The Vermouth You’ll Actually Want to Drink
Our man in Madrid reports that Spanish vermouth is so good, you'll want to drink it on its own.
by François Monti
I’ll admit, I’m an Italian vermouth guy. I want Cocchi in my Manhattan and I love the complexity of the white Vermouth del Professore on the rocks. BUT, if I’m looking for something I can drink again and again, whether its the winter holidays or summertime, I always go Spanish.
Thing is—almost no one in the U.S. drinks vermouth on its own. Well, maybe you do, but then you know the look on people’s faces when they realize you want to have the stuff straight. It’s a shame, really, since most Spanish vermouth is not really meant to be mixed (it’s not bitter; it doesn’t have enough sugar to stand up to rye). But if you never go solo, you’ll never discover the true charm of the Iberian way. And charm it has in abundance.
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While most Italian vermouth is intensely bittersweet, with a long-lasting finish, Spanish vermouth is just happy to be pleasant. It draws you in with orange and oregano, and if it goes for spices, it smells like a bakery, not a visit to the dentist. That’s why Spain is probably the only country in the world where vermouth sales are driven by people who don’t want it with tonic, with fruit juice, or in a Negroni. They just want vermouth, thank you very much.
The better known Spanish vermouth tends to come from Catalonia, where the biggest players are based, and brands such as Timbal (the vermouth formerly known as Miró) or Yzaguirre have basically created the style—although the latter adds to the balance a few oxidative notes.
But there’s life beyond Catalonia. In Valencia, for example, Valsangiacomo has been aromatizing wines for over a century and their Vittore red (unless specified, all vermouth mentioned in this piece are red) is one of the finest examples of what Spaniards want a vermouth to taste like: fresh, orange-forward with nice floral and herbal notes. It’s juicy and very more-ish. (Sadly, their extraordinary Valsangiacomo Reserva, made by adding moscatel to what is essentially their Vittore red and aging the blend for five years, is not available in the United States).
Meanwhile, venerable wine producer Martinez Lacuesta has been making vermouth in La Rioja for over 80 years and their Reserva—aged in new French oak barrels for 7 months—is well worth exploring.
Other flavor profiles are also available, some with a very long history. When Lustau launched their first sherry-based vermouth, based on amontillado and Pedro Ximenez, it shocked many. But Lustau was just reviving an old tradition. From the late 19th century until the 1970s, many traditional sherry houses made vermouth, mostly for the local market. Many bodegas have followed in Lustau’s footsteps, not always with the same success. Valdespino, though, have recently released one—soon-to-be available in the US— that’s bound to make head turns. Based on old oloroso and moscatel, it’s a sensational vermouth that preserves the character of its base wine, when most competitors drown all subtlety in an ocean of sweet PX goo.
Because the vermouth market in Spain is booming, the last few years has seen the appearance of dozens upon dozens of brands. Many are just trying to hop on the bandwagon: They’re third-party produced and offer little added value beyond branding. However, an increasing number are fascinating, auteur vermouths, often made by winemakers. They can come from the most unexpected places: in Jerez, Barbadillo, adept at making Spain’s best-selling white wine and fostering a range of eccentric, often experimental projects, has recently released Ataman, a manzanilla-based semi-sweet and intensely bitter vermouth, whose flavor profile is Spain’s answer to Italy’s chinato.
More generally, new-wave Spanish vermouth is either striving to reinterpret the mainstream or coming up with flavor profiles than can be of use beyond the traditional context of the aperitivo. In the former camp, the most obvious success story is St. Petroni, the first Spanish vermouth to be acquired by a major drinks company (Pernod Ricard). It’s made in Galicia, based on albariño, aged on lees and aromatized with locally-sourced botanicals (hibiscus or sage in the red, Padron peppers in the white). I’ve often described it as the Hendrick’s of the vermouth world: a brand with the potential to seduce non-vermouth drinkers.
At the other end of the spectrum, in the Basque country, Astobiza, a modern txakoli producer (read: no fizz, no enamel-destroying acidity) released a relatively low-sugar vermouth with lingering bitterness and a great, citrusy freshness. It’s made with their own wines, and most of the botanicals are collected in or around the estate. It’s a new-world vermouth made at the heart of a traditional vermouth country. And it’s looking at the future: like their wines, it’s a vermouth made for food pairings.
After all, there’s a limit to how many Punt e Mes you can drink before or during lunch. Because they are eminently sippable and sessionable, Spanish vermouth may thrive in that environment better than their Italian or French cousins. And since the country provides what is probably the most varied vermouth landscape in the world, the fun is only getting started. If you’re ready to drink it straight, that is.
Having vermouth on the rocks is the best idea you’ve never had. So do it, now. However, Spanish vermouth can also be put to good use in cocktails. Here are three examples.
This late 19th-century American drink, low in alcohol and perfect for languorous aperitivo sessions, greatly benefited from bartenders’ renewed interest in sherry. And because the only thing better than sherry is more sherry, an Adonis made with a sherry-based vermouth is a thing of beauty. Try this with Lustau, as below, or, when available, with oloroso-based Valdespino vermouth.
1.5 ounces amontillado
1.5 ounces Spanish red vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Lemon peel twist
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express lemon peel over the top, then add as garnish.
Marianito (or Vermut Preparado)
In Bilbao or San Sebastian, vermouth is usually (and unusually for Spain) mixed. They put tiny bits in it: a few drops of gin, a few drops of a bitter ingredient (such as Campari), a few drops of curaçao or triple sec. The drink is still 80 percent vermouth, though, and it’s a descendent from Spain’s original cocktail, first popularised in Madrid and Barcelona around 1910 — the Vermouth Gin Cocktail. More than a fixed recipe, it’s a general concept and works with other spirits.
3 ounces Spanish red vermouth
1/2 ounce London Dry gin
1/4 ounce curaçao
1/4 ounce Campari
Orange peel twist
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir vigorously, then strain into a cocktail glass. Express orange peel over the top, then add as garnish.
It’s thought this drink was first invented in Cuba, but it took Madrid and Barcelona by storm in the 1930s. By the 1950s, it had become the sophisticated aperitivo of the upper-classes and every upstanding bar offered its own version. After years of decline, it’s been resurrected by a new wave of vermouth and cocktail bars—including José Andrés’ Little Spain. Much like the Marianito, this is more a concept than an exact recipe, but here’s the classic version.
2 ounces Spanish red vermouth
1 ounce London Dry gin
1/4 ounce curaçao
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Orange peel twist
Build this drink in ice-filled rocks glass, then stir. Express orange peel over the top, then add as garnish.
François Monti is a Madrid-based drinks writer, and the author of three books, including El Gran Libro del Vermut and 101 Cocktails to Try Before You Die, and his work has appeared in Punch, Tapas, Whisky Magazine, and other international publications. Be sure to subscribe to his new newsletter Aperitivo, launching soon!
Very informative article, François. I'm on my way to pick up a bottle of Spanish vermouth right now. Cheers!