Something has always felt therapeutic about grabbing a drink at a bar while the sun is up. The idea conjures an image of a world-weary traveler, a pained writer, a lone philosopher in a near-empty bar with just their thoughts and a cold drink. The friendly barman occasionally interrupts this zen-like state, but only when it’s time for another round.
The fact that one may deem such behavior uncouth, fit for a degenerate, and unusual in our society adds to the intrigue, to the mystique of such a past-time. But during my time abroad in Barcelona, I found great solace in my daily visits to the local Vermuterias, and-though entirely alone and without much conversational Spanish (or Catalan, for that matter)- I felt at home amongst the other day-time patrons. In Barcelona, the Vermuterias are great for a mid-day snack, a stiff drink steeped in Catalan culture, a quick conversation, and- if you are a tourist like me- an opportunity to people-watch.
Fem Un Vermut!
For a brief aside from my experience, it would be apropos to look at the story of Vermouth- vermut in Catalan- as these bars I visited take pride in the beverage, and so do the people of Catalunya, for whom ‘fem un Vermut’ (let’s have a drink aka let’s have a Vermut) is a common saying and a way of life.
The term “Vermouth” is derived from the German’ wermut’ or “wormwood,” the herb providing the bitter character to beverages such as absinthe and previously (somewhat erroneously) associated with having hallucinogenic properties. The first uses of Vermouth were for healing, as medicinal herbs were macerated in alcohol to extract their life-saving properties (such as they were).
In the 18th century, Vermouth arrived in Italy, where its properties became more poetic than literal, as the beverage was used to heal weary souls instead of actual ailments. Finally, in the 19th century, the tincture arrived in Catalunya, where its popularity soared. But while in many places of culture, Vermouth plays a supporting role to whiskey and other more robust spirits in cocktails, in Vermuterias of Barcelona, the libation is the star, only complimented by an occasional orange slice, salty olive, or a spritz of club soda (which helps prologue your drinking experience).
My first visit was to Bar Electricitat, a beachside vermuteria considered one of the oldest in Barcelona. And though I learned about this Vermuteria from many travel websites, the place’s vibe didn’t seem touristy. Maybe it was because I wandered through the establishment’s doors around 3:30 pm, thirty minutes till closing, for a siesta, another wonderful cultural tradition.
Still, Bar Electricitat felt like a place for locals. This bar was where aged men talked about life, politics, and football (certainly the ups and downs of FC Barcelona)- amongst other scintillating topics- between full bottles (about 1L) of Vermouth and chilled beers. What surprised me about this place is that once you arrive and ask to “have a Vermut,” they give you a glass, a club soda sprayer (the use of which was-at first- utterly foreign to me), and an entire bottle of the delicious, house-spiced red. Further interaction was unnecessary unless you desired it or needed another bottle. Pouring myself a glass of sweet salve, I observed, felt, and listened to the unique, foreign cultural rhythms of an ancient Catalan Vermuteria at 3:30 pm.
The Electricitat Vibe
There was undoubtedly some Western influence on the place, as evidenced by the music playlist. Between spirited sports discussions by the bartenders and their (all male) patrons, I caught a badass flow of hip-hop and rap from mainstay artists like Kanye, Eminem, and Jay-Z to relative undergrounders like MF Doom and Mac Miller. Maybe it was just the playlist-du-jour, but the familiar (yet still high-quality) music elevated my experience.
The bar’s walls are decorated with various photos, including sports memorabilia, model ships, and local cultural depictions. I also note barrels sitting on racks on the far wall. They have signage in chalk of different cuvée and spice mixtures, identifying the flavors and character of the house-style Vermouth.
People-Watching at Electricitat
As mentioned earlier, a man sips a light beer at the bar, discussing various subjects with a somewhat-disinterested barkeep. Another rugged, white-haired man stands by what seems like one of those machines you see at a casino, feeding it coins while sipping a glass of vermut rojo and smoking a cigarette. He sighs with disappointment and occasionally smiles joyfully as he rides the rollercoaster of winning and losing. I assume he is playing slots, but do not try to enquire. Instead, I pour myself another drink and beckon the barkeep to order a Pan con Tomate with Jamon Iberico. A man needs a little bit of food for a day drink. As I do this, the song “Lose Yourself” by Eminem comes on, and I think of the irony of this choice as the aged man continues his fixation on gambling.
