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Vermouth's new golden age
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Vermouth's new golden age
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Vermouth's new golden age
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Vermouth's new golden age
Head to one of Barcelona’s many vermut bars and enjoy the revival of this trend that goes far deeper than what’s in the glass.
If you live in Barcelona and enjoy drinking during daylight hours, it is nearly impossible for the resurgence of the vermouth culture to have passed you by unnoticed. The humble drink has grown in popularity by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years, now infusing the web pages of practically every local guide, food blog, and gastro-tour agency with its distinct flavours. This simple, yet ultimately-refreshing, aromatic wine has now surpassed hamburger joints and bicycle shops as the newest business venture angling to capture the local market and tourist capital in one fell swoop. Commercial vermouth is, by definition, an aromatised and fortified wine, placing it soundly under the umbrella of aperitivos. The term aperitivo is derived from the Latin aperire, meaning ‘to open,’ and this family of bitter, semi-sweet, high-alcohol wines does just that—opens the palate and stimulates the appetite for the more substantial meal to come.
Jose Antonio Moliner of the Gran Bodega del Maestrazgo explains, “Nearly all vermouth casero (home-style) starts as white wine. Generally weak in flavour, low in alcohol, and lacking proper structure, the base wine can be any varietal really. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the house-specific recipe and style from each cooperative.”
After the base wine is selected, it is then fortified with alcohol (96 percent pure ethyl alcohol is often used, mainly as a stabiliser to keep the wine from turning to vinegar during the maceration process). Jose shares a telling fact: If the wine goes over 15 percent alcohol per volume, the state taxes you as if it were a spirit, not wine. To avoid paying higher taxes, people don’t make vermouth higher than 15 percent, or they fudge the details on the label.
Next, the herbs, barks, roots, flowers, spices and other botanicals are added to the mix. “I wouldn’t dare,” Jose says, shaking his head and raising his hands defensively when I ask him to tip me off to just one main ingredient. “It’s all about the recipe,” he repeats. “No one is going to tell you anything.” Defeated, I am only left to speculate, though a quick search will tell you that juniper, ginger, citrus peel, cinnamon, cardamom, quinine, marjoram, and chamomile are some of the dozens of expressive additions to a typical vermouth recipe.
As a reference, the Catalan brand Perruchi alone boasts some 56 plants in their well-guarded formula. At the same stage in which the plants are added to begin maceration, sugar is added as well—often caramelised—to balance both flavour and colour. “It’s hard to get a consistent colour with oxidation alone,” Jose explains. “So many people add the caramelised sugar to assure a consistent product.” Other additions to vermut casero could include bitter liqueurs like Picon, some gins, or even sherry (sweet or dry). “Really,” Jose says, “it’s about personal preference. Everyone has a different gusto.”
After adding the specially-calculated dose of botanicals, vermut casero is usually macerated through gentle heating, either by mechanical means, or simply through “sun and serenity,” as they say (allowed to gently warm in the sun and oxidise).
During industrial processing, brands like Martini and Rossi make their vermouth relatively quickly. A casero vermouth is macerated much longer—months instead of days. “The vermouth made for our shop by the cooperative in Tarragona is macerated for six months,” Jose explains. “I asked them to make it especially bitter, since that’s what I enjoy!” After the maceration process and filtration, some producers age the vermouth in oak for a period of crianza. “The important thing,” Jose stresses, “is that all vermouths are different; more of an expression of the maker than of the land on which the original grapes were grown. Five years ago, no one drank vermouth simply because the vermouth available was boring. Now we have artisanal products that actually gain a following.”
In the burgeoning vermouth bars of Barcelona, one finds the sweetened, “red” variety (known as vermut negre in Catalan) at the core of this newly reborn phenomenon. However, vermouth has two distinct styles (with many, many variations): Sweet and Dry. When not being enjoyed straight-up or on the rocks, sweet vermouth is an indispensable component of the Manhattan cocktail (bourbon and sweet vermouth), as well as an integral part of my personal favourite, the Negroni (equal parts sweet vermouth, gin, and Campari, with an orange twist).
Despite the existence of a handful of mass-produced Spanish vermouth brands (namely Yzaguirre and Perucchi, though the latter is a smaller-scale brand that actually falls somewhere between ‘commercial’ and ‘artisanal’), the majority of vermouth used in modern cocktail bars is still of Italian origin.
The history of vermouth is not an exact timeline, but rather more an evolution of taste and production. The word vermouth itself comes from the German word for wormwood (wermut)—a formerly-key ingredient in aromatic wines throughout Europe and Asia dating as far back as 1500 BC. Originally used as a medicinal tonic, vermouth was first commercially produced around the end of the 18th century (1786) in Turin by Antonio Benedetto Carpano (namesake of the Carpano Antica Formula vermouth produced by distillery giant Fratelli Branca). However, it was Martini and Rossi-brand vermouth that really industrialised the drink’s production with their now-ubiquitous red-labeled bottle (hence the term ‘red’ vermouth referring generally to the sweet variety).
