it is, has got a cost. And I think that's, just that whole shift of consumption has changed. And now what you're getting is people just like with the way gin's gone, people say, "Right, well, what gin do you want?" And now, it's like, oh, you don't want to be bombarded how many gins that they've got on offer, or what they can tell you.
But it's moving into vermouth that a good bar, good terraza, brasserie or something will have at least one, if not two, good quality vermouth that they will use and give, and create a different style of drink to you too.

Let's talk a little bit about the liquid. The dry vermouth, di Torino, is the third vermouth that the brand has released.

Andy Holmes:
So we launched with the Bianco and the Rosso, and both our classic beautiful di Torino sweetened vermouth. And we wanted to, rather than hitting the innovation button quickly and bang, bang, bang. We wanted to seed in the brand using those two expressions only. The Bianco, Cucielo Bianco is something quite unique. I think it's, for me on its own, over ice chilled is just heaven.
And while there are some amazing, Bianco vermouths out there, I just loved it. And what we wanted to do was that the reaction we've also had from the markets has been amazing. And we wanted to seed that. And rather than sort of dilute the seeding, we wanted to just root in the Bianco and the Rosso, both for different uses and then bolt on, then add on the dry.
And to be honest, I don't expect big, big volume to come out of dry, because I mean you look at the ratio that we're sort of saying to use in our classic martini, it's there, and hence why it's in a 50 centimetre bottle. But I think it's a must that we have to have as part of the brand.
There's one or two things that we've got in the melting pot for later, but I can't share what those are right now. But that was the strategy, Bianco Rosso. And then after a year or two, once we built up the distribution, then to then move out the dry for into that martini moment.

The brand is centred around Italy's Piedmont region. Tell us a little bit about what makes that area so special for vermouth?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah, it's amazing. I mean, it's an area so rich in history and in culture that it's almost like the birthplace, if not, is the birthplace of vermouth. Way back in the 18th century, Italy as a country then didn't exist. And you have this kingdom of Sardinia. And that kingdom of Sardinia reached up from the island of Sardinia right up and included the Savoie region in France.
And that was really, the capital there was Turin. And that's where the whole coffee culture created itself. And the principal function of vermouth is aroma, eh? 1786 an amazing gentleman, Manuletto Capano he created a recipe that was to give local wines more aroma.
And that was really was recognised as the origins of vermouth. And that area is Piedmont, and so Northwest Italy and now di Torino, and it's now governed by this, the Denominazione di origine controllata, so the DOC, everything is controlled under EU law since 2017 as to what you can and can't do to be called a di Torino.There's not so many producers.
And I think it's a beautiful story in how a group of producers have got together to say, "Okay, right. How can we protect and raise the game of what we're currently creating?" Because what they're creating here is amazing.
And we work with a family, a beautiful family called the Vergano family. Who've got a distillery just outside Torino in Moncalieri. Their distillery got the third license for vermouth back in the 1950s, 1958. And then it was purchased by Seagram before Carlo and his family bought it.
And Carlo who's 90 this year, he still was in there working, and his family are there. And they sort of, it's in their blood. So I think it's a very, really special area. And then you look at the Artemisia, the root of the whole, no pun there intended, but the root of vermouth needs to have Artemisia or wormwood or this absinthium. And you look at the foothills of the Alps there, that just, you stand looking at the Alps in Turin looking towards the hills. And we were there in November, beautiful sunset that was just going down and the conditions for growing these lovely, fresh natural botanicals is just amazing.

Di Torino is the only expression of vermouth that has got those legal protections and the geographical indication that you were talking about. How important are these protections for the liquid?

Andy Holmes:
I think for us with Cucielo, and I don't want to speak on behalf of di Torino, because there's a proper institute and governing structure there. But for me personally, I think is really important. I've seen the benefits of what the scotch whiskey association does in scotch. I've seen what the BNIC does for cognac versus brandy, the similar body for champagne versus sparkling. And I think it's really important, because I think it creates a separation. But done in the right way, it can still be kept relevant and kept modern.
And for us, I wanted to have that single malt of the scotch. I wanted to have that the champagne of the sparkling and that di Torino of vermouth is a stamp of real quality. That you have to abide by these regulations to be able to say that. Every bottle we produce is individually numbered. Every ingredient is all natural. All the botanicals are all... There's nothing artificial that goes into what we produce. Well, we just wouldn't do it. And I know Carlo wouldn't do that either. So I think it's really important.

