The Company That's Been Making Balsamic Vinegar for Over 400 Years
The Company That's Been Making Balsamic Vinegar for Over 400 Years
Balsamic vinegar is one of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region's signature products. Awarded both the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) and the PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status by the EU for different grades of the product, the authentic traditional balsamic vinegar can only be produced in Modena or Emilia Romagna.
That means the region boasts quite a few companies that can lay claim to years of experience in preserving the traditions and flavors of high-grade traditional balsamic vinegar. But there’s one company that can be argued stands heads above all others. And its name is Giuseppe Giusti.
What is the Oldest Balsamic Vinegar in the World?
If you know a thing or two about balsamic vinegar, then you know that the fermentation length is often proportional to the quality of the product: the longer the balsamic vinegar is aged, the more high-quality it’s considered to be.
The oldest balsamic vinegar that’s commercially attainable on the market is typically 100 years old (yes, as in, it’s been aged for 100 years!), and only a handful of companies have the ability to manufacture it.
Imagine the process: not only must you have been able to survive on the market for over a century, but you must possess resources that allow you to keep your product in fermentation for that long. That privilege indicates long-term success and trust from the consumers.
And no company producing balsamic vinegar of Modena can claim more success on that front than Giuseppe Giusti.
Established in 1605, Giuseppe Giusti is the oldest surviving company manufacturing balsamic vinegar. Though their product assortment has significantly expanded and includes not just what many would consider the best balsamic vinegar in the world but balsamic-based condiments and glazes. Still, balsamic vinegar remains their primary focus, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to claim that they’re objectively best at what they do, seeing as the company is still family-owned. They’ve had over four centuries to refine their craft.
From the First Steps to Conquering the Italian Market: Years 1605-1873
Here’s how it started: in 1605, Giuseppe and Francesco Giusti registered the company in the Modenese Duke’s ledger of businesses. Considering that the brand claims that the recipe remains the same to this day, we may presume that it existed in the family even before the men decided to make a business out of it.
For about a century, the business remained a small local affair. In 1700 the family purchased additional barrels from other Modenese families producing balsamic vinegar and significantly expanded the operations of “Gran Deposito Aceto Balsamico di Giuseppe Giusti.”
It was at this stage that the family could start to afford thinking long-term, planning not only for increased sales but what would be the most successful marketing campaign for balsamic vinegar in the history of Modena. Now that they had more barrels, they could allow for a more extended aging period without damaging their bottom line.
Arguably, it was this long-term strategy that entrenched Giuseppe Giusti’s reputation in the stone. In 1861, the family traveled to Florence to present their product at the Italian Exposition organized by the Italian Royal Family. Their 90-year-old balsamic vinegar was awarded the gold medal. Two years later, Giuseppe Giusti presented what is now considered to be the first recipe for “perfect balsamic vinegar” at the Agricultural Exhibition of Modena under the “Giusti Recipe” label.
Expanding in Europe and Rebranding the Italian Shop: Years 1873-1900
Having obtained an impeccable reputation in their native country and slowly but surely increasing their customer base outside Modena, the Giusti family started planning to expand their operations even further, to the rest of Europe.
The first step was to convince people that balsamic vinegar was not just a gourmet product. It was a gourmet product that required special care during the manufacturing process and required credentials proving that you were paying for a high-grade product and not any old vinegar.
To do this, they actively participated in multiple Universal Expositions all across the continent, from Paris to Antwerp, entrancing both the local populace and hawk-eyed (or, rather, catfish-tongued) food critics, obtaining multiple diplomas and awards, solidifying their stance as premier balsamic producers.
In 1880, hot on the heels of their first wins, the family started sending their first samples (without commercial grade) by post, testing the grounds for future circulation across Europe.
By 1900, their distribution had picked up a severe pace, and their first shop, which had opened at the beginning of the 17th century, became a point of attraction for the gourmands. The family quickly rebranded it as Salumeria Giusti. Salumeria Giusti remains operational and one of Modena’s favorite gastro-tourist spots to this day.
Earning Royal Approval and Increased Focus on Producing High-Grade, Specially Aged Products: Years 1929-1990
Slowly but surely, Giuseppe Giusti’s name was nigh-synonymous with high-grade balsamic vinegar. If you were seeking the best balsamic vinegar, it was practically obligatory to consider Giuseppe Giusti’s products. You need to look no further than the year 1929, when the Italian royal family awarded the family the privilege of becoming their official balsamic vinegar supplier.
Becoming the Official Supplier of the King of Italy and the Royal House of Savoy (yes, it was a long title, but what are you going to do, that’s just how royals roll) came with the unique right to use the royal emblem on the Giusti Balsamic Vinegar labels. Now everyone in the country (and beyond) knew that Giuseppe Giusti didn’t produce just any balsamic vinegar; they made balsamic vinegar endorsed by the King. I'm struggling to remember if there were a more effective marketing strategy.
