One of my favorite things to do when showing visitors around Barcelona is to order them a vermouth. Almost always, they do a double take, with the same line of questioning: “Vermouth? Straight? Why is it dark?”
Once seen as the ritual of grandparents, the tradition of “fer el vermut,” which literally means “to do the vermouth” in Catalan, has enjoyed a comeback after a few decades of relative unpopularity across Spain. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Catalan capital, where old bars dedicated to the drink and its snacks – called vermuterias or bodegas – have been revived, breathing new life into the dark, dank and charmingly retro watering holes of the city. Alongside them, newer, hipper vermouth-centric establishments are opening, with sleek design and plenty of bar space.
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Red versus white
Vermouth’s roots are in Italy, but the drink has become an integral part of Spanish culture. Clocking in at between 11% and 22% alcohol, red (sweet) and white (dry) vermouth are both made from white wine, which is then fortified (usually with brandy) and aromatized with herbs. Spanish reds are sweet – owing to added sugar – with strong herbal and spice notes, and are less bitter than their Italian counterparts. White vermouth is less spicy and more herbaceous, with none of the relative sweetness present in the red. While you can find white almost anywhere, the vast majority of locals go for the sweeter variety.
How to drink vermouth
In Catalonia, vermouth is typically enjoyed on Sunday afternoons with friends and family gathered at a local watering hole. The vermouth is poured into a small, clear glass, either straight up, on the rocks or garnished with an orange slice and an olive. There’s always soda water on the table, which some people add to the drink to lighten it up.
Italian-made Martini is nearly ubiquitous, but bottles hailing from Reus – Spain’s center of vermouth production, located in the south of Catalonia – are also very common. Locals have a particular love for Yzaguirre, the oldest brand from the area, as well as Casa Mariol, a smaller brand with high quality vermouth and smartly designed bottles.
At many bars that take their vermouth seriously, you’ll find small barrels with house vermouth on tap, either made by the bar owner or their friend.
Old vermuterias have a charmingly dingy quality; the walls are often dotted with old photos of the city and banners supporting FC Barcelona. The bar is stocked with glass cases filled with a variety of small bites, all of which riff on the same classic tapas served across the city.
If there were a build-your-own-vermuteria starter kit, it would include the following: a zinc bar atop an impressively old wooden base, wobbly wooden stools, petite tables, bad lighting and dated decor. And everything would be written in Art Nouveau font.
The new bars recall the more charming aspects of this aesthetic, while providing better furniture. The bartender is often the high point of the experience – a gruff-but-lovable character who likes to tell stories.
According to Marcel Fernandez – owner of Morro Fi in Barcelona, a modern vermuteria with sleek, minimalist decor and high quality products – the key is to pair vermouth with the right food. “With vermouth, it’s good to eat salty, sour and pickled foods, like anchovies and olives. It helps to start your digestion – after the appetizer, your stomach is ready for a good meal,” he says.
Common snacks include canned seafood, called conservas, potato chips, smoked fish, guindilla peppers, either freshly grilled or cured sardines, and hard cheeses, all of which are shared with the table.
According to Lucy Garcia – a Barcelona local who works as a fixer and producer for many television personalities passing through the city – the drink has regained popularity because “taking vermouth is a great social ritual.” Another reason is that it serves as a reminder of the city’s heritage and harkens back to a time that’s easy for locals to be nostalgic about, a time before mass tourism, political turmoil and financial crisis swept across the city.
Vermouth used to be the drink of the gentry class in Barcelona, before civil war erupted in Spain during the 1930s. After the war, “vermouth hour” was adopted by working-class people all over the city, but particularly in the fishing neighborhood of Barceloneta, which remains one of the best parts of the city to have a vermouth crawl.
An honored social ritual, friends gather at one bar, order a small selection of salty tapas, drink a vermouth, then find the next bar and start all over again.