Do those protections make the production more difficult?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah, probably I would say yes. I mean, we have a what's called a ?? originale so that the botanical extract or the botanical formula that we use is unique. And when we were going around a couple of lovely distilleries, it was quite interesting to see how different people work. And the thing I really liked about Carlo and his family and the distillery there is that they won't compromise and they know their stuff. And for me, they're just a dream to work with, these guys.

Can you run us through a little bit of the production process and how it's done?

Andy Holmes:
When we were sort of looking at the competition, looking at competitive set, and we were saying, "Okay, with the Rosso's and then the different Bianco's then, we found some that were amazing on the nose, and were just slightly undelivered on taste, and vice versa. And some that were just slightly off the scale in either ways, for their own reasons.
And so we wanted something that really over delivered and that's for me as a personal mantra, is that we want to really over deliver. So started out with beautiful, gentle, and Roman artemisia, absinthe. So a mix of the sort of slightly less bitter and more bitter to create that sort of must, have to be called di Torino.
And within the botanical makeup first of all, we have got for the Rosso, I think it's just over 30 different botanicals and herbs and for the Bianco, it's 28. And you walk into the distillery and you see these and I'm not exaggerating these, there are sacks of this beautiful Calabrian orange, and then you've got the... When we were creating for the Rosso we just did, it was too bitter. And so we needed to add more vanilla pod. And the last time I was down there, I said, "Hey, let me see again, the vanilla pod." And out came a sack literally, or I don't know, it was about 5 or 10 cubes, this sack, this sticky, fresh, Madagascan vanilla pod. And it was just... Everything is so beautiful. So basically they get all those natural ingredients and then they steep them in... They will cold percolate the botanicals in a vat of neutral alcohol for round about 15 days and just slowly letting all the different parts infuse into the alcohol.
So that then is then drained out as a first draw from the vat. And then you imagine that the sediment that you'll have sitting in the vat then two feet thick, will then be taken out and transferred onto this wooden press where it's given a second squeeze.
And that just takes out even more, the richer styles, which is then added. And then that extract, which is very, I mean, that's like super concentrate, and that's then added to the vat of wines that you have selected. And it's allowed then to blend and rest for about another seven to 10 days.
So again, just allow the... Because there'll still be some natural sediment that will still be in the end vat mix. And then from there, then it goes through the different organoleptic and filtration processes before being bottled.
So at each stage there's controls and checks, but there's also saying that there might be some variances because that's just nature, but hopefully not too many because I mean, what we've got really is quite, well we think it's quite special.
So that's how it's made. And the dry that we've got, obviously different botanicals, Tiff, you know for Rosso and for bianco

I was about to say, what are the botanicals that you are using for the dry?

Andy Holmes:
We'd spec'd it out with Dennis who's the chemist that works with Carlo and what quote came through the first couple of times, wasn't quite on the mark. And it essentially like imagine Bianco, and let's de-tune this Bianco so that you've still... It's a bit like your son or your daughter. You know, there has to be a resemblance.
And well, whether the son or the daughter would say that they want to look like their father there's, I don't know, but there, there should be a resemblance. And so we've got obviously the artemisia and for the dry, we're still using cardamon, elderflower, pink pepper. But then we add in dried, beautiful dried Sicilian lemon peel. We're adding in some bittersweet orange peel. These are the key ones.
And one of the most interesting botanicals that is not used heavily, but comes out is Aloe ferox, which is from Aloe family. It's much more bitter as a botanical than the Aloe Vera plant. It's got a minerality that you'll get, you don't need much of it in the dry, but it gives it this beautiful, a different style altogether.
It comes from the sap, there's more amino acids that sit in the Aloe ferox botanical that we use. So it's quite unique, the dry. I was really, I was like, "Wow," when we got it and I thought. So it's 18%. Rosso and Bianco are at 16.8, so it's slightly higher.
To be di Torino, you need to be a minimum 16% and Italian wines, bottled in Piedmont and only artemisia. And the dry is at 18%, still following these other must haves. But see if you look at Dolin and you look at Noilly Prat, as the two probably real classics that people would say.
I mean, Dolin is beautiful, but it's quite hard. And I don't mean this... It's a quite hard style of dry. Whereas with the Cucielo dry, you've got something that's really, I think it's quite elegant, it's quite... There's more aroma that's coming from it.
So if you're a Dolin sort of martini drinker, you're not going to take to Cucielo dry. And that's fine. But I think what this gives is a real roundness and even just on ice, it's so nice and just in terms of what it delivers

I believe that you created the dry with the martini specifically in mind. Why was that necessary, do you think?

