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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Salty, sweet, bitter and more, vermouth is a taste of Madrid in a glass

La Violeta, a vermuteria in the Chamberi neighborhood of Madrid on June 19, 2023. La Violeta offers more than 25 varieties of vermouth and a wide variety of tapas.

By Danielle Pergament

I moved to Spain about a year ago and at one of my first meals in Madrid, I saw a handsome young couple drinking some kind of unidentifiable light brown cocktail on ice with a wedge of orange and green olives. It was before noon and I was stumped. I had to know what it was. Vermouth, they told me.

Before I moved to Spain, I knew of two types of vermouth: white and red. So I had to try it — and it was delicious. Lighter, more subtle, more medicinal than anything I’d had in America.

And it’s a lot more than a drink. Vermouth is to Spain what a pint is to Ireland or mate is to Argentina — a national pastime. It’s a lifestyle, as much an activity as it is a beverage. There are establishments called vermuterias here. Historically, people drink vermouth on Sunday mornings after church. In fact, it’s so stitched into the culture that “fer un vermut” (“to do a vermouth”) is an expression that doesn’t even require you to order vermouth. It means, let’s meet for a drink in the middle of the day (another culinary surprise).

If you ask enough Spaniards about vermouth, soon enough you will wind up in Reus, a Catalan city just south of Barcelona with a thousand-year history, and the drink’s unofficial capital.

“Reus was the second industrialized city in Catalonia,” said Joan Tàpias Cors, the founder and owner of Museu del Vermut, in the old town in Reus. (The first was Barcelona.) “In the 1850s a blight of bacteria killed almost all the grapevines. So winemakers here decided to start making vermouth — it made the grapes go farther.”

Tàpias Cors told me that the museum (which is also a restaurant) has more than 6,500 items related to vermouth, representing 57 countries. “We have vermouths from the United States made during Prohibition that are called ‘nonintoxicating,’ which is of course impossible,” he said.

A few weeks later, I attended the Excellence Vermouth Awards, an annual conference of vermouth makers held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Madrid, with my friend Celia Crespo, owner of Vino con Tino, a service that selects and ships wine for clients, hoping to learn more.

“Welcome to the showroom of vermouth,” said Javier Fernández Piera, the organizer of the conference. All around us were men and woman who owned restaurants or bottled spirits or just loved vermouth. The men wore suits, the women wore scarves, and everyone looked like they’d be equally comfortable at a political fundraiser.

“The history of vermouth goes back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome, when they made wine with botanicals, which changed the nature of the wine,” said Fernández Piera, gesturing to the dozen or so vermouth makers around us. “These vermouths have that history.”

I later spoke to Noelia Callejo, a vermouth maker in Pedrosa de Duero, who underscored his point: “In the 1980s, it wasn’t as popular. Spain was a new democracy, coming out of a strong dictatorial regime, and the young people wanted to break with the traditions of their parents’ generation. Now people are starting to enjoy it again. It’s a very nice drink with a lot of possibilities. And it’s no longer associated with the dictatorship.”

Calling something a vermouth requires a fairly complex calculus. Unlike wine, which, in its purest form, is just grapes plus time, vermouth is a blend of art and science.

“To understand vermouth, think of it like tea,” Fernández Piera said. “Instead of water, you have the wine, usually white wine. Instead of a bag of tea, you put in absinthe, wormwood. And instead of milk or honey or lemon, you add botanicals.” It’s the botanicals that give vermouth its personality and distinct taste.

A good vermouth should have a light body and offer a complex mix of five flavors — salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami — with a good balance, especially between the sweet and the bitter, and it should linger in your mouth, he explained.

That’s the art part.

“In America, you drink Martini & Rossi more than any other vermouth,” he continued, tacitly impugning Martini, Rossi and the drinking population of America. “It’s very commercial and too sweet. It lacks bitterness. We would not call that a traditional vermouth.”

According to the European Union, for something to call itself a vermouth, it must be at least 75% wine, include wormwood, and be between 14.5% and 22% alcohol. That’s the science.

