Turns Out, Boozy Brunch Is a Spanish Tradition — Here's How to Experience It Like a Local
Head to Barcelona and its famous vermuterías. You won't be disappointed.
As you amble down the streets of Barcelona in search of a late lunch, tired from a packed morning of being a tourist, you may be hoping to relax with a glass of cava or sangria — two Spanish exports that have made their way onto many a brunch menu stateside. While you’ll surely find enough of both to last you a lifetime, you’ll also see signs in front of bars advertising Vermut, 2€! You should go in.
Vermut is Catalan for vermouth — the same stuff in your Manhattans and martinis. Not one to pass up an excellent deal and a new experience, you will order yourself a pour on the rocks. As you take your first sips, you’ll notice that it’s more spiced and herbaceous than the stuff that you mix into your home cocktails. In fact, it has the complexity of a cocktail all on its own. Plus, it makes a lovely pairing with the potato chips the bartender put out. What a refreshing surprise! Why is everyone blabbing about sangria when there’s vermouth to be had?
This is one quintessentially Spanish culinary experience you won’t find in any old tapas bar. Read on for your primer on all things vermut.
Uh, what exactly is vermouth?
Vermouth is a type of aromatized and fortified wine, which will be anywhere from 13-20% alcohol by volume. While the exact recipe may change depending on where it’s made, it usually contains wormwood (the word vermouth is thought to come from the German word, wermut), along with a unique combination of herbs, roots, spices, barks, seeds, or flowers.
All vermouth starts its life as white wine, but there are two main varieties: dark, or "red," and light, or "white." White vermouth tends to be lighter and more herbaceous — dry white vermouth is what you’ll find in a martini. Red vermouth (which is what's called for in a Manhattan or a Negroni) tends to be sweeter, thanks to the addition of dark caramel sugar, with more spicing and bitterness to balance it out.
While not all white vermouth is dry, all dry vermouth is white. You will see both red and white vermouth in Spain, and sometimes even rosé versions, which are somewhere in the middle. Though Spanish vermut tends to taste sweeter than Italian vermouths, it’s a trick of the spice blend — the Spanish versions actually contain 25-30% less sugar, on average.
Vermut culture can be found throughout Spain, but Barcelona is where it all began. The famed four Rossi brothers — whose iconic Martini & Rossi vermouth began production in Turin, Italy, in 1863 — opened their first Spanish distribution center in Barcelona in 1893.
The drink was already incredibly popular; an archived issue of the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia from January 3, 1892, tells the tale of two busted counterfeiters with perfect replicas of the “Vermouth of Torino.” So, in 1902, the Spain-focused brand representative for Martini & Rossi opened the swanky Café Torino in Barcelona — designed, in part, by Antoni Gaudí — to quench the locals’ thirst. Though it was only open for nine years, it was the first bar in Spain dedicated to vermouth, and started a cherished tradition that lives on to this day.
Why are Barcelonians so obsessed with it?
In the U.S, “Let’s get brunch!” has layers of meaning: sure, you’re inviting someone to consume breakfast-y foods and beverages, but you’re also asking them into a relaxing space, conducive to connection and good conversation. When you invite a friend to fer el vermut, it’s much the same — you’ll drink vermut and munch on salty snacks together, but it’s also a meaningful interpersonal ritual.
And, like brunch, this ritual happens on weekend mornings and early afternoons (historically, between church and Sunday dinner, but now in a much more open-ended window). But if you order vermut with dinner — akin to ordering a 3pm cappuccino in Rome, or a 9pm mimosa at your neighborhood dive bar — the bartenders may privately roll their eyes at the guiri (“dummy foreigner”) who wandered in. You’ll still get what you want, though — as long as you don’t mind, who cares?
Depending on where you’re drinking it, vermut usually comes on the rocks with an olive or an orange slice, sometimes with a splash of soda water. It’s traditionally (and wonderfully) paired with snacks like potato chips, olives, cured meats, or conservas (high-quality Spanish tinned fish — even better with a dash of Spanish smoked paprika).
Where should I drink it?
Another parallel to brunch: you don’t have to go out to enjoy a lazy Sunday morning vermut. If you want to host friends at home, look for bottles by traditional producers such as Yzaguirre, Miro, Perucchi, and Casa Mariol. Many of the spots that serve a house-made vermut also have bottles for sale.
To experience la hora del vermut like a local, though, it’s best to head to a vermuteria in Barcelona, where Spain’s vermut obsession was born — pop in around noon on a weekend (if you can grab a table!) and you’ll be met with a cross section of the city partaking together. Here are some you shouldn’t miss:
La Pineda Xarcuteria (Gothic Quarter)
If you’re hoping for a fancy dining experience, La Pineda is not the place. If you’re hoping for a local haunt that feels like a place Hemingway would hang out between bullfights, you simply must stop by. As you enter, you’ll see all manner of Spanish wine and snacks lining the walls, and legions of cured meats hanging from the ceiling. Their house-made vermut is stunning (buy a bottle or three to take home), and you can’t go wrong with their pan con tomate.
Bodega 1900 (L'Eixample)
If you have trouble getting reservations to Tickets, the culinary smash hit from the family behind El Bulli, their equally delicious Bodega 1900 is a two minute walk away. Here, Chef Albert Adrià goes less for Willy Wonka-style whimsy and more for traditional vermuteria fare — but he serves damn good tapas and a lovely house-made vermouth. It’s easy for a drink and a snack, but also offers a wonderful chef’s tasting menu at around 70€ each. It’s worth it for the liquid olives!
Morro Fi (Several locations)
What started out as a beloved hole-in-the-wall spot with two tables in the Eixample neighborhood has grown into a family of excellent vermuterias. Meaning “fancy eaters,” Morro Fi is a more contemporary take on vermut. The whole menu is designed to pair with the restaurant’s famed house vermut, but don’t miss the spicy paprika-vinegar-drizzled potato chips or vinegar-soaked anchovies — many an anchovy hater has been converted here.
And, if you don’t have a Barcelona trip planned, you can now find solid vermut options at Spanish restaurants in the U.S. Some — including Huertas in NYC and Vaca in Costa Mesa, California — even have house-made versions on tap. ¡Salud!
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