Last year, New York-based importer Patrick Mata decided to bring in a vermouth crafted from his Spanish family’s 19th-century recipe. He figured he might be able to sell 100 cases a year through his Olé Imports. Wrong. “Currently our expectations are 1,000 cases this year,” Mata says.
Spanish vermouth, red and white, old and new, is hot hot hot in the United States. “They have been banging for us for a couple of years,” adds Andy Booth, owner of three Spanish Table wine stores in northern California. “I probably have 16 or so at a time, and it’s very difficult to keep them in stock.”
Several factors have converged to create demand for these wines:
“It’s about creating a lifestyle thing around the aperitivo,” says Alex Raij, chef/owner of three Spanish restaurants in New York City. “It’s aspirational. Spain is very fashionable right now.”
In New York and San Francisco, many customers have been to Spain and seen the vermouth culture up close and personal.
“From bar to bar in Spain little bodegas will have local vermut on tap,” Raij adds. “In Madrid and Barcelona they give you a few potato chips and some vermut. … So people here are, like, ‘what is our tapa, and what are we drinking with it?” In her restaurants that usually means a magnalito, vermouth with ice, a lemon twist (orange twist for red) and green olives that have been marinated in the vermouth. In warmer weather the drink might include some club soda. “We have made vermouth refreshing, and people go, ‘oh, this is my new summer drink,’” Raij says.
Booth has noticed the same phenomenon — travelers seeking out treasures from their trips — on the opposite coast. “There was always a history of wineries that would have their own vermouth for their visitors. And then it’s also on tap at old-school bars in Madrid and Barcelona, where there are a lot of smaller producers. That’s where people run into Casa Mariol, and they’ll come back and ask for that.”
Spanish Table first brought in Martinez Lacuesta six years ago and soon added Perucchi. “I had people buying six-packs at a time of both of them,” Booth says. Raij is a fan of all three of those brands and uses Casa Mariol to make a cocktail called the Montserrat. At Jaleo’s, one of Jose Andres’ restaurants in Washington, DC, sommelier Jordi Paronella is launching a traditional “Hora de Vermut” with six offerings, “to provide an authentic Spanish experience” in the nation’s capital.
Previously, Jaleo offered just two vermouths.
In the late 19th century, vermouth-heavy cocktails were popular in the US but throughout the 20th century, vermouth generally was relegated to being a secondary compo-nent of two cocktails, the martini (with gin or vodka as the star) and the Manhattan (with bourbon or rye). “I think it was a shame that martinis became more dry. It got to a point where a lot of people were drinking chilled vodka,” Raij said.
Italian vermouths such as Martini & Rossi dominated even that limited market until the last half-decade. Suddenly brands such as Perucchi started showing up on wine lists by the glass at cutting-edge restaurants such as San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions.
That drove a certain demographic in the Bay Area. “It’s definitely the hipster crew, if you will, because vermouth is very trendy in bars and creative cocktails are booming,” Booth explains. “The interest in trying different ones comes from the younger genera-tion.” At Jaleo, on the other hand, Paronella said that the vermouth enthusiasts are “definitely aged 30 and up.”
Interestingly, all generations are drawn to the old-fashioned labels and history of Spanish vermouths.
Importer Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz cited both facets in his decision to carry Miró. “It is one of the three historic grape producers in Reus, the leading trading space of the region before Barcelona became a port city,” said Seed, who calls Reus’ Museo del Vermut “a mecca for people like myself.”
While Booth cited the “catchy labels” of wines such as Casa Mariol and Martínez Lacuesta (same label since 1937) as selling points, Seed said that size matters as well.
“What a lot of folks have really liked is that Miró has started making 187-ml. bottles,” Seed says, “so for the home consumer who might want to make two or three martinis or Manhattans, the size is perfect. That has struck a chord.”
Still, while the packaging might draw people to these libations initially, it’s the flavor that brings them back for more. Vermouth’s balance of sweetness, bitterness and herbal, earthy qualities make it an appealing — and versatile — choice.
“It has enough acidity to blend and drink on its own,” Raij explains. “And because of the sweetness, dilution is good and mixing it with [other beverages] creates drinks of great complexity. People want a classic cocktail, but they also want one that’s complex.”
That explains why Mata, when sorting through 100 recipes used by his family in the 1800s, wanted a multilayered potable. So he ended up with 22 ingredients, including several musts, five flowers, six seeds, roots and barks. The end result, he says, is “very profound in that sense, rich, but the bitterness allows it to be drinkable without overpowering.”
And Mata has found a niche in an increasingly crowded market. Besides its traditional epicenter in Catalonia, vermouths from not only Rioja but Jerez have entered the market. Booth calls the recent surge in oloroso-based vermouths from producers such as Tío Pepe, Lustau and Fernando de Castilla “a whole different category.”
“It’s almost to the point now,” he added, “where there are too many Spanish vermouths available.” In other words, an embarrassment of riches.