In Spain, vermouth is a verb as much as a noun — a lifestyle as much as a drink. Although an appetite-inducing glass of ice-cold vermouth is a thing of beauty on a Sunday afternoon, the drink, a bittersweet fortified wine that’s spiked with booze and infused with botanicals, is in many cases less important than its place in the city’s social fabric. The Italians created vermouth as we know it and the Catalan bourgeois embraced it, but over a century later, a new generation — from the design-agency set and cool millennial parents to grungy skaters and scrappy creatives — have lifted the humble drink up from the napkin-strewn depths of musty old-man bars to a spot in the limelight.
As local popularity continues to grow, tourists are once again pouring into Barcelona and discovering how great vermut is, sipping away their vacations and trying all the little snacks that pair perfectly with it. But to do it right, here’s everything you need to know about the drink and its aura of influence, from the ingrained cultural significance of a Sunday vermouth to the endless array of conservas (canned seafood) with which it’s served.
When to do it
The ritual of vermut is the boozy brunch of a parallel universe, one where eggs Benedict and bloody marys are replaced by copious olives, hard cheeses, cured meats, crispy potato chips, and, of course, tin after tin of conservas. But vermouth is no longer just a weekend thing in Spain. In fact, it follows no strict schedule, though its most famous role is filling the gap between your tiny breakfast and huge lunch. In this city, it’s always a good time to “fer el vermut” — literally, “do the vermouth,” a Catalan saying that refers to the distinctive activity surrounding it. (It’s so intrinsic that there’s also a special noun for it in Spanish: vermuteo, as in, “Join us for vermuteo this Sunday.”)
Morning vermouth sessions aren’t unheard of, even during the week: The only real requisites are that it’s a daytime affair, wildly social, and flush with snacks. The typical spread includes small, shareable bites like salt-cured anchovies, pickled boquerones (vinegar-marinated fresh anchovies), olives, potato chips doused in paprika-laced vinegar (a true revelation for novices), and countless varieties of conservas, from plump cockles to briny razor clams.
What is it actually?
Vermouth is an aromatized (infused with botanical ingredients), fortified (dosed with extra alcohol) wine that comes sweet or dry. Dry vermouth is the stuff of martinis and classic French pan sauces; in Spain, sweet vermouth, which comes in dark and light varieties, is what you’re served on the rocks. The base of sweet vermouth is typically white wine, which is aromatized over several months. Each brand’s exact recipe is a carefully guarded secret, but typical ingredients include quinine, wormwood, citrus peel, coriander seed, vanilla, thyme, basil, ginger, cardamom, and gentian root. High-proof alcohol is also added to stabilize the wine during the maceration stage so it doesn’t turn to vinegar, followed by a sugar solution or naturally sweet wine. The final product is a semi-potent aperitivo that hovers around 15 percent ABV.
For a long time, vermouth drinkers had one choice, between bulk no-name vermut de la casa, or a large brand like Martini & Rossi, produced on a massive scale. Now there are more and more in-between options — small, local, artisanal vermouth brands that boast their uniqueness and backstories, trying to distinguish themselves with nuanced flavor profiles and extended aging. These include local brands like Casa Mariol and Morro Fi with classic flavors, as well as the slightly rarer Padró & Co. Reserva Especial, a solera-style vermouth aged 18 months in oak sherry barrels.
How to order vermouth
If you want the good stuff, forgo the bottle of Martini Red Label collecting dust behind the bar and order the vermut de la casa — unless you’re at an upscale place with a list of artisanal vermouths, like the aforementioned brands. If it’s between Martini and no-name, the no-name is always the way to go, as vermut de la casa usually has more depth and complexity, and leans toward bitter.
Ordering etiquette really boils down to drinking it the way it’s served to you, which varies by bar. Some places are purist in philosophy, offering up a short, chilled glass — no ice, no garnish. While this is often the mark of a true vermuteria, a much more popular choice is vermouth on ice with an olive and a slice of orange for garnish; the bittersweet vermouth with a citrus punch and salty finish is what day-drinking dreams are made of. But ultimately, nearly everyone at a bar will be having theirs the same way: bartender’s choice.
Locals often cut the ABV of vermouth with a splash of soda to prolong the revelry. Most vermouth bars that take their craft seriously will have soda siphons available; just proceed with caution, because these siphons are primed to erupt like a jacuzzi jet at the slightest squeeze. Most of the time you’ll find the siphons sitting right on your table or along the bar, but if you don’t see them out, just ask the bartender. Or, add a kick to the vermouth by asking for yours with a splash of gin. Some bars sometimes garnish their vermouths with anchovy-stuffed olives; even if you don’t love anchovy, the flavor is so mild that you might not notice, and the contrast is surprisingly pleasant. That said, if you don’t eat fish, ask in advance.
What to eat it with
Some vermouth bars stick to the basic light snacks. Others offer extensive tapas-style dishes that can make for a full meal. But most menus have one thing in common: tinned seafood. Vermuteo is the king of conservas, which run the gamut from the mussels and cockles (5 euros, $6) at your neighborhood vermouth bar to hand-selected jumbo clams that can cost upward of 60 euros ($70) per can. For a classic experience, taste your way through the big four: musclos en escabetx (vinegar-marinated mussels), navalles (razor clams), cloïsses (clams), and escopinyes (cockles). Salads of ventresca (tuna belly preserved in olive oil) with roasted piquillo peppers, cans of sardines in tomato sauce, and xipirons (baby squid) in their own ink are also very popular. Try your conservas dosed with a few dashes of salsa aperitiu, a mix of vinegar and paprika that is available virtually everywhere conservas are sold. The most popular local brand is Salsa Espinaler, which is so associated with vermouth-drinking that their bottles sometimes bear the slogan, “Salut i vermut!”
