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Martini is associated with the utmost glamour – Charlize Theron, Sharon Stone and Gwyneth Paltrow have all lent their faces to advertising campaigns, not to mention Dolce & Gabbana. The company was not, however, born out of money, privilege and style: it started from far humbler roots.
The company that Martini grew out of: ‘Michel Agnel Re and Baudino’, was founded in 1847 by four Piedmontese merchants called Clemente Michel, Carlo Agnel, Carlo Re and Eligio Baudino. They set up the Distilleria National da Spirito di Vino, and the company was certified in Turin as a registered maker of vermouth. Incidentally, Carlo Agnel was the grandfather of Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat.
In 1851 the four company founders employed an entrepreneurial wine merchant, Alessandro Martini (born 1834, in Florence), and a company accountant called Teofilo Sola. It doesn’t appear that the merchants had cemented any long-term plans though, and when they started to die in the 1860s, Martini and Sola stepped in to create Martini, Sola & Cia in 1863. Although this date is commemorated on the modern day bottle, it was not until a third partner joined the business that the story becomes really interesting.
Luigi Rossi was born in 1828 at Val della Torre – a small village in the hills near Turin. His father had lost everything in the Napoleonic campaigns, so he’d decided to roll up his sleeves, and commit himself to making his own way. Inspired by his surroundings, Rossi moved to Turin to learn the secrets of winemaking and herbology, and after a short apprenticeship, he opened his own business in Via Dora Grossa (now Via Garibaldi).
Rossi turned out not to just be a good herbalist, but a great herbalist – his journals reveal how he made an art out of measuring herbs into doses, studying the stable and volatile compounds and the delicate balance of aromas. He was commissioned work from the National Distillery and many others, so it was no surprise that Martini and Sola were keen to snap him up.
In 1863, the Martini-Sola partnership persuaded Rossi to join them, and the company that we know today was formed. At this time, the production of aromatic wines could be best described as inconsistent and many of their competitor’s vermouths could be harsh and bitter to the taste. Alessandro and Rossi shared a vision for a product that was smoother, more sophisticated and consistent. It proved a powerful partnership – Martini possessed an entrepreneurial, energetic spirit and he travelled ceaselessly as a global ambassador building networks in over 43 countries, while Rossi concentrated his efforts on creating the perfect vermouth.
In 1864, the new partners purchased a site in the small village of Pessione (near Chieri) and built a new vermouth production plant. The location of the factory was not accidental: it was close to the vermouth capital Torino, near the herbs of the Italian Alps, on the Turin-Asti-Genova railway, by the Monferrato hills which were populated by wine producers, and within easy access to Genova, which was considered the gateway to the rest of the world.
Transport links and the railway line next to the plant were key for the company, as the botanicals that went into the vermouth were exotic, foreign ingredients. There was thyme from Crete, aloe and coriander from Africa, cinchona and quassia from America, and cinnamon, cloves and cardamom from Asia.
In 1865, just two years after joining forces, the partners won their first grand prize. The medal that the company won in Dublin pictured the mythological Roman goddess of victory, which went on to inspire the brand’s label featuring Vittoria blowing her trumpet over the flags of conquered nations. The design signified the broad range of countries where Martini was sold: the bull of Turin, the city’s coat of arms and the Italian royal coat of arms were also featured showing that Martini & Rossi was now a successful company with powerful connections. In 1878 the brand won the grand prize in Paris and soon after the Goddess of Fame, which appeared on that medal, replaced Vittoria on the bottle’s label, and is still embossed on the bottle’s shoulders to this day.
But it wasn’t until 1879, fifteen years after Martini, Sola and Rossi had consolidated their partnerships, that the legal status of the company was defined, and it officially became known as ‘Martini & Rossi’ (Sola had died earlier in the year). Italy was booming, and this created the perfect environment for Martini to flourish –Puccini was composing La Bohème, the great fashion houses were being established, and the Italian car industry was just starting to take off. While France was drunk on the absinthe movement, Italy was becoming familiar with the vermouth or ‘aperitivo’ hour – a time when people would meet after work to relax over glasses of vermouth.
Luigi Rossi died in 1892, but left a great legacy behind him, in the form of his four sons: Teofilo, Ernesto, Cesare and Enrico. Aged just 21, Teofilo joined the company first after graduating with a law degree and went on to hold a string of public positions including a member of parliament, senator of the kingdom, and mayor of Torino and Cesare.
This second generation of Martini & Rossi was characterised by overseas expansion. In 1884, branches were opened in Buenos Aires, Geneva and Barcelona and a new steam distillery was opened at Montechiaro d’Asti soon afterwards. By 1903 Martini was distributed in over 70 countries. Allesandro Martini died soon after, in 1905.
In 1911, Teofilo organised an International Exhibition in Turin. Naturally, Martini & Rossi would feature, so engineer and architect, Pietro Fenoglio, constructed a pavilion for Martini making sure it was the star of the event. With 7.5 million visitors between April and November, the word of Martini’s success spread. By 1912, Martini had received 13 Grand Prix and over 40 Gold medals at international competitions.
In 1922, the brand name was simplified to ‘Martini’. (The only exception to this was in the United States, where the brand remained Martini & Rossi until only recently, to avoid confusion with the cocktail of the same name.) The Martini brand continued enjoying international success: in 1922, Japanese Emperor Yoshihito awarded Martini & Rossi the title of ‘Suppliers to the Imperial House of Japan’. The following year, Martini took part in the First Soviet Agricultural, Trade and Industry Exposition, and in 1931 even Pope Pious XI bestowed his "Apostolic Blessing on the Management of the House, employers, workers and their families".
By the time Martini & Rossi was in the hands of the third Rossi generation. Already in a very strong position, King Vittorio Emanuele III had even conferred the title of Count of Montelera on the Rossi family for their social and political merits.
In 1929, the four Rossi sons registered the now iconic Ball and Bar Martini logo – now one of the world’s most recognisable trademarks. The actual origins of the Ball and Bar logo remain a mystery, though some say inspiration came from the summer sun setting on the hills behind an early Martini advertising sign.
Martini was handed on to the Rossi di Montellera cousins, Lando, Metello, Napoleone and Theo between the two World Wars, and they initially set about developing the plant by expanding the cellars and buying cutting-edge machinery.
At the outbreak of the Second World War though, Martini was hit by huge losses. Their German plant was destroyed, the Turin factory was forced to evacuate, and the company’s decision to maintain its entire workforce throughout the conflict had a huge impact on its finances.
By 1945, the worst was over, and Martini set about getting back on track. It resurrected a series of radio-broadcast Martini concerts that had begun in 1936 but been interrupted by the war in 1943. As early as December 1945, the broadcasts were back on the air, in time to provide Maria Callas with a springboard to her success.
After the drama of the war, Martini started an upward curve of steady growth, and set about consolidating its image as an ultra sophisticated brand. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol was commissioned as the Martini poster designer, and around the same time, Martini began advertising on television.
By the 1980s, Martini was advertised by a girl on roller skates, gliding about Beverly Hills, carrying a bottle on a silver platter. In the 1990s, another change of tact saw Martini using famous faces to advertise their product, and in 2001 they famously featured George Clooney saying: ‘No Martini? No Party’.
The Bacardi-Martini Group was created in 1993 when the Rossi and Bacardi families took the decision to unite their two companies. Established in 1862 and 1863 respectively, both were closely linked by tradition, culture and history. Martini celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2014.
its is as strong as ever.