The first time I really understood vermouth culture was on my first visit to Madrid over ten years ago. Friends took me to one of the many traditional bodegas, with its old-school service, glazed tile walls and floors littered with peanut shells. The bar was small and narrow, the shelves filled with dusty bottles. And unless a tipsy client bumped into the staff on his or her way to the toilets—you had to pass below the battered metal counter to get there—the only real action happened around the tap, where two bartenders were pouring an endless stream of vermouth.
Having cold vermouth poured from the tap over ice with an olive and a wedge of orange—and, depending on where you are, a splash of sparkling water—alongside classic vermouth companions, like mussels escabeche, encurtidos (olives or pickled eggplants), anchovies in vinegar or canned cockles, was, and remains, a singular experience. But back in 2004, many of the bodegas, especially ones that didn’t serve food or good wine, wore a cloak of doom. They were the last remnants of a culture that had lost a lot of ground since the 1970s.
After Franco’s death and the transition to democracy, the new generation coming up rejected their forefathers’ traditions, dismissing them as passé and hopelessly compromised. Vermouth was one of the victims, and while la hora del vermut never disappeared, its namesake beverage was increasingly edged out by wine and beer.
But as most drinkers with a passing interest in Spain are well aware, things have changed. Vermouth has effectively become Spain’s new Gin & Tonic, a craze so pervasive that it’s as if the entire country (and not only its northern half) has been hypnotized. Not a week passes without a vermouth article in the Spanish press, and in 2015 alone, three books were released on the topic. It’s safe to say that the current generation has effectively rescued vermouth from Spain’s cultural wastebasket.
This resurgence runs in tandem with a return to many gastronomical traditions, such as quality canned foods and offal, and a growing curiosity for wines beyond the ubiquitous Rioja or Ribera del Duero (some even say that Spaniards will at last start drinking sherry again).
This hive-mind boom has resulted not only in the appearance of new brands—from both larger historic producers and smaller hyper-local makers—but a new kind of bar, the vermuteria, a recreation of the classic bodega with a more modern patina. But it also raises the question: What exactly is Spanish vermouth, and what makes it unique?
Below is an at-a-glance look at the category, from the classic style to the many regional variations now found around Spain.
The Classic Style
Although you’ll find dry and bianco-style vermouths in Spain, sweet red vermouth is what locals drink. The biggest houses come from Reus in Catalonia, the heart of Spanish vermouth for well over a century. Overall, these sweet red Spanish vermouths are vastly different from their Italian cousins. Spanish reds are lighter and less bitter and taste sweeter (even though they typically contain 25 to 30 percent less sugar than the Italian rossos) and show predominate flavors of orange and Mediterranean herbs. They don’t have the intensity of, say, Carpano’s spicy Antica formula, but the classic style is perilously easy to drink.
Yzaguirre Rojo | Reus
The oldest brand still being produced offers the quintessential rojo: slightly balsamic with flavors of orange and cinnamon.
Miró Rojo | Reus
A relative newcomer (1957), Miró is now one of the biggest houses, producing a full range of excellent vermouths. The rojo leans on aromatic herbs (oregano in particular) and slight anise notes.
Atxa Rojo | Basque Country
Recently relaunched, Atxa vermouths share characteristics with those from Reus, but their red tends to drink more fruit-forward, with a strong cherry character.
Most Spanish producers have a “basic” vermouth for tap service and a premium version labeled “reserva.” While there are specific rules as to what that word means for wine, there are no regulations for vermouth. As a general rule of thumb, though, a reserva typically rests for around a year in large, old wooden barrels, giving them a more oxidized profile than your typical entry-level rojo.
Yzaguirre Rojo Reserva | Reus
A classic example of rojo reserva, this bottling ages for 12 months in 5,000-liter barrels.
Miró Reserva Etiqueta Negra | Reus
A stellar example of reserva vermouth, this bottling is bolder and more complex than the basic rojo, with licorice and toasted notes.
Lacuesta Reserva | Rioja
Available since 2005, the Lacuesta Reserva is aged, like their wines, in small, new barrels, which makes for less oxidative flavor and distinct notes of roasted coffee and tobacco.
Northern Spain is for vermouth and southern Spain is for sherry, right? Yes and no. Jerez is, after Catalonia, the oldest vermouth-producing area of the country and its style is still alive and thriving. Vermouth coming out of Jerez is essentially aromatized sherry, made from a base of amontillado or oloroso sweetened with PX. And, like sherry, Andalusian vermouth is aged in the solera system—that complicated process of blending wines of different ages over time. This style of vermouth also exists outside of the Sherry Triangle, in nearby Montilla-Moriles and Huelva.
Lustau Vermut | Jerez
The prestigious sherry producer launched an excellent vermouth in Spain in late 2015, made from a base of amontillado and PX wines.
Cruz Conde Rojo Reserva 1902 | Montilla-Moriles
Made with the house’s solera-aged oloroso, this vermouth is rich and spicy. This is by far the best example of Montilla-Moriles vermouth.
Roberto Amillo Vermut | Jerez
A boutique bottler, Amillo linked up with a Jerez house to produce an impressive vermouth, based on 18-year-old oloroso and younger PX.
The popularity of Reus vermouth has led producers all over Spain to imitate the style. However, many distinctive, local traditions still survive. For example, De Muller, Reus’ third-largest producer, is famous for its rancio wines (fortified wines oxidized through extended aging in wood), which provides the inspiration for their reserva vermouth, aged for a prolonged period in a solera system. And in the small village of Falset, the local Falset Marça (which bottles under the Priorat Natur label in the U.S.) cooperative makes a fascinating vermouth with skin-contact orange wine.
Priorat Natur Vermut | Falset
This orange wine-based vermouth from Falset Marça is aged for two years in two 30,000-liter barrels that still hold some of their first vermouth, made over a century ago. This is thanks to their system of aging, a two-barrel modified solera system that they call sistema de madre.
De Muller Reserva | Reus
When not producing “classic” vermouth for their brand, Iris, De Muller ages it in a solera made of barrels previously used for Priorat reds and sacramental wine. It’s complex, oxidized and slightly more bitter than classic Spanish vermouth.
Yzaguirre Selection 1884 | Reus
1884—named for the founding year of Yzaguirre—is a vermouth transformed into a dessert wine. Made with the Yzaguirre Reserva (plus extra sugar and alcohol) and then aged for two more years in small barrels, this is a highly concentrated, viscous vermouth.
Not everyone is focused on the past. A new generation of producers is coming up with innovative ideas while remaining faithful to the typical drinkability of Spanish vermouth. Like New World vermouth producers, they use local plants and grape varieties (rather than sourcing base wine from varieties grown outside the region). Organic and biodynamic practices are also starting to find their way into vermouth production; Zarro, from Madrid, is the first vermouth to be certified organic by the European Union.
St. Petroni Vermú | Galicia
This Galician vermouth is based on albariño, fermented on its lees, and owes its light red color to hibiscus. It’s fresh and fragrant with elegant, aromatic notes of bay leaves and sage.
Golfo Vermut | Ribera del Duero
Produced by respected Ribera del Duero winemaker Cillar de Silos, this new vermouth is based on old-vine tempranillo and is dominated by notes of warm spice, particularly clove.
Luna Reserva | Catalonia
After a maceration that follows the lunar calendar (the process always begins during the waning moon and lasts for a cycle and a half), this vermouth, which is based on the xarel-lo grape, spends six to nine months in red wine barrels. It’s surprisingly fruity with hints of juniper.