Aromatic Aperitif

Vermut has made a comeback as a pre-lunch drink thanks to small Spanish producers

In the vibrant Barcelona neighbourhood of Sant Antoni, Sunday afternoon drinkers spill out year round onto the street outside the many trendy bars and cafés. A small area around Carrer Parlament now teams with young families, hipsters and a few of the more savvy tourists, and there is a host of new establishments catering to this sophisticated crowd. Increasingly customers are clutching glasses of vermut, the city’s signature aperitiu.

Drunk usually between one and three in the afternoon, accompanied by potato chips, olives and anchovies, the vermut ritual is a chance for everyone to catch up before attention turns to the family meal.

Anchovies
Vermut is typically served with olives and anchovies. Photo: Milo de Prieto.

Served over ice, with a slice of orange, an olive and a splash of soda, vermut’s re-emergence can be seen as a Spanish reaction to the takeover of American brunch culture. Steeped in the tradition of the afternoon-long family lunch, vermut is a less manufactured, more artesenal product than the big, well-known Italian brands. Drunk usually between one and three in the afternoon, accompanied by potato chips, olives and anchovies, the vermut ritual is a chance for everyone to catch up before attention turns to the family meal.

Sant Antoni neighbourhood
The neighbourhood of Sant Antoni is home to some of Barcelona’s trendiest bars and cafés

One of the prime movers behind vermut’s current success is Casa Mariol, a winery in Tarragona province, Catalonia. Generations of the same family built a successful company mainly producing white label wines for international clients. Now the siblings of the family’s latest generation to come of age have turned their attention to producing wines and liquors under their own label, which they export to 12 countries, including the USA, Canada, Australia and in the EU.

31 year old Miquel Angel Vaquer left his budding career in journalism to return to the family business seven years ago. He was keen to introduce more strategic direction to the company and spotted an opportunity in vermut. “We took my grandfather’s recipe repackaged it in a modern, trendy bottle,” Vaquer explained. “Since then it has become a signature product for us.” He is currently writing a book on the vermut story, due to be published in 2015.

Casa Mariol’s vermut is produced using unaged white wine to which they add green walnuts, giving it its distinctive colour. Finally a blend of 150 herbs, spices and roots is added with hot water, sugar and alcohol. “If we aged the wine we’d have a stronger more concentrated flavour,” says Vaquer. “Vermut is meant to be refreshing and light enough to drink before you’ve eaten.”

The vermut tradition in Spain dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the technique of preparing aromatised wines was brought from northern Italy. It was a refreshing drink to take before the family lunch or, for the pious, before Sunday mass. It’s inexpensive and families would have a bottle at home, meaning everyone could take part during the Franco era when bars were usually off limits to women.

“For us its a very typically Spanish drink, with quality on a par with any you’ll find in France or Italy.” - Miquel Angel Vaquer, Casa Mariol

Now 25-30 million litres of vermut are produced annually in Spain, with exports valued at €80 million.

“Companies like Martini have marketed their drinks particularly to nighttime drinkers, whereas Spanish vermouth is drunk during the day,” explains Vaquer. “For us its a very typically Spanish drink, with quality on a par with any you’ll find in France or Italy.”

As vermut’s popularity increases, visitors to Barcelona are starting to notice the trend. “Let’s call them travellers, not tourists,” says Miquel Angel Vaquer. “These are people who want to experience Barcelona like a local and you’ll find them here drinking vermut with their friends on a weekend alongside those who live here.”

Vermut in Café Taranna
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