First amaro hit the scene. Then sherry started making a move. Now it looks like Spanish vermouth is trying to muscle its way into the hearts and mouths of Chicagoans. And it's working.
A number of restaurants around the city from MFK to Vera to Black Bull to Salero and Mercat a la Planxa — even Autre Monde in Berwyn — all feature Spanish vermouth, some on tap, many in bottles, oftentimes for sipping straight or on the rocks with a lemon twist.
Spanish vermouth, an aromatized fortified wine, tends to be lighter and sweeter in taste without a lot of the bitterness of Italian and French varieties such as Dolin, Carpano Antica and, of course, Martini & Rossi. And much of that difference comes from the frequently shrouded-in-secrecy variety of botanicals — herbs and spices — that get infused with the wine base to produce both red and white, dry and sweet Spanish vermouth.
"The Spanish are very coveted with their recipes," said Liz Mendez, co-owner and beverage director at Vera in Fulton Market. "They're using a lot of citrus and chamomile in addition to the usual things. We've seen some beautiful white vermouths using that and it can work in the same way people are infusing teas in cocktails."
Mendez suggests that patrons sip vermouth on the rocks, but Vera also uses Spanish varieties in all of its classic cocktails, like a Manhattan with red vermouth. Or bartenders will make a twist on that drink called the Via Sevilla that subs amontillado sherry for the rye. She suggests Vera's Spanish Voyage — white Acha vermouth with brut cava — as an entry point for someone wanting to experiment with vermouth. "The herbaceousness and a little bitterness and citrus really shine through with the cava," she said. "It's a gateway drink."
The rise in popularity for Spanish vermouth in America is directly related to the resurgence being seen in bars across Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere in Spain, according to W. Craig Cooper, beverage director at Pops for Champagne and co-owner of the now-shuttered Wicker Park cava bar Bom Bolla, which had a robust vermouth selection. Vermouth used to be looked at as an old person's drink, something the gray hairs would sit around sipping at a table in a courtyard. Not anymore.
Spanish vermouth tends to be lighter and sweeter than French and Italian varieties. At Vera, it's used in classic cocktails, such as this Manhattan.
"It's now fashionable in Barcelona and smaller cities in the south," Cooper said. "With vermouth, there's a simplicity to it. They're great during the day. They're not high in alcohol. They're refreshing, there's variety and there's tastiness to them."
That makes it easy for people to take "vermouth hour," during which they will get a bottle of vermouth from producers like Acha (or Atxa as it's spelled in the Basque region), Lacuesta or Yzaguirre. They'll pour it over some ice, add a twist of lemon, a slice or orange or an olive and sip away. More and more places are putting vermouth, or vermut as it's called in Spain, on tap. If you're looking for that authentic Spanish sipping experience, head to Black Bull in Wicker Park. There, owner Daniel Alonso has both red and white styles from Acha that he recommends drinking over ice.
"Vermouth is a beautiful, aromatic wine that is key in many cocktails, but great on its own," Alonso said. "That may be the most exciting trend as it represents a complete about-face to what we as Americans know about vermouth. A decade ago it was something that only 'ruined' martinis. Now it captures the taste buds and the imagination."
While the selection is still somewhat limited, consumers can look at Binny's and Perman Wine Selections (and soon at the recently opened Spanish Square in Lakeview) for various brands, including Miro de Reus and Perucchi. Prices for a bottle range from $16 to $35 with the average around $23. As Spanish vermouth leans toward the lighter, slightly sweet side, Craig Perman said he's seeing more people asking for it at his West Loop shop. Many people think vermouth is a spirit, but it's a wine and they need to treat it as such.
"Vermouth is a good alternative to bubbles or white wine," Perman said. "You have to treat it like a wine. You want to take a bottle and think about drinking it that night or the next day. It will degrade a bit."
And where we're likely not at a tipping point yet, vermouth has become enough of a trend that former Dawson bar director Annemarie Sagoi, who also just opened a bar in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is working on opening vermouth-focused bar Artemisia in Chicago. She held off from revealing the neighborhood but said it will open this year. Why vermouth?
"I enjoy the layers of complexity they give you," Sagoi said via email from Cambodia. "There is such a variety of expressions starting from the base grape to the infinite combinations of herbs and spices that are infused. I also think we are coming around to the age of 'taste' not 'consume.' Low-ABV (alcohol by volume) cocktails are gaining popularity because Americans are understanding the goal of alcohol doesn't have to be getting drunk; it should be appreciation of taste and enjoyment."
Sounds like something a Spaniard might say.