Andy Holmes:
A wet martini goes so far, and then consumers wanting something drier and even with Bianco as good as it is, it's too rich. And therefore we needed to have something that was drier that could play.
And I know that dry, as I said, I'm not expecting huge volume from dry. It's almost a bit of a marketing tool as well as a great product. But for somebody who likes it, it's amazing. We don't go high on the... Every bartender for their own, when we're in the bar. But we would be thinking like a six to one sort of ratio, gin or vodka to the vermouth would be where we sit with it.

Other than just the martini, how would you suggest that people use the dry?

Andy Holmes:
No surprise. I mean, we've all seen what Spain's done over the last four or five years with their vermouth culture. I mean, Spain for me is an amazing market for so many ways. You know you go back, you'll remember when Spain drove J&B Cutty Sark for a long, long time. And then it was rum. And then it was gin and now vermouth.
But Spain obviously has a big wine industry there. So their style of local vermouths are different to what we have in Italy. But for me, I think one of the big ways would be like either just simply on the rocks chilled. Always chilled. And then on the rocks, which is just so... And it's like one of these products, that's one of the things I love about Cucielo is that you can get such pleasure just simply from nosing, as well as tasting. And you're not needing to drink a lot.
And because what it gives you just opens your mind, opens your senses or Cucielo dry and tonic with a nice Mediterranean style tonic with a sprig of thyme. And that's going to weigh into the low ABV style moment. Certainly, not the heavier martini moment.

What do you want people to take away from their experience with the dry?

Andy Holmes:
I think just experiencing something new in dry vermouth, a bit like what it was back at the beginning when you would've had Antica or Cocchi as the brands that were for classic, sweet vermouth. That's what I'm wanting then with us with this. Is that you've got some amazing other dry vermouth, Regal Rogue, which does really well and obviously got Noilly.
But it just is offering something different. And that's the whole thing. That's our whole mission with Cucielo, we’re not up for following the pack. That's why you look at the pop-ups that we do or the POS that we do, or even just the colours and the imagery that we do with the brand.
We're not going down a classic vermouth road. We're taking it down a slightly different way and that's totally on purpose. And that's why we're doing exactly the same with dry, is that it's something that people have got to get a bottle and mix it in a drink and then get that hopefully, that light bulb moment that goes bang.
I made it with Max La Rosa who helped us with the original Bianco and Rosso, and he's got a bar Divan Japonais in Frascati, near just outside of Rome. And poured it neat into a glass. So we were up in Hamburg launching Cucielo, and he was helping us there.
He's got an amazing, he does one amazing throw when he does his Negroni's and I just saw his eyes. He went, "Oh, mama mia." He was like, and I was like, "Okay". So it's really that. That's what I would love to see. And you see it with Bianco, the eyes do the talking, you know?

So you are looking at the brand generally as being a lot less traditional?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah, definitely. Not formal. Quality, but informal, if you know what I mean? So that person at home, the guy, or the girl, husband or wife, boyfriend, girlfriend who's making a drink then, they're wanting good ingredients and they just want to be able to mix and not be short changed on what they give. But not stuffy, not that's not our gig at all.

I believe the vermouth is available in 28 international markets. So I'm assuming that's throughout the US, most of Europe, Asia.

Andy Holmes:
Yeah. I mean, well interestingly, we're coming over to... You're in New York just now, no?


Andy Holmes:
No. So we're coming over next week and I'm pleased to say that the first cases of Cucielo landed last week into the Western carriers and we're basically bringing Cucielo to the US for the first time next week, at Brooklyn.

Oh, I didn't realize.

Andy Holmes:
Yeah. Oh, so to say it's been a wee bit stressful, but also exciting is an understatement. So no, we haven't. We haven't. We've looked at the US a couple of times, but we want to do it right, Tiff. So we're lucky we've got a good partner up in Canada with Peter Moszynski. So we're in about six or seven of the provinces up there, but not yet in the US.

