When was the last time someone told you they love vermouth? I’ve just spent 4 days tasting vermouth and when I tell people this I get odd looks and grimaces. There’s a vague idea that it is old-fashioned, too sweet, not trendy, and besides, what exactly do you do with it or like about it?
That was pretty much my own sense about 20 years ago, when I more or less gave it up after a short bout of trying it, in Paris, as a cheap before-dinner drink.
But let’s fast forward to 2017.
Friend and fellow wine writer/author Becky Sue Epstein sends a message asking if I want to join her in Barcelona to taste vermouth, part of her research for an upcoming book on various alcohols. Oddly enough, I’d just had a fantastic vermouth a week earlier while tasting wine in Montefalco, Italy. It was a new brand, Antica Torino, hand-crafted in Torino (heartland of Italian vermouth), and it was handed to me and fellow wine writers as a surprise, to see what we thought of it.
Four days of serious vermouth research and tasting followed, punctuated by shopping and absorbing culture with Becky Sue and fellow taster Nick. Barcelona was our host city because “vermut“, as the Catalans call it, is not just a drink, it’s part of their urban culture. This is a chic city of young designers and shoppers and culture fans – and vermouth is popular here. Even Italian vermouth-makers look to the Spanish city, or so the winemaker in Montefalco told me.
Here’s what I learned or in some cases re-learned, in Barcelona:
What is vermouth
It’s fortified wine with sugar and flavourings added, notably spices and in particular bitters, especially wormwood, aka artemesia annual. Vermouth generally has an alcohol level of 15-22% and at least 125 g of sugar. By comparison, check out the residual sugar in dry to sweet wines on this chart from Wine Folly. The added alcohol and bitters keep it from being too cloying, although you’ll start to suffer from the sugar if you have more than one or two drinks.
When and how do you drink it
Pure? It’s mainly drunk as an aperitif; keep in mind that the word comes from the Greek meaning to whet (literally, open up) the appetite, so a glass of it, over ice, works before lunch or dinner. The name comes from the French pronunciation of the German word for wormwood, famously used in a number of alcoholic beverages and medicines up to the late 19th century, including absinthe. But the Germans didn’t invent it; it seems the Chinese were already doing something similar thousands of years earlier, and India and Greece had their versions of wine infused with herbs.
We were told by vermouth maker and Reus vermouth museum director Joan Tàpias that only 1-2% of vermouths are digestifs rather than apéritifs, with the difference being a significantly higher alcohol content (not a great idea before a meal) and more spices. The one I had in Italy, I was told, was a digestif, and it was 18% but with strong spices.
Mixed with booze in cocktails? Americans and their cocktail parties and bars gave vermouth a huge boost in the last half of the 19th century. Gin, whisky, scotch and more – martinis, manhattans, boulevardiers, negronis. Stir it, take it with ice or no ice, add a sliver of lemon peel. But if you pour it over ice, drink it now and don’t let it sit, please.
Drinking it at home and wondering what to do with the rest of the bottle? It keeps longer than wine, thanks to the alcohol that fortified it, so you can keep it refrigerated for 1-3 months. The sooner you finish the bottle, the less oxygen will work on it, and the better the vermouth. Alternatively, cook with it, keeping in mind the sugar as well as the herbs and spices.
Dry, sweet, white, red and more
Basic vermouth wisdom says the Italians, who make it red and sweet, invented modern-day vermouth in the middle of the 18th century and a few decades later the French began to make a white version, which is dry.
That’s grossly oversimplified and not quite right. For a start, not all red vermouth is sweet and not all white is dry, plus bianco, which is what you drink at noon on Sunday in Barcelona, is a lightly sweet white vermouth, and some people like a rosé version. The UK and the US both make it. Reus, south of Barcelona, might not be the world’s biggest exporter of it, but some 30 bodegas make lovely spicy artisanal versions of it, each with a secret recipe.
You’ll probably want the clear, extra dry in your James Bond martini and rosso (red) if you want something over ice that is a substitute for a pre-dinner glass of wine but not as high in alcohol as many cocktails. Mass in Barcelona on Sunday: head for the cafe afterwards and ask for a bianco.
Mr Martini invented vermouth (no!)
Clearly wrong, but there was in fact a Mr Alessandro Martini, Italian, whose partner Mr Rossi invented one version of vermouth and the company’s name became a household one in the US after the popularized the mixed drink martini.
Vermut in Barcelona
A friend explained vermouth to me thus, in relationship to Barcelona. “‘Un vermouth’ (the politics of Spanish vs Catalan spelling is another subject) – is a glass of Martini bianco, while ‘Fer el vermut’ or “Hacer el vermouth” in Spanish – is what we do before lunch (a glass of martini bianco with berberechos, almejas, patatas i olivas).”
Nick, Becky Sue and I took another approach. We had a list of bars culled from knowledgeable friends, we thought. We tested rosso straight, cocktails and checked out what you get as a tourist if you simply order “a vermouth” in English or accented Spanish (generally: Martini rosso) in a restaurant or at a bar in the evening. Very fun, not much to do with local life, it seemed.
We shopped, bought shoes and clothes, got hungry, and checked out the little local artisanal vermouth makers’ hole-in-wall places before tapas. Very fun, very good vermouth.
We checked out the post-mass Sunday chic cafés and had good apéritifs, in the sense of Martini rosso (again) and fine snacks, but we longed to be adopted by a Catalan family to get the real experience.
There are a multitude of blogs that will tell you “this” is what vermouth is all about in Barcelona, and “this” varies hugely. My suggestion is to ignore them and go shopping, walk a lot, get hungry, find a hole-in-wall place and learn a little Catalan over a spicy local red vermouth and maybe have a political discussion, consider working your way up to a truer local experience.
I’m going to compress all of this for you into a sentence listing 10 things I learned about vermouth in Barcelona:
Vermouth was invented by the Chinese, named by medically-minded Germans, redesigned by the Italians, lightened a bit by the French, embellished with booze by Americans, evolved by Catalans into something you sip after mass and before lunch with your in-laws, given a mostly murky history by commercial producers (it may or may not have something to do with mysterious tax laws that nearly killed the European eau-de-vie industry), bumped aside by three decades of wine purists, rediscovered by a new generation of Europeans in Spain’s design capital of Barcelona – and, salud! hand-crafted vermouth is easy to drink!