Words by: Nikki Bayley
Photography by: Nikki Bayley
Thoughts of drinking in Barcelona may turn to visions of fish bowl-like gin tonics, with aromatic ingredients and artisan gin. But in the past few years, the city has welcomed back an old tradition and those pricey gin sessions have been replaced by drinkers heading off to fer el vermut (literally 'to do vermouth'). Be it an economic necessity or a hipster trend, vermut is back with a vengeance.
Served over ice and garnished with an olive, or slice of orange or lemon, add a splash of soda to taste and you've found your new perfect Barcelona drink.
You can head to the source of this vermouth renaissance just an hour by train along the coast from Barcelona to the historic town of Reus. Once one of Europe's most important producers of spirits in the late 1700s - where along with Paris and London it fixed global absinthe prices - vermouth production here began in 1850 and at its height there were 30 different producers. Nowadays only five main brands remain, Miro, Yzaguirre, Rofes, Cori and Iris, but smaller producers who create house blends for bars are on the rise again.
In this part of Spain, the wine used to make vermut comes from Tarragona and is usually a blend of Macabeo, Parellada and Xare-lo grapes. The white vermouth uses sugar as a sweetener, but the preferred variety here is vermut negre (red or black) which uses caramel. Less bitter than its Italian counterpart, vermut uses anything from 30 to 150 different aromatics, but needs to include wormwood to be vermut. Traditionally, the herbs and botanicals would come from across the Mediterranean including aromatics from Greece and Corsica. Look out for reserva varieties which have been barrel-aged for six months and usually have a more complex flavour.
Aside from being the birthplace of local architectural hero, Anton Gaudi, Reus is also home to the Museu del Vermut, a fascinating mix of restaurant and museum which has some 5000 vermouth-based artifacts from treasured Italian and French bottles from 1810 to a jaw-dropping collection of everything from fans and trays to posters, branded toy cars and antique machinery over two floors. A family-run affair, thanks to a long-standing obsession of co-owner Joan Tàpias' father and grandfather, if you're contemplating cultivating your own vermouth obsession, here's the place to kick-start your collection.
On tap at the Museu del Vermut, you can try a flight of four of the local blends, as well as pick from some 70 global varieties (England is even represented with Sussex's Blackdown Silver Birch Vermouth). A few minutes walk away is the old Rofes winery which now is a bar with a charming patio courtyard and vast function room in the old barrel store. You can eat in one of the private rooms above the bar, surrounded by yellowing order books and date-stamped marks of authenticity, sipping on their vermut poured on tap, a smooth sweetly nutty blend.
Each of the wineries making vermut has a tasting room, so you can currently make a self-guided tour but the local tourist board has plans to create a vermouth trail to celebrate the town's position in this spirited history.
Don't have time to head to Reus? Here are five lesser-known spots to fer el vermut like a pro.
Carrer de Provença, 85, 08029 Barcelona
Wildly popular with the crowd of bright young things who spill out on to the pavement at this buzzy corner brick-wall bar. Senyor Vermut is a vermouth lover's dream, with a back bar crowded with some 40 different varieties from Italy, Germany and France, and an exceptional house 'reserva' on tap which undergoes a five-month maceration process and then spends a month maturing in the barrel. You'll find plenty of on-point vermouth cocktails too, as well as 15 different varieties of crisp-on-the-outside and fluffy-on-the-inside croquettas and possibly the world's finest patas bravas which come with a thick aioli striped with a peppery chili sauce.
Consell de Cent 171, 08015 Barcelona.
Fancy food bloggers turned hip vermouth bar owners, the guys behind Morro Fi have bars and spin offs tapas places popping up across the city. I loved their tiny hole-in-the-wall joint in Sant Antoni, a square box of a bar with stools pushed up against the shelved walls and the whiff of cigarette smoke wafting in from its busy patio seating. You can buy 1.5L plastic bottles of their house vermut to take away, and you should definitely find suitcase room for their funky siphons. Mouth-puckering pickled bar snacks are the order of the day to pair with their smooth reserva, or try their 'prepat' with vermut negre and a shot of Gin Giro, essentially a reversed red martini.
Carrer Riera Alta, 35, 08001, Barcelona
Tucked away on a slightly down-at-heel part of the Carrer Riera Alta, ten minutes walk from La Rambla and the tourist hell of the Mercado de la Boqueria, the Colibri is the perfect spot to escape the crowds. Boasting an outstanding 80s jukebox complete with not one but two Goombay Dance Band singles, Stars on 45's eponymous hit and a smattering of Lionel Richie, this glorious room with its antique chandeliers, collection of antique vermouth bottles, and motorbike stashed on a balcony above the loos is definitely a one-off. The vermouth comes from Miro; it's sweet but has a deliciously nutty note probably thanks to being barrel-stored and comes in a pleasingly huge pour.
Cala Del Vermut & Bodega Vala del Vermut
Carrer de les Magdalenes, 6, 08002 Barcelona
A pair of gloriously old-school neighbourhood bars (one without any seats where you can pop by to 'fer el vermut' and fill up on a take-home bottle) just around the corner from each other and - somewhat confusingly - named the same thing. Stuffing myself with creamy chicken and pork croquettas, admiring the somewhat kitsch maritime themed decor, this is where I learned to love vermouth many years ago. Their house vermut, mostly served straight from the tap or barrel, comes from nearby Conca de Barbera in Tarragona. Slightly on the sweeter side, this comes served very simply with a slice of lemon and ice.
El Chigre 1769
Carrer dels Sombrerers, 7, 08003
Newly-open in 2016, this excellent specialist cider and vermouth bar in the El Born/La Ribera neighbourhood has five different vermuts to sample raging from a terrific Artesa de Segre with notes of Kola Cubes and plum, and a Vermut de Falset with spicy savoury notes of blue cheese and balsamic to a Medusa blanc that hit like a boozy vanilla bomb. Along with the vermut selection, they also have super-fun 'sideria' aerating devices which you deftly slot an upside-down bottle into and then press a button to high-pour a shot. Absurdly addictive, as you're only meant to pour an inch or two each time for the optimal taste, it's hard to stop pressing that button....