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Before I lived in Spain, I made a woeful mistake: I didn’t appreciate vermouth. I thought of it as a mere cocktail ingredient, and with its bitter, dry taste, as relatively low in the hierarchy of drinks. The empire of wine is ever growing, tequila never goes out of fashion and beer is the ultimate refreshment. But vermouth? Who would drink vermouth on its own?
Then I arrived in Madrid and all became clear.
The city isn’t the birthplace of vermouth — the drink’s origins go back to ancient Greece and early Chinese dynasties that feted it for its supposed medicinal properties (it is meant to settle the stomach). But Madrid is beyond a doubt one of the best places in the world to consume it, where it’s served either neat, chilled, or on ice, and garnished with orange or lemon. And while you can drink vermouth in practically any bar here, it is the specialist taverns that stand out.
Vermuterías are scattered throughout the city — often small, intimate and historic taverns much prized by Madrileños as ideal places to let time roll slowly by to the clink of ice. These are often traditional bars with an increasingly young and hip clientele.
In fact, for several decades after the death of Francisco Franco, much of Spain recoiled against traditions, including la hora del vermut (vermouth time), which typically came just before Sunday lunch.
But now vermouth is having a moment again, and it’s converted me into a fan of this aromatic, fortified — and delicious — wine, with its potent charge of botanicals, herbs, fruit and spices.
In vermuterías, the aperitif can be served from the tap or from dozens of different producers’ bottles. The bars are not only reviving Spain’s deep-rooted love for the drink; they are also reinforcing the country’s vermouth culture, in all its ice-cubed, orange-peeled and bittersweet splendour.
Calle de San Andrés 4, 28004 Madrid
Good for: A real vermutería experience in a five-generation-old family establishment
Not so good for: Sitting down and slow drinking. Standing at the bar is what this place is about
FYI: As a sign in Casa Camacho explains, singing is strictly forbidden. One of the owners said: “If you want to sing, go to karaoke. If you want to dance, go to a club. This is a bar for vermouth.” He added: “The singing here is very bad anyway.” So if you are in a musical mood after a few Yayos, you should take it outside
Directions (no website)
If you want a local feel for an inimitable corner of Madrid, you can’t beat Casa Camacho. Located in the trendy Malasaña neighbourhood, this cramped bar has been serving vermouth since the 1920s. The interior design seems mostly unchanged since then — apart from a flatscreen TV, a microwave and a cash register. The barrels mounted on the wall, pregnant with history, were once used for selling alcohol on the street. And cramped means cramped: you have to do a limbo under the bar to get to the bathroom.
Casa Camacho isn’t the sort of place that serves a wide range of vermouth. Instead it has a vermouth menu of precisely three items: vermut solo, vermut soda or vermut típico.
This last option is also known as Yayo, a house speciality that is a mixture of soda water, vermouth and gin. It is on the dry and bitter end of the vermouth scale, dangerously easy on the tongue, with an effervescent head, and served without ice. If you want a nibble to keep the drink company, Casa Camacho has impeccable cured anchovies, aubergine pickles, olives and ham.
Antón Martín market, Calle de Santa Isabel 5, 28012 Madrid
Good for: Sipping Spanish vermouths while gazing at the gorgeous vegetables on sale in the market
Not so good for: Eating tapas or nibbles. The food choice is limited
FYI: In the camaraderie of the market, you are likely to find yourself chatting to the Spanish group at the next table about their favourite vermouth
Madrid’s markets — and their sheer variety — are among the city’s jewels. They differ from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and sell almost everything from socks to baby artichokes.
Installing a vermutería inside a market is also one of Madrid’s best innovations. Take the Antón Martín market in the heart of the city, with its small food stalls, grocery shops and bars — just about everything Madrileños need for the weekend. It hosts the Latazo vermutería, a joint with just three tables but many kinds of vermouth. These include drinks from all over Spain, but also some Italian variants, possibly a friendly gesture to a Mediterranean comrade. The servers are vastly knowledgeable about the vermouths they serve and keen to explain which varieties cater for which tastes (for example, Spanish vermouths are often darker and a bit sweeter than Italian ones). One favourite is El Gato Orgulloso, or The Proud Cat (“cat” being slang for an authentic Madrileño), which strikes a good balance between bitterness and sweetness. This is served, like Latazo’s other offerings, in a bulb-shaped wine glass filled with ice.
Taberna La Concha
Calle de la Cava Baja 7, 28005 Madrid
Good for: Artisanal vermouth and big portions of delicious tapas. Bacalao with caviar salsa is a must
Not so good for: Warm days when you want a drink on the terrace
FYI: “La Concha” and “Manuela” both have sexually suggestive double meanings, but everyone behaved when Globetrotter came calling
This is a bar with a mission. Taberna La Concha aspires to elevate vermouth culture in Madrid with style. The tavern is located in La Latina, a busy nightlife district, and its owner, Francisco Rosas, is a vermouth producer himself. Instead of just serving other producers’ vermouth, he searches for the ideal mixture to serve his customers. His house brand is, perhaps unsurprisingly, called La Concha.
The owners, the servers and the customers of this small vermutería are all vermouth aficionados. Its house vermouth speciality is called Manuela and served in a triangle-shaped martini glass with an olive on a toothpick and an orange peel. A touch of gin and Campari is added to make it drier and more bitter. It is too full-bodied to be called a cocktail; you have to open your taste buds to appreciate its nuances.
Calle de Vallehermoso 62, 28015 Madrid
Good for: Sipping your vermouth on a terrace with generous portions of olives and tapas
Not so good for: Spanish-food gourmets — it’s mostly bar food
FYI You can have two glasses of vermouth and a small plate of tapas for less than €10
La Violeta is serious about its vermouth. Located in the bohemian-bourgeois Chamberí neighbourhood, this local vermutería is as authentic as it can get, buzzing with good music and serving vermouth to its relatively young clientele.
The management team is also young, determined to give vermouth connoisseurs a safe haven. The bar boasts more than 30 different brands of vermouth. The menu even ranks them on a bitterness to sweetness scale to help guide vermouth amateurs, while also grading their strength.
The drinks themselves are grouped by red, white and reserva vermouths and range from extremely dry to desert-wine sweetness. But none is likely to break the bank. The reservas go from €3.50 to €4 a glass.
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