If the Giusti family's success story was consistent but slow up until this point, between 1929-1930, it was meteoric by comparison. In just a year after obtaining the privilege of adding the royal emblem to their label, the family became the most prominent clients for the glass bottles produced in the area, bottling balsamic vinegar in bottles that up until then were used mainly for local Lambrusco wine.
By 1950, they added another line to their retail trade: smaller bottles with extra-aged and thus extra-precious balsamic vinegar. The long game had finally yielded the results on all the necessary fronts: they not only had the best retail product, but they also had the reserves to keep a certain portion of their product continuously aging without harming their expansion, and they had a long-standing impeccable reputation that allowed them to set the standards for the game.
Transforming from Premier Balsamic Vinegar Producer to a Gourmet Tourist Attraction: Years 1990 - Onwards
Once the production process for the balsamic vinegar (and the rest of the product line, which had started to expand at this point to include white vinegar and flavored glazes) was working like a well-oiled machine (no pun intended), the family began to expand their endeavors to another area. Namely, tourism.
By 1990, Salumeria Giusti was already a tourist spot and was getting a little tight for production. So the family kept the shop but moved the Acetaia (Italian name for the establishment where the balsamic vinegar is made) to a cottage in the countryside. More square feet allowed them to open the doors for more tourists without the risk of disrupting the production. If you visit their Modena countryside Acetaia, you can get a tour through the facility and witness in action how the best balsamic vinegar in the world is made. Admittedly, it isn’t much action at all since the most crucial part of balsamic vinegar production is waiting for it to ferment.
But expanding even further than perhaps even the Giusti family could anticipate, even the new, larger Acetaia couldn’t accommodate all of the fans. If you thought balsamic vinegar wasn't the sort of product that inspired loyal fans, then think again! In 2018 the family opened Museo Giusti, a 10-room museum that details the history of the Giuseppe Giusti brand from inception to modern days. It welcomed over 20,000 visitors in the first year of opening.
The family’s latest venture in gastro-tourism was in 2019 since, apparently, even the Museum wasn’t enough to satisfy the ardent epicures. Giuseppe Giusti opened Giusti Boutique on Piazza Grande, Modena’s main square located in the city’s historical center. It’s a space primarily dedicated to Giusti balsamic vinegar tasting, but it acts somewhat like a small museum, as the area holds multiple ancient barrels and other historical objects belonging to the Giusti family.
How is Giuseppe Giusti Balsamic Vinegar Made?
So what is it that makes Giuseppe Giusti's balsamic vinegar so unique? Is it a special chemical X? Or maybe some ancient witchcraft?
Nope, it’s systematic dedication.
Giuseppe Giusti's balsamic vinegar recipe is publicly available even. If someone decides to replicate it, they can go ahead. But they’re unlikely to have the same tools and experience as the Giusti family, which is the key to the entire process.
In fact, since different grades of Balsamic Vinegar of Modena have been awarded both the DOP and the PGI status by the EU, their production is tightly controlled and regulated. There’s even a Consortium that must approve the use of a protected label. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in the production process.
Here’s how it goes for all balsamic vinegar: the grape juice is boiled down to reach a sugar concentration of 30% or higher in the must and then transferred to wooden barrels (there’s typically a series that ranges from small to large) to ferment. The aging process can vary between 6 and 100 years, but the range of 12 to 25 is considered optimal to create what is called Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena or Reggio Emilia. None of the vinegar can be extracted until the aging process is done.
Once the balsamic vinegar is fully aged, the balsamic is drawn from the smallest cask and used to top off the next largest barrel, with the process continued to the largest cask. Freshly reduced must is then used the following year to top off the largest cask.
So if Giuseppe Giusti follows the same steps, what makes their product the best? It’s the ingredients (locally produced grapes that are carefully selected, aged wine vinegar extracted from century-old casks) and the barrels. When you only work with the best, you make the best. There was always a Giusti family member that donned the title of a Master Vinegar Maker, and it’s Giusti family members today that are responsible for ensuring their products meet the quality their ancestors became known for.
What Does Giuseppe Giusti Balsamic Vinegar Taste Like?
Balsamic vinegar's color, texture, and flavor are all intrinsically tied to how long the product is aged. Giusti balsamic vinegar is known for its thick syrupy consistency and complex flavors that balance sweet and sour notes exceptionally well.
As the family uses old barrels, most of the balsamic vinegar has a somewhat smoky flavor and aroma, with intense fruitiness developing the more the product is aged. The more time passes, the more complex it gets as well, with more delicate undertones developing in the sweetness, including honey, ripe plums and cherries, spices, and even hints of coffee and tobacco.In short, it’s rich, versatile, and wonderful either by itself or as an ingredient in various Italian sauces, dressings, and glazes. Few other elements can enrich the flavor profile of a dish in a way good balsamic vinegar can.
Image Sources: All Images are Sourced from the Official Giuseppe Giusti Website.