Spirit Forward: The Importance of Vermouth and Bitters in a Home Bar Setup

The building blocks of excellent cocktails.

Spirit Forward is a series documenting the latest releases in the world of drinks. In this edition, we speak to two Italian experts from Gajardo Bitter and Giulio Cocchi during KL Cocktail Week on how spirit modifiers such as vermouth and bitters play a crucial role in crafting the best possible cocktail. 

The classic Negroni cocktail. (Image credit: Martina Alpeza/ Unsplash)

Most believe that the base spirit (such as whisky, gin, tequila, brandy, rum, or vodka) is what shapes the bulk of a cocktail’s flavour. They’re not wrong, but many other factors come into play to give a cocktail added dimension—specifically, cocktail modifiers. “Modifiers”, in the bartending world, refer to an ingredient added to a base spirit to enhance the flavour of the cocktail and “modify” it to produce a particular result. They are the reason why your Negronis are bitter and why your Old Fashioneds don’t taste of simply whisky and sugar. 

During the recent Kuala Lumpur Cocktail Week (KLCW) festivities, we got to speak to fourth-generation Gajardo Bitter owner Marco Schiavo and Cocchi vermouth distributor Marco Bassa on the importance of cocktail modifiers and why they should be an essential part of your home bartending repertoire. 

GRAZIA (G): What role do vermouth and bitters play in a cocktail?

Marco Bassa (MB): Some bartenders call it a modifier, but I personally don’t like the word as to me, it is the protagonist. Vermouth can easily be the protagonist, the main ingredient of a cocktail, and definitely a tool. Coming from Italy, we have a huge “aperitivo” culture. Cocktails in Italy are straightforward—the keyword is simplicity. In every kind of art, you need the ability to be simple to bring out the main characteristics of a product, and mixology is no different. A straightforward Americano is the best thing you can have as an aperitivo, and that’s the way we Italians like it. Vermouth is the fundamental ingredient in an Americano, so you must have a good quality vermouth. 

Marco Schiavo, a third-generation owner of Gajardo Bitter.

Marco Schiavo (MS): A bitter cocktail is better for your digestion than a sweet one, and it will also whet the appetite—that’s why it’s an aperitivo. The difference between a sweet and a bitter cocktail is that if you taste bitterness, it will be better for your digestion. Bitterness is a culturally evolved taste—when you’re a child, you go for sweet things because they nurture your body, while bitter tastes in nature can stand for potential toxicity. The reason why we put a lot of bittering agents in the Italian liqueur tradition is that they open up your digestion. 

G: How important is it to have the two in a home bar collection?

MB: Most people may not realise this, but vermouth is a very easygoing standalone product. Every night before dinner, I have my Cocchi Americano Bianco with ice and lemon zest, and that’s it. It is good as an aperitivo or a digestif. It pairs well with food and dessert because it is a fortified wine, so it is quite sweet. We used to joke in Italy that if you don’t finish a bottle of vermouth in a few weeks, it means that you have no friends. But of course, vermouth is not yet popular in this part of the world. It’s only a matter of time. 

MS: It’s important, because if you want to create a real Italian Negroni, the most important drink among master consumers in the world, you have to use Gajardo Bitters. These bitters give a truly artisanal Italian flavour to your cocktail and changes the experience compared to any other bitters. In Italy and the US, we are recognised as the world’s best bitters. 

G: How should you store vermouth and bitters?

MB: Since vermouth is wine-based, once opened it should be kept in the fridge. 

MS: It is very hot here, so you can store it in the fridge like vermouth. If you store it at room temperature, you shouldn’t have a problem because it’s 25% alcohol by volume (ABV). However, if you store it in the fridge, you can serve the ideal Negroni at the right temperature. 

G: What is a common misconception people normally have about vermouth?

MB: Most may not realise that 70% of vermouth’s content is basically wine. In order to produce good vermouth, you’ll need a good wine producer. That is why vermouth itself is a light liqueur—we’re talking 16, 17, maximum 18 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV). That’s also probably why it’s not very popular in this part of the world yet. I notice in Asia, most people like stronger liquors such as whiskies and brandies. However, the younger generation is changing and prefer lower ABV cocktails, so I think it’s just a matter of time. 

G: What is the difference between vermouth and bitters?

MS: Vermouth is created by fortifying wine and storing it in oak barrels for some time, and then adding different kinds of herbs. Bitters are liqueurs made like tea; you take an alcohol base and add different types of roots and herbs. 

G: What is a good cocktail to make with Gajardo Bitter?

MS: We prefer to drink Americano and Negroni, but you can also use it with fresh orange juice. In Italy, we have a drink called Garibaldi, which is fresh orange juice with bitters—it’s amazing. Or, if you don’t have time to make an aperitivo, you can shake the bitters in a shaker with ice and a slice of lemon—it’s wonderful. 

G: What is a good cocktail to make with Cocchi vermouth?

MB: Of course, I will say an Americano, because I like it, but it’s not such a popular cocktail here in KL. But I would have to say a Negroni. Of course, a Negroni is made of gin, vermouth, and bitters, but vermouth plays a very important role. The Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino is one of the best, if not the best vermouths in the world to make a proper Negroni. 

G: Finally, what is your favourite way to have these liqueurs in cocktails?

MB: I like to drink vermouth on its own; the aftertaste of the different grapes and the aromas are what I love most, and we Italians like simple stuff. But if I have to pick a cocktail, it will be the Americano. 

MS: It depends on the time of the day. My preferred is the Negroni, because it’s an incredible cocktail. But I also like the Americano with a bit more bitters.

Cocchi Vermouth and Gajardo Bitter can be found in Bottega KL.