By the end of the 19th century, vermouth production had exploded throughout Italy, as well as in France. In 1902, the booming trend of vermouth amongst Barcelona’s social elite was ultimately cemented with the grand opening of the fabled Café Torino, located at the corner of Passeig de Gràcia and Gran Vía de Les Corts Catalanes. Café Torino was an elaborate building designed by a veritable dream-team trifecta of Catalan modernist architects—Josep Puig i Cadafalch, Pere Falqués and Antoni Gaudí himself. The Italian founder of this iconic, vermouth-centric bar was Flaminio Mezzalama—Martini & Rossi brand representative for all of Spain. Though the cafe enjoyed immediate success and recognition as a key economic and cultural institution of Barcelona, that success was short-lived. The bar closed in 1911.
Throughout the beginning of the 20th century and up until the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), vermouth endured as a drinking tradition of the upwardly mobile and artistically leaning social classes. However, during the depression of the posguerra (post-war) period of 1939-1970, vermouth was instead embraced as a drink of the working-class. Blue collar labourers and fishermen would fer el vermut (do the vermouth) in the afternoon at no-frills bars and bodegas that served simple wine and vermut casero alongside traditional snacks in the bomb-scarred, seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta. Bar Electricitat is an iconic bar in the Barceloneta, founded in 1908. A survivor of the Civil War, it’s an understated landmark worth visiting for some edible history and vermouth by the glass, or the bottle.
Fast forward to 2014. When searching for the reasons behind the renewed, robust trend of the vermuteo, one should consider several motivating modern factors. Going hand-in-hand with the youth of Barcelona’s passion for all things artisanal, economical and local, small-scale Catalan vermouth is excellently easy on the palate, as well as the wallet. Though a full meal out at lunchtime may be beyond the daily budgets of many, fer el vermut with friends is an affordable way to feed social needs while staving off hunger until your more modest lunch at home. However, as many may know, a Saturday afternoon vermouth can turn into an evening of many drinks and a full-blown meal in a flash. But it makes sense, since vermut casero goes perfectly with house-pickled anchovies, delicate confit tuna loin, marinated cockles and mussels, rustic fried potato chips, local olives, hard cheeses and the whole, salty cornucopia of cured meats and sausages that we all—especially the Catalans—crave.
In Barcelona, vermouth bars come in all shapes, shadings and moods. They can be old-school, barebones dives and wine shops, or may appear as hipster bars that double as bookstores or sewing rooms. Conversely, they may stand as princely shrines to the finest Iberian products available, helmed passionately by the city’s most famous chefs as affectionate tributes to their vermouth-filled youth. As Barcelona’s neighbourhoods continue to swell with vermuteo options—some barrios already near bursting at the seams—I, for one, hope this trend will continue to evolve, improve, and expand onto the international drinking scene. May the world seize vermouth and run with it! For an aperitivo that is still unfairly judged, stereotyped, snubbed, and scorned by many, vermouth has prevailed, enjoying a wonderful cultural renaissance.
As the idea of el vermut teases more and more palates—satisfying the endless quest and hunger for socialisation, satiation, and tradition throughout Catalunya—we have to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, the concept itself is more important than what is actually in the glass. With varying recipes, prices and practices, vermouth bars of Barcelona offer something more than just a bitter-sweet afternoon elixir; they serve as place-holders for the leisure hours of yore that are in constant conflict with the increasing demands of modern life. In short, vermouth is a lifestyle—a delicious, tangy lifestyle that fits coastal Mediterranean living like a glove—and I suggest you try it on for size.
The Best Vermut In Town
Quimet i Quimet Carrer del Poeta Cabanyes 25 (Poble Sec)
A small, friendly bar with standing room only and great tapas.
La Pepita Còrsega 343 (Eixample)
A lively, relatively small space with a largely Catalan clientele, serving inventive food without an ounce of pretension.
Bodega 1900 Tamarit 91 (Poble Sec)
Styled on a classic vermouth bodega, Albert Adrià’s Bodega 1900 offers exquisitely fresh tapas and great service.
Bar Electricitat Sant Carles 15 (Barceloneta)
This quintessential Spanish eatery in the heart of Barceloneta is known in the neighbourhood for its great house vermouth.
Morro Fi Consell de Cent 171 (Eixample)
A tiny restaurant with the best aperitivos in town. Be sure to ask for the Vermut Preperat.
Bodega E. Marín Milà i Fontanals 72 (Gràcia)
The Marín family have been serving excellent vermouth since 1916. Enjoy the authentic surroundings.
Jai-Ca Ginebra 13 (Barceloneta)
A loud, buzzing tapas bar with great seafood. Expect to queue at weekends.
Gran Bodega del Maestrazgo Sant Pere Més Baix 90 (Born)
This wine shop also has a tasting room where they sell vermouth by the glass, plus gourmet products.