The Proper Way to Vermut
As the bar closes around me, I look at the ornate-looking bottle with white liquid, like an ampule surrounded by a green mesh with a lever and a sprout at the top. I push the lever, and the bottle squirts carbonated water on the table. Aghast, I realize- maybe too late- that I should have been pouring the soda into my Vermouth, to dilute it.
Regardless, I am on cloud 9, discovering I have consumed the entire bottle. As I float on the waves of Mac Miller’s “Hurt Feelings,” I think about the joys of simplicity, of not needing to be anywhere.
Upon closing, I settle my tab (paying a measly 20 euro for nearly 1L of Vermut consumed and a delicious sandwich. At Bar Electricitat, they charge you for the amount of vermut you drink. You don’t have to drink the whole thing, but it won’t break the bank if you do) and walk out into the afternoon. It is nice and sunny, and I think to myself.
“What an amazing time to have nowhere to go.”
Vermuteria de Tano
Another day finds me seeking out another Vermuteria, this one without the acclaim or the history of Bar Electricitat. Nonetheless, it is within walking distance of my hotel, so I set off on the journey. I walk through what seems to be a living quarter and walk up to a primary school with screams of children playing. It is a bit earlier than my visit to Electricitat, which is probably fortunate. An hour later, there would be children running through the streets. Not that it concerns me, as I slink around the corner into a non-descript hole-in-the-wall vermuteria.
The walls and bar space are decorated with football memorabilia- where local clubs Barcelona and Espanyol share the wall space with international sensations like Leicester City and AC Milan- and some risqué pictures. While some of these NSFW photos were plucked from old soft-core Playboys, there is a personal nature to a few pictures. I notice one, which looks like a Polaroid candid of a woman in lingerie sprawled on a bed, an image that – I assume- is of the proprietor’s wife in her younger years.
This collage of imagery doesn’t distract me for long as I belly up to the bar and ask for a Vermut in my best Spanish/Catalan. The gentleman, by all recollection, the proprietor, pours me a full glass- no ice- and I salute him as I sit at a table in the corner. It is tasty stuff and soon demands some a snack. Fortunately, plenty of various styles of “conservas” (or canned fish) are available. Generally, I’m not too fond of canned seafood, but I’m in Barcelona, and when in Catalunya….
The food is simple, salty, slightly fishy, delicious, and goes well with the Vermouth. The highlight is a small skewer of tuna and spicy cheese in olive oil, but the bar has more intriguing/risky options. Maybe I need one more drink to feel brave enough to get the octopus legs.
I go for another beverage, and by this time, the tiny hole in the wall is full of people. As I observe the goings-on, I feel like I am part of that community. There are a couple drinking beers and feeding each other conservas. A man in a suit with a briefcase orders a glass of white wine and opens a local newspaper. A couple of older fellas swing back a couple of glasses of Vermut and engage in conversation with a barman. Indeed this joyous community calls for another drink and a few more snacks.
By the time I finish and pay, school is out, and I am in a convivial mood as I walk back to the hotel. It is time for a siesta, and then it is time to resume the festivities.
Vermut, after some time being overshadowed by other drinks and cocktails, is regaining popularity in Barcelona. I did not see many people drink Vermouth, even while visiting the Vermuterias. I’d chalk it up to the fact that I was going in during the middle of the day. I was on vacation, while the locals probably stopped in for a quick bite and drink, not a full-bottle bender.
I do not wish to have tourist buses pull up in front of these establishments. Nor do I possess this kind of influence. Hopefully, you visit these Vermuterias- preferably alone but also with a good companion- to feel the cultural significance of such establishments in the daily life of the people of Barcelona.
Oh, and the Vermut there is phenomenal. Much like Guinness when drunk in Ireland, it’s better from the source, and you can’t replicate it in the U.S.
Trust me, I tried…
I found the bars mentioned here by accident, via luck and minimal research. Though I highly recommend them, the purpose of the article isn’t recommendations but more of a story. For recommendations to a variety of great Barcelona vermut spots, click here.