Vermouth originated in Turin, Italy, in 1786. A concoction of white wine, herbs and spices, most notably wormwood. Here in Spain, vermouth is typically a brown drink, like flat Coca Cola, served in a squat glass with a large ice cube pressed up again on the side accompanied by a green olive and a slice of orange. It’s referred to obliquely in tours here. I think because it’s not entirely understood. What is clear is that vermouth is a fortified white wine; the colour comes from caramel while the herbs and spices are a closely guarded secret. The vermouth started as a post-church, pre-lunch drink, giving the men something to do and a little snack while the women prepared lunch. Now vermouth is an accelerating trend worldwide.
Still, the details remained hazy for me until I took the tour at Padró & Co with Swedish born Sinisa. Sinisa, formerly of the international hospitality industry, was seduced by Catalunya and is mad about all things grape. He’s made Catalunya home and shares a wall with the Padró estate. (Read more about him here) On a sunny autumn day, I drive behind a tractor of jiggling just-harvested grapes to discover the secrets of this popular drink.
Inside the garden of the Padró vermouth estate, it is strewn with lights; an old restored truck with Padró & Co livery on its sides stands in a decorative element across from brightly coloured wooden barrels stacked three meters high. Towards the back of the garden lay hundreds of more barrels, reclining horizontally in the bright sun.
“Empty or full?” Sinisa goads us.
The group hesitates, not wanting to be the one who gets it wrong.
“Full!” He beams. “Full because this is a fortified wine. We subject it to heat and chills to amplify the flavour.” He tells us that some alcohol is lost in the process but that this is the “angels share.” I picture angels sitting in the clouds; their big strong wings slumped happily.
Behind the barrels are citrus trees: buddha’s hands, Yuzu, Kefir lime and Meyer lemon. The estate has its own citrus fields for their exclusive use. On the far side, long strips of orange peel-brown and shrivelled are hanging on wires alongside long arms of bay leaves. The strangest thing I see is a graveyard of bottles of sorts. Lined up in neat rows in the sun, there must be thousands. These are the experiments of winemaker Mario Garcia who uses this zone to magic future combinations. Herbs and spices will make the next big vermouth.
We continue inside, through a doorway in an old stone wall, a sign on the side that says “Herboristería. There are large cylindrical tubs, taller than me, stacked upon one another, each with a herb or spice and its provenance – Mate Verde / Brasil, Dictamo de Creta / Florida. At this level and in these quantities, everything is sourced directly from India or China, wherever the best can be found. A large word map sports black stickers to show provenance.
The next room has samples of herbs and spices in glass boxes, the walls heavy with awards. There is one live plant in a corner by the window: wormwood. Many things go into vermouth, but Wormwood is the one thing that has to be in it to qualify as a Vermouth. And the story goes, as Sinisa tells it, the young Italian who first made the drink loved the German writer Goethe and so used the German word for wormwood: vermut. Now there is a snippet to toss out on a casually lazy Sunday while you sip with your friends and pull at an anchovy with a toothpick. Oh, and that ice, orange slice and olive? No. A Big no.
“A good vermouth is a carefully calibrated drink; why would you muddle those flavours with ingredients and dilute the drink with ice?” Sinisa probes? I recognize his purist position here, as I have seen echoed in craft coffee decrees – or even the tables of Michelin starred restaurants where salt is not provided. The idea being, this is a complete, fully realized meal, drink, coffee – your contribution is not necessary.
Though thorough, at no point am I bored. These are all interesting things, things I have been curious about but lacked a credible resource. Still, when we get to the tasting part, I am excited. I want to know how the Padro vermouths, the high-end line which is made with grape fructose instead of glucose, will measure up.
We take our seats on the terrace where we started, a plate of salted chips and anchovy olives in front of us and taste 8 different kinds of Vermouth. The more economical Myrra Vermouths are good for mixing into drinks, we are assured. The more elaborately bottled Vermouths. Now those should be served just as they are, chilled from the fridge. No ice, no orange. I find the golden vermouth Blanco Reserva the most interesting. Strawberry blond in colour obtained from herbs and spices only with no use of caramel. I love the Rojo Amargo too. It becomes increasingly hard to will my hand into dumping the vermouths into the bucket instead of sipping them lazily as I listen to Sinisa. But I master myself knowing parenthood awaits. Consoling myself by taking two bottles home to enjoy with friends.
Avda Catalunya 46
43812 Bràfim, Tarragona
*I was invited to this tour. However, my views remain my own.