Discovering Vermouth and discovering Spain

Vermouth, Sangria in Madrid

The guidebook said Spaniards drink sangria and fruity red wines. It's true. Or a partial truth, like coke-guzzling Americans and tea-swilling Brits. Come summer, more intriguing tipples fill Spanish glasses. Like tinto de verano, an easy-drinking wine cocktail made with lemon-lime soda and red wine (called vino tinto in Spanish). Or vermouth, drunk straight-up, maybe with a twist of lemon or spear of olives. During my trip to Spain I sipped the latter in small glass and relished its exotic flavor.

You know vermouth but likely as an ingredient, not a drink. Few Americans drink it beyond the splash that goes into their martini or Manhattan. Even in Italy, where red vermouth originated in the 18th century, it’s most frequently tossed into a Negroni or Americano. Spain defines vermouth. On tap or from a bottle, vermouth is the day-drink for when wine is too strong but beer is too dull.

Although ordering vermouth in Spain is straightforward, buying it abroad is baffling. After returning from my trip I went to the grocery store to get a bottle. They had Martini and Lillet and Punt e Mes and Pernod, which I thought was vermouth but is actually pastis. I left with a sparkling water and returned home to research.

Vermouth is a fortified wine with more alcohol than beer and wine, but less than spirits or liqueurs (about 16% ABV). It’s classified as a sweet wine, but no vermouth I’ve had tastes as a cloying as vin santo or cream sherry. Northern Italy dominates vermouth production — just think of Cocchi and Cinzano and Milano da bere — but Spain and France also produce sizeable amounts. While seasoned tasters can discern the difference between Dolin and Noilly Prat — okay, I made that up, anyone could notice the difference between dry and sweet vermouths — the newbie will notice the flavors they share: the fruity sweetness, the herbal bitterness, the slick texture. Each brand’s unique taste comes from the different herbs they use to infuse their wine. These herbs make Italy’s Cocchi tastes like Italy and France’s Lillet tastes like France.

Armed with knowledge, orange peels and ice, I returned to the grocery store to buy a sweet red Spanish vermouth. I left with Portuguese red wine. Despite its popularity within the country, Spanish vermouth remains rare abroad.

Spain produces and drinks more vermouth than their foreign presence suggests. Compared to Italy or France, the Spanish vermouth shelf appears bear: Lacuesta, Yzaguirre and Miró among other. It’s vermut de grifa — tap vermouth — that distinguishes Spain’s vermouth culture. 

Tap vermouth is simple and cheap. It’s slightly bitter but still sweet, as if a bottle of coke had half the sugar and none of the carbonation. When drunk in a skinny glass over ice, preferably with a citrus twist, it tastes of al fresco cocktail hours, kids playing soccer in squares and the relief of resting tired feet. It is simple and elegant and that’s how you feel drinking it. Even within Spain it looks understated compared to goblets of sangria or jugs of tinto. Ordering vermouth means ordering a glass of Spanish summer. 

In lieu of Waitrose, I headed to the bar. But the furrowed brows when I asked for a Cocchi Americano over ice warned me that my Euro affectation was not welcome (not, I admit, a new experience for me). I sought an analogue in Pimm’s and rosé and gin and tonic. The flavors were different, but the ordering was as easy as a sunny Spanish day.

And when I want to taste those Spanish summer? I open my mind and take a sip and find that the taste of vermouth is just as good as I remember. At least, in memory.