Beyond that, “there are no rules,” said Ester Bachs, the author of “Guía del Vermut,” one of the most comprehensive books on the subject. “You can add gin, honey, hibiscus, rose extract, any botanical you want. There is so much innovation in vermouth.”

I asked everyone I knew for the best vermuteria in Madrid. Marisa, my Spanish teacher and a fourth-generation Madrileña, suggested Bodegas Casas, a 100-year-old vermouth bar in the center of Madrid but a dimension removed from any tourist map. Marisa’s father would fer un vermut on most days, as his father did before him, well into their 90s. I called Niki and Annalisa, two friends who live in Madrid. It was time to fer un vermut for myself.

On an early Tuesday afternoon in May, Bodegas Casas was in prime form.

The bar is small, a few stools and a single table by the window. The walls are lined with bottles of sherry, spirits, wine and, of course, vermouth — thickly covered with dust and history. Every stool was occupied, the bartender was shuttling from end to end, pouring, serving, clearing. Bodegas Casas has served vermouth on tap since it opened: Pour, top off with a splash of sparkling water, serve. It’s purist’s vermouth — no ice, no olives or wedge of orange, as many other places use.

Bachs had advised me to “put something salty next to vermouth so you have all the flavors in your mouth.” Niki ordered three glasses of vermouth along with a plate of pickled peppers and a basket of chips.

Two gentlemen, in suits and hats, one with a cane, sat next to each other at the far end of the bar. They looked dressed from an era when people didn’t wear T-shirts and never left the house without a hat.

“I have been sitting in this seat every day for 50 years,” said Jaime, 91.

“Nothing has changed here since we started coming,” said his friend Paco, 92, “except the neighborhood. Inside this bar, it is always the same. Every day, I come here for vermouth. But never more than two.” Then he winked at me.

Where to Fer un Vermut in Madrid

If a drink can be a snapshot of history, vermouth is a textbook. It has spanned millenniums, from ancient Rome to the streets of Madrid in 2023. It has moved from the aristocracy to blue-collar workers at lunch counters. A real vermouth is never mixed; it is savored. It is a piece of craftsmanship, picking up botanicals and personality along its own particular journey. And if you want the best, you have to come to a stool at a dusty old bar in Madrid and have a glass poured directly from the tap.

If you’re in Madrid for a few days, there’s a decent chance you will find yourself at Mercado de San Miguel, a well-known food hall off Plaza Mayor. The mercado is reliably crowded and touristy, but also home to one of the best vermouth bars in the city, La Hora del Vermut. For a less crowded taste of vermouth, the city offers ample options.

Bodegas Casas

For 100 years, this has been a vermouth bar for locals — relaxed, low-key and very friendly. The on-tap vermouth is served with a splash of soda water, and the bartender is generous with the chips (Avenida de la Ciudad de Barcelona, ​​​​23).

Taberna La Elisa

If you’re looking for a charming tapas bar with a charming, if occasionally grumpy, proprietor, you’re in luck. The house vermouth is served on the rocks and goes great with their patatas bravas. Afterward, walk around Barrio de las Letras, the neighborhood Miguel del Cervantes and Lope de Vega called home (Calle de Santa María, 42).

La Violeta

A more modern take on a traditional vermouth bar, La Violeta has an extensive vermouth list, an impressive selection of tapas and a staff happy to advise on both (Calle de Vallehermoso, 62).

Casa Camacho

Just off the small, lovely Plaza Juan Pujol in the Justicia neighborhood, Casa Camacho has tiled walls, vermouth on tap and very few seats. The house vermouth runs sweet, so it’s usually served on ice with a lemon slice (Calle de San Andrés, 4).

Ultramarinos Quintín

It’s more a high-end restaurant than a vermouth bar, but Quintín, in Recoletas, makes its own label of vermouth. The downstairs bar and outdoor seating are less fussy than the dining room, but the whole place is lovely (Calle de Jorge Juan, 17).

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