We've never given much thought to vermouth. For us, it's mostly just that thing you put in a Manhattan. The idea of actually drinking vermouth just never really occurred to us.
But we became obsessed with it in Spain. On our first full day in Barcelona, we strolled through an outdoor food market, and there was a vendor selling 2-euro glasses of it. Several Spaniards were lined up for it, so we did the only culturally sensitive thing possible: We got ourselves a glass.
Many other glasses followed over the next 10 days. A few things we learned: Vermouth is a very traditional drink in Spain, usually as an afternoon apertif, and it's currently experiencing a renaissance. (Another fun fact: It's from the same German word as "wormwood," which was a common ingredient in vermouth a century ago.)
It's typically served over ice, with a tiny splash of soda and a twist of lemon. In older bars in Spain, you'll see huge barrels behind the bar marked "Vermut," with metal spigots for the bartenders to fill your glass.
It's delightful. Cool, refreshing, slightly bitter. We just might make it our drink of the summer.
Estrella Damm Lemon
Approximately nine minutes after first throwing our bags in our Barcelona apartment, we sat down at an outdoor cafe for a snack. We ordered this lemon beer, and instantly fell in love.
Estrella Damm is a Barcelona-based brewery that's been in operation since 1876, making it the oldest beer brand in Spain. The lemon version is crisp and citrusy and fantastic. We had it every chance we could. (We have also tried in vain to find it in the U.S., going so far as to email wholesale importers to try to track some down.)
Is this maybe just a shandy? Well, yes. But we swear it's crisper and drier than any shandy we've had.
If you go to Spain, try it! (Also bring us back a case.)
Speaking of crisp and dry, we absolutely loved this white wine native to Spain's Basque Country. As we ate our way through San Sebastian, our food orders all typically ended with "y dos copas de txakoli."
Pronounced "CHAH-ko-lee," this wine is light, bone-dry and oh-so-slightly effervescent -- a perfect accompaniment to all those wonderful pintxos.
While in Basque Country, we spent a day in Rioja wine country, about a two-hour drive from San Sebastian. We, along with our friends Trevor and Owen, booked a day with Jon at Basque Tours. (We can't say enough great things about Jon -- he was fantastic, and you should totally book him for anything while you're in San Sebastian. He does all kinds of wine tours, culinary tours, hikes, architectural tours, etc.)
We visited 5 wineries over the course of the day, along with postcard-perfect medieval hill towns like Laguardia.
The riojas we sampled we very good. But it was the beautiful setting -- the sunny, flat river valley set between two snow-capped mountain ranges -- that really made it a wonderful experience.
Gin & Tonic
There's a great joke in Douglas Adam's Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy series about how "something like 85 percent of all known worlds in the Galaxy" independently came up with a drink that's phonetically the same as "gin and tonics," whether it's spelled "jynnan tonyx" or "tzjin-anthony-ks" or "gee-N'N-T'N-ix" or some other variant. So you can stop on any planet and know how to order a drink.
We thought about that a lot in Spain because, for whatever reason, gin & tonics seemed to transcend the language barrier. Attempts to order a "vodka soda" (our frequent go-to for late-night drinking) were met with blank stares, but "gin and tonic" -- or just "gin tonic" -- turned out to be the lingua franca of imbibing. In fact, Spain apparently has a national obsession with the gin & tonic.
Typically, the drink is a step up from the G&Ts in the USA. The gin & tonics we had in Spain featured better-quality tonics (no mass-produced corn-syrup-laden tonics for them). And the bartenders put so much more care into making the drink, often twisting the lemon with a flourish and adding a few juniper berries to the mix.
The best G&T we had was definitely at Atari Gastroteka in San Sebastian. Several people (and this NYT story) had recommended it. It exceeded expectations.
Txotx night in a sidreria
Spain's Basque Country may be known for txakoli, but it's also long been associated with hard apple cider. (Here's some great history on cider in this part of Spain.)
People in Basque Country sip cider year round, but the real cider season is January through April. During this time, known as txotx season, cider houses throughout the area throw open their doors for nightly tastings, before bottling the cider for the year. We were lucky enough to be there for the final night of txotx (pronounced "choach"), and we spent a really fun evening at a sidreria called Zelaia.
No matter what sidreria you go to, txotx nights all follow the same basic structure: There's a traditional menu of food that includes fried cod, cod omelettes and grilled steak. Throughout the feast, you can take your glass into an adjacent barrel room, a cool storehouse filled with gigantic barrels of cider outfitted with spigots. The cider house innkeeper opens the spigot and a fine stream of cider arcs several feet in the air. Patrons hold out their glass to catch it; the idea is that the long arc helps aerate the cider. (That's Zach catching cider in the photo above. And yes, it gets a little messy.)
Spanish ciders are different from others you might be familiar with. For starters, they're still, not carbonated. And they're sour and cloudy, with a much more raw vinegar flavor that what we're accustomed to.
Is the cider itself something we're dying to drink on a regular basis? No. But our txotx night was an experience we'll never forget.
Suddenly, we're very thirsty.
Other Posts About Spain: