How to Day Drink Like a Spaniard

In Spain, day drinking is an art. The aperitif marathon begins in the early afternoon and continues until lethargy sets in and it’s time for a siesta. The drink of choice? Vermouth. Served over ice, chilled or with soda water, bottles of the aromatized wine line the backs of bars, market stalls and bodegas.

When I arrived in Barcelona just 24 hours after getting married, I only knew vermouth as a modifier in cocktails like Manhattans, Martinis and Negronis. Soon, though, through the daily Spanish habit of tomar un vermut (taking a vermouth), I learned just how great vermouth can be in a starring role.

We spent evenings sipping chilled red vermouth and whiling away afternoons at a small vermouth bar in a market. After just a couple of days, my husband and I thought we were more than well-versed in vermouth. But then we arrived in Cambrils, a small beach town on the Mediterranean coast. There, we came upon our greatest lesson in vermouth yet at La Casa del Vermut.

The beachfront restaurant featured rows of tables with giant red umbrellas and matching chairs. Each table was neatly adorned with a galvanized steel bucket, which held a bottle of red vermouth and a seltzer bottle—the kind Nick and Nora used to top their scotch with soda in The Thin Man.

It was still early—about noon—and only one other table was occupied. With no one around to guide us, I figured the best course of action was to sit and wait. Eventually, a waiter appeared and, a few awkward hand gestures later, he disappeared into the restaurant and returned with two goblets, each filled with ice, an orange wheel and one anchovy-stuffed olive, skewered with a brine-filled dropper. I had questions.

What was the proper etiquette for this make-your-own concoction? What was the proper ratio of vermouth to soda? And olive brine? Should that go straight into my mouth or into the drink? All of it or just a little? Why am I doing this myself? What if I royally muck it up?

For once, I was happy my tourist was showing. Our waiter-in-shining-armour stepped in, indicating that the vermouth should account for most of the space in the glass with a small topper of soda water. He watched while I dumped vermouth into my glass, gave me the thumbs up and moved on to another table. “But—” What about my many, many other questions?

Eventually realizing he wasn’t going to come back, we eyed the table next to us, observing their technique: First, the vermouth, then the seltzer, season with a little salty olive brine, and drink. We giddily got to work, tweaking our recipes until we found the perfect ratio of each ingredient. Soon, a complimentary plate of charcuterie arrived, and I began to understand how this could easily turn into an afternoon-long affair.

But that formative lesson in vermouth-drinking lasted much longer than a single afternoon. Now, back in New York, my husband and I have instituted a weekly tradition of tomar un vermut. We regularly re-up our vermouth supply and the fridge is stocked with olives (they may not be as good as the anchovy-stuffed variety I carried back from Spain in my suitcase, but Trader Joe’s Spanish olives do just fine). On Sundays, you can find us, glasses in hand, adjusting and readjusting until we find that elusive just-right balance of brine, soda and vermouth.