So how are you approaching it? Which markets in the US are you tackling first? And how long do you see the rollout taking?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah. Well, it's a good question, eh? I think what we're going to try and do is, less is more in terms of our state strategy. So one, two, three at the most to begin with, and really try and because, I mean, we're a small company and there's only so much of us here. We've got others, some other stuff to do in other places. But we've got... So I've been thinking we're looking at New York, then to Florida and over to California is the sort of target at the moment.
But I think we're also going to take a wee bit out of Brooklyn to help us with that. And if that means it's actually just New York, then we'll just go New York for the first period and just seed the brand and work with it in the right way.
And then once we've got that, once we've build up the confidence, build up the appreciation of the word of mouth, then we'll roll it out. Because we just can't do everything.

No, and it's a difficult market …

Andy Holmes:
Exactly. And so, but I mean with what we do in our business with the 80 markets that we manage. So if you sort of draw a line down the north and south Atlantic and go right everything, everything across that from going right, we cover with really superb partners that we work with.
And so we started up in the Nordics with Morton and the guys at Collection Spirits. And for me, the nice thing is really to see what brands that we sit alongside. You know, there we sat on until the bottle has moved out. We sat with the Botanist, the Whistle Pig, aviation gin in their portfolio. We sit with really nice brands. And so they do our Nordic business. In Germany with Volume Spirits, with Molinari, Mari Montenegro, Capri. So there's a nice Italian sort of connection there. And then going across to, down into France, a nice small distributor based in Paris, then going more east then if you look to Greece and going up. We had and we still have, I'm pleased to say, our Ukrainian partner Vittali and the guys at DDS. And heaven's, our heart's out for those guys at the moment and has been. But we hope, because they were doing great guns with Cucielo up until March, unfortunately.
Baltic's and Poland, lovely people up in there that we work with, with our portfolio. And then going right across Malaysia, Singapore, over down to Australia. We've got a nice spread. We're just about to launch into Nigeria and into Tanzania. So there's a nice spread of business that we're built up.

Out of curiosity, which of those markets I assume outside of Italy, is actually the best for vermouth? Who's drinking it more than anyone else?

Andy Holmes:
Yeah. So at the moment and I think it's, well it's the Nordics are definitely on a run at the moment.
Really Denmark and Sweden, Norway, are coming, and Finland's a smaller market and these are markets with pretty high duties, as you know. But the culture, that whole outside dining, outside sharing, outside consumption moment. And you look at the taste profile especially of the Bianco, is really working up there. I wasn't sure what the mix was going to be between Bianco and Rosso when we launched. I thought if I was a betting man, I'd probably say it was going to be like 70/30 Rosso/Bianco. And across the total business, it's pretty much 50/50.
Maybe slightly more. And in the Nordics actually, it's the opposite. It's probably 60/40 Bianco/Rosso and that works. And that whole outside moment, that whole sharing moment, we've wrapped up if you look at the packaging, Il Tempo Vola, which is time flies.
And a bit like this, that was a moment that we had with Remy, the guys down south. And we were talking about... I didn't know how the brand was going to look, I said. But when we knew it was going to be a cuckoo was going be involved, I said, "Remy, I want to launch this brand. I want to create like a giant cuckoo clock and have a bar in the cuckoo clock."
And I was thinking of some sort of boring Alpine thing and then we got one of the guys to work with it, Compari, to help design this stands, we had this old 1920, 1930 style retro design, and with a big giant clock and Chuck coming out of the cuckoo.
And so when you look at the packaging, you'll get that cuckoo clock. And that's, it says "Il tempo volo," and time flies. And I don't think we all need to be told that how special we need a special time is with everyone around us, and just to seize it.
So that's our brand platform, tempo vola, time flies - and so grab and seize and enjoy.

Excellent. Now, if people want more information about the dry or Cucielo in general, they can of course, go to your website, which is or connect with the brand via your socials.

Andy Holmes:
That's right. Yeah. On Instagram or Facebook, and there's even too, that way that we launched about a year ago. Which you can ship anywhere in the world from there, too.

Excellent. All right, Andy look, thank you so much for joining us.

Andy Holmes:
Thanks for having us, Tiff.

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