For non-canned aperitivo snacks, a plate of both salt-cured and vinegar-cured anchovies (a sacred combo known as a “matrimoni” in Catalan when served together) is as traditional as it gets, and it’s rare that a bag of potato chips doesn’t make an appearance on the table — a perfect crispy, salty foil to the soft, vinegary mussels and the peppery tang of the salsa aperitiu. To round out the traditional spread, expect hard cheeses, briny olives, salted almonds, and charcuterie — from the famous ibérico ham to cured llonganissa salami, a local favorite.
Where to drink it
Vermouth bar culture runs the gamut from nostalgia to upmarket chic, and with countless choices found in every corner of the city, we’ve highlighted 10 spots that capture the zeitgeists of vermouth’s past and present.
Bar Electricitat: One of the oldest vermouth bars in Barcelona, founded in 1908 and still very popular with the locals in seaside Barceloneta for its vermouth and wine by the liter, as well as its selection of both hot and cold tapas. They still do things old-school here: Even when only ordering a glass, waiters deposit an entire unlabeled bottle of vermouth on your table, and measure the amount missing when it comes time to tabulate the bill. Barceloneta, Carrer de Sant Carles 15, 08003
Els Sortidors del Parlament: This beautiful old bar on the hip, lovely Carrer del Parlament specializes in vermouth as well as local wine, and is an ideal starting point for a vermouth crawl. It features an extensive menu of snacks and tapas, as well as daily hot specials from the kitchen, and a great selection of local craft beers. Check out the gourmet shop for some edible souvenirs. Sant Antoni, Carrer del Parlament 53, 08015
La Vermu: Just steps from the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, this traditionally styled vermouth bar gets extremely busy on weekend afternoons, as it’s a great place to experience local vermut culture in close quarters with the young people of one of Barcelona’s proudest neighborhoods. If you’re spending the day exploring here, La Vermu is perfect for a weekend pre-lunch pitstop or late-afternoon primer before a lively night out. Gràcia, Carrer de Sant Domènec 15, 08012
Bodega Vidrios y Cristales: With reasonable prices, a vintage vibe, and an impressive selection of conservas, Bodega Vidrios y Cristales is one of the best spots in the city center for sampling your way through the world of gourmet seafood in a tin. Expect a decent selection of other tapas; the most popular is the homemade Spanish tortilla. Barceloneta, Passeig d’Isabel II 6, 08003
Senyor Vermut: Part old-man bar, part cool-kid hangout. Enjoy a full meal featuring some of the most iconic Catalan dishes, like bunyols de bacallà (salt cod fritters), galtes de porc (braised pork cheeks), croquetes de carn d’olla (stewed-meat croquettes), and cargols (snails). More standard tapas, in addition to anchovies, olives, and pretty much any type of conserva, are available as well. L’Eixample, Carrer de Provença 85, 08029
Bodega E. Marin: A narrow bodega with bottles and barrels from floor to ceiling, this spot is a Gràcia landmark decked out in campy memorabilia, from bawdy naked-fireman calendars to FC Barça swag tucked into every corner. On busy afternoons and evenings you’ll find locals spilling out onto the sidewalk, enjoying their drinks from plastic cups. A small selection of snacks is on offer, as well as some simple cocktails and more than 20 wines on tap. Gràcia, Carrer de Milà i Fontanals 72, 08012
El Xampanyet: Xampanyet is most famous for its house sparkling wine, but it’s also a great place to grab a vermouth. Founded in 1929 and packed with character, this is one of the oldest bars in El Born. Perpetually busy due to its long-standing local popularity and close proximity to the Museu Picasso, if you manage to squeeze in the door, enjoy a wide selection of conservas and house-cured goodies, hot tapas, and homestyle Catalan dishes. The decorative details, from old wine skins to hand-painted tile aucas (Catalan folk art in the form of a storyboard), would keep a game of “I Spy” going for hours. El Born, Carrer de Montcada 22, 08003
La Bodegueta Cal Pep: Sants is one of the most local-feeling neighborhoods in the city center (and many residents hope to keep it that way), mainly due to its location just on the far side of Plaça d’Espanya away from more notable tourist attractions. La Bodegueta Cal Pep is a Sants landmark where generations have flocked, year after year, for a pre-lunch vermouth. The full menu is loaded with hearty dishes, from fresh-caught mussels and crab to homestyle stews to excellent fried boquerones and morro de porc (hunks of fried pig snout). Check out the classic wooden refrigerators, the mark of a truly old-school vermouth joint. Sants, Carrer de Canalejas 12, 08028
Bodega Fermín: Another member of the Barceloneta old guard, Bodega Fermín is nestled in the heart of the neighborhood, just a few blocks from the water. With wine and vermouth on tap straight from the barrel, and a large selection of local craft beers, this spot gets buzzing before lunch as sunbathers head in from their mornings at the beach. Its food selection is mostly limited to conservas, cured meats, and cheeses, so it’s best for a midday snack or afternoon aperitivo. Barceloneta, Carrer de Sant Carles 18, 08003
Sam Zucker is a freelance writer, photographer, filmmaker, travel Instagrammer, and gastronomic tour guide in Barcelona. He has contributed to Monocle, National Geographic’s “48 Hours” guides, Culture Trip, and Vice Travel, among others. Gerard Moral is a Barcelona born and based photographer specializing in portrait, travel, and lifestyle photography.