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Vermouth in Barcelona: The past and present of a delicious aperetivo culture

Vermut BarcelonaWhat is vermouth? Well, let’s start with what vermouth is not. Vermouth is not only a supporting role to classic cocktails, nor is it the dry, bitter stuff that languished away in Mom and Dad’s liquor cabinet, only to be drunk in secret by soon-to-be rueful teens when left alone at home for the weekend. Yes Mom, your Martini Extra Dry met the same stomach-turning fate as the Jose Cuervo Margarita mix, the suspiciously-watered-down Gosling’s rum and that sticky bottle of Manischewitz kosher wine.

So, let’s move on. Vermouth is—by definition—an aromatized, fortified wine flavored with botanicals such as herbs, spices, roots, barks, flowers, or seeds. The key to crafting vermouth is that the wine is aromatized and fortified (anywhere from 13% to 22% alcohol by volume), not just one or the other.

Vermouth, whether dark or light in color—whether sweet or dry—is all derived from…white wine! Surprised?  Yes, the dark, amber, nearly-black “red” vermouth is a white wine that has been doctored and dosed with a long list of ingredient that nearly all hold some sort of medicinal claim to fame. In fact, the name vermouth originates in the  German word for wormwood, a common, principal ingredient at the time of commercial vermouth’s conception in the 19th century. Unlike long-aged, fortified wines that gain their dark color from oxidization and abuse (think Portuguese Madeira), vermouth acquires most of its color from the final addition of caramelized sugar to dictate sweetness and appearance and balance the distinctly bitter flavor profile.

Trends in food, drink, fashion, and art are cyclical, and the ultra-trendy vermouth phenomenon in Barcelona over the past several years is no exception. Enjoyed in the past mainly by the wealthy,  but later championed by the rough-handed working class, vermouth in Barcelona carries over 100 years of evolving history and tradition.

Though famous brands of vermouth such as Martini & Rossi (Italy), Noilly Prat (France), and Cinzano (Italy) have their merits as appertifs or as a spike to the forever-swanky dry martini cocktail, vermut casero (home-made) is the rising—or rather re-born—star of the today’s day-time drinking culture in Barcelona.

CafeTorinoThe History of Vermouth:

The invention of modern vermouth is credited to Antonio Benedetto Carpano (namesake of distillery Fratelli Branca’s Carparno Antica Formula vermouth) in 1786. However, it was the four brothers Rossi—whose Martini & Rossi vermouth began official production in 1863 in Turin, Italy—who truly began the drink’s rapid climb through the ranks of the social elite. The brand spread across Europe, and by 1893 Barcelona has its own Martini & Rossi distribution center. In fact, so great was the demand for vermouth that an archived edition of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia from January 3rd, 1892 tells the story of two foiled counterfeiters busted for producing “perfect replicas” of Martini & Rossi. In a downtown warehouse on Calle Salvá (just one street over from the now world-famous Quimet i Quimet bar—a temple to vermouth all its own), the pair of Italian “fiends” were caught with 42 cases of fake vermouth and a slew of falsification paraphernalia, including “liquids, herbs, labels, bottles, and tools.”

Though house vermouth recipes are a well-guarded secret, common ingredients include clove, coriander, cardamom, juniper, orange peel, cinnamon, quinine, and anise. The grape type used in the base wine is not of great importance, though in Catalunya the most common base is “simple”, fruity wine made from the local Xarel-lo and Parellada varietals. Fortifying spirits are usually neutral, grape-based distillates, though gin could also be used.  

In 1902, Italian Flaminio Mezzalama–Martini & Rossi brand manager for the entire Iberian peninsula—opened the historic Café Torino in Barcelona, the first bar in all of Spain dedicated specifically to el vermut. Located on the well-heeled Passeig de Gràcia, Café Torino catered to the wealthier city denizens, as well as the chic artist caste. Designed by the most famous architects of Barcelona’s golden era of modernists extravagance, including Antoni Gaudí himself, the building was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, despite earning recognition from the Barcelona City Hall as one of the most important commercial businesses of the time, Café Torino closed its doors just nine years later in 1911. Thankfully, the Catalan people’s love for the drink did not die with the dreams of Barcelona’s first vermouth pioneer.

Up until the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), vermouth continued to be a drink of Barcelona’s bourgeoisie. However, after the war’s physical and economic devastation, vermut was instead embraced by the city’s working-class, primarily throughout the seaside neighborhood of Barceloneta—still one of the best vermouth-hunting barrios in town. Leading up to the Summer Olympics of 1992, Barceloneta was reformed nearly beyond recognition, the only remaining traces of the former proletariat neighborhood to be found in the largely unchanged bars that dot the district. To this day, simple, ultra-fresh seafood, unlabeled wine or vermouth by-the-glass (or liter), and no-frills tiled decor continues to be the norm. Many bars still serve their house vermouth directly from wooden casks (though neither barrel-aging nor home-blending are in-line with present-day legal regulations…but since when has that ever gotten in the way of The People and their drink?).

In the last few years, vermouth and vermouth-themed bars have seen a tidal wave of renewed popularity and interest across Barcelona. Young, energetic dive bars and Michelin-starred chefs alike have breathed new life into a product that is still largely misunderstood by the vast majority drinkers world-wide.

Fer el vermut is the Catalan phrase literally meaning “to do the vermouth,” though it is now a catch-all saying used to convey an afternoon drink and snack with friends, regardless of whether vermut is actually consumed.

Mejillones en Escabeche - Sam ZuckerWhat to eat with vermouth:

Essential accompaniments to your weekend vermut include olives, anchovies, hard cheese, berberechos (canned cockles), mussels in escabeche, potato chips, cured meats, and cured tuna (mojama) with almonds. Aperitivo sauce can be found on every table (along with the classic, useless, waxy napkins) and is a mix of paprika and vinegar used to douse potato chips, anchovies, and shellfish liberally. To enjoy vermouth in Barcelona like a local, your drink should be on the rocks, garnished with an olive and/or orange slice, and topped off with a quick splash of seltzer water from those antique siphon bottles that actually serve more purpose than just nostalgic decoration.

Vermouth culture is a perfect mix of the new and old, something that Barcelona does exceptionally well when you consider the city’s ultra-modern fine dining trends that blend cutting-edge technique with classic style. Just like the absolutely enchanting blend of architecture that spans 2,000 years, Vermouth tradition and practice has managed to strike a wonderful balance between the old-man bars of the barrio, the uptown leisure crowd looking to stretch their Sunday afternoon into the evening, and the hip city youth who want a vegetarian menu, local art work and tattooed waiters. It’s no mystery: the humble vermut has been such a renewed success in Barcelona because of its adaptability to nearly all levels of of the city’s famous bar culture. In Spain, socializing centers around the neighborhood bar, not around the dining room table, and Vermouth certainly gives us plenty to talk about.

Barcelona has several neighborhoods that are known for their vermouth haunts, and with new bars opening all the time, the hunt never stops! Next week, we’ll be featuring a list of fantastic Vermouth bars for you to try on your next visit! Stay tuned.

Sam Zucker