The Rebirth of Vermouth
If you are not Spanish but you have visited or lived in Spain for a certain length of time you would have been aware that many Spaniards (including myself) enjoy a glass of vermouth, particularly as a pre-lunch aperitif.
What?! You mean that bottle that was once relegated to the back of the liquor cabinet, gathering dust over the years? Yes, that one.
Vermouth has experienced a rise in popularity here in Mallorca, and on an even bigger scale in mainland Spain. The truth is, vermouth was never unpopular here. It has always been a crucial component of some very famous, classic cocktails (Negroni being a typical example) and now, with the new mixology trends, it is highly demanded.
Also, the pre-lunch aperitif is very much part of Spanish culture and usually includes a small bite to eat with your preferred drink.
Throughout the majority of the 20th Century Spain’s drink of choice was vermouth, and now, during the 21st Century, it has had a resurgence of interest and is consequently having one of its best revival periods.
But what is vermouth and why is it so popular here?
I will try to explain in five steps to help you understand more about it:
1) What is vermouth?
Vermouth is as old as wine itself, it is a wine that has been aromatized with botanicals and then fortified. The earlier purpose for these modifications was to preserve the wine. In the 18th Century, in northern Italy, it was revamped and now it is more like the vermouth we know and enjoy today. Vermouth was originally used for medicinal purposes but as it developed over time, it is now a drink you are more likely to enjoy in a fashionable café.
The name vermouth comes from Wormwood (or Wermut in German), which is one of its main ingredients.
2) How is vermouth made?
The creation of vermouth hasn't changed that much. However, the ingredients within vermouth have altered. Our palates have developed over time and so, vermouth has also been adapted to appeal to our more refined tastes.
It is made by taking an already finished wine, normally something that uses a neutral flavoured grape such as Macabeo here in Spain, Clairette Blanc in France or Trebbiano in Italy. Spirit is added to this wine (which increases the alcohol level), as well as dry ingredients such as spices, bark or citrus peel.
This amalgamation is then left to macerate for some time, with intermittent stirring to ensure all of the different flavours are well mixed and absorbed by the wine. Sometimes red wine, sweeteners or caramel are added to enhance the colour or sweetness. Finally, the vermouth is filtered and bottled. The list of added ingredients can be as long as you want them to be but, here in Spain, the one ingredient that vermouth must have, by law, is Wormwood.
3) Where does vermouth come from?
The commercially made vermouth that most people are aware of was an Italian invention. This creation quickly spread across the Mediterranean and eventually reached Catalonia. Reus is now one of the capitals for Spanish vermouth. It is a variation of the original and this style of vermouth is the one you are more likely to find throughout Spain.
Vermouth de Reus is generally red and a sweeter version of its Italian and French counterparts. In France and Italy there are a few classic brands of vermouth and not much more than that. Whereas, here in Spain, there has been such a huge interest in the drink that many wine producers now try their hand at making vermouth, Reus style.
The other capital of vermouth is Jerez. Here, they use the palomino grape and they often use sherry aged wines to create very distinctive vermouth. This tends to be a gastronomic and barrel aged version of vermouth that is well worth tasting.
4) Why is vermouth so popular in Spain?
Vermouth is having a revival in the same way gin did, though the glory days of this particular spirit appear to be diminishing now. Vermouth seems to be more popular in Spain than anywhere else in the world. It seems to me that vermouth is influenced by Spanish traditions, climate and with the way we eat and drink here, which is very different from other areas of Europe.
Vermouth has a touch of bitterness to it so it pairs well with typical aperitif foods such as pickles, anchovies, good jamón and olives. Vermouth is also served with a big chunk of ice and a citrus slice, making it a refreshing drink to savour.
Whenever you visit any city in Spain I recommend you take time to go to a traditional and popular bar in the centre at approx. 1pm. Ask for a tapa and a vermouth and watch the world go by. It is the perfect way to get conversations flowing and your stomach juices ready for lunch.
5) How can I find good vermouth?
There is now an endless supply of different vermouth options, so it is normal to be confused. And, like the world of wine, you can find vermouth to suit any budget. Normally the price is a good indicator of quality. If you see a one litre bottle for 4€, it is likely to be full of sugar and not very nice. The best way to start your investigation is to ask your local wine supplier, and leave the big commercial brands behind. Also, taste a few different styles of vermouth. You may find you prefer French vermouth as it tends to be drier. If you find a local producer who makes vermouth, give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprised.
My top tip
Next time you plan a lunch out, try and meet your friends 30 minutes or so earlier and visit a Vermuteria, though try not to stray from your intended lunch option after being enticed by various different vermouths paired with delicious pintxos and tapas!