I’m a vermouth partisan of long standing. At bars and restaurants, I prefer my Martinis mermaid-wet; at home, I responsibly store my open bottles in the fridge instead of at room temperature on the liquor shelf. As I’ve got older, and the joys of pure drunkenness have dulled, vermouth—wine that’s been aromatized with herbs and spices and fortified with additional alcohol—has become my go-to for an easy, low-wattage drink on leisurely afternoons or for pre-dinner relaxation. Even the most sparsely provisioned bar has a bottle of it on hand; even a bottle of the most pitiful quality has that dimensional, symphonic play of grapes and spices, sweetness and bitter notes. Pour a glug over ice in a rocks glass, splash a bit of sparkling water on top, and add a twist of citrus, and you’ve got an ideal little drink.
My love of vermouth is a year-round thing, but summer demands a particular approach to drinking. This is especially the case when you’re spending the season’s long, brutal days not on a beach or a riviera or the breezy shore of a lake but in a dense American city, where hot weather is a form of warfare. It seems tactically wrong, to me, to try to temper the monstrousness of this year’s heavy heat with a vermouth that’s delicate and subtle, like Italy’s Cocchi Americano (the name refers to bitterness, not to the nation), or the oaky, syrupy, very French roundness of Dubonnet Rouge. The antidote to summer’s ambient fatigue is intensity, wildness, severity—it’s the season of Spanish vermouth, powerful and spice-filled, a fortified wine with guts and spine and teeth and claws.
Spanish vermouth—vermut—is, broadly speaking, less bitter than its Italian counterparts and less sweet than the French variety. It’s vermouth that is pointedly, obviously crafted for drinking rather than mixing. Vermouth made its way to Spain in the nineteenth century, by way of Italy, and rapidly became both tremendously popular and unmistakably local; where the Italian style favored a bitter medicinality, the Spanish was defined by its kaleidoscopic palette of sunny citrus and sirocco spices. (Though, inevitably, you’ll almost always still find notes of wormwood—the bitter herb that gives vermouth its name.) Spanish vermouths come in the same range of colors and dryness levels as all the rest, though the most predominant is vermut rojo, sweet red vermouth, which owes its dark tint to long infusions of flavorings and aromatics. La hora del vermut—vermouth hour—is a weekend tradition in some parts of Spain: a leisurely slice of the early afternoon, just before lunch, when the hottest part of the day is met with glass, ice, and spirits.
Last week, on a wickedly sultry evening, I collapsed into a table at Txikito, the flawless Basque restaurant in Chelsea run by the chefs Alex Raij and Eder Montero. I was there with my husband, to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. For our honeymoon, we’d spent a sun-drenched week driving from Bilbao to Biarritz and back again, stopping for a few nights in Donostia-San Sebastián to eat the city’s famous pintxos and drink marianitos—dark Spanish vermouth beefed up with a bit of gin and sometimes Campari, almost an inverted Martini, served in tiny ice-packed glasses just barely larger than a shot—and vermut preparado, in which the vermouth is simply splashed with seltzer. At Txikito, the drinks list is brief and smart, a lineup of inventive cocktails and cleverly chosen wines, but I hardly needed to look: a pour of sweet, blood-dark Atxa Rojo over ice, dressed with a wheel of orange and a magnificently rotund Spanish olive, just as you might find the drink in the Basque country. The citrus was floral and sticky, the olive a savory little bullet of salt, but the real magic was in the ice. On the rocks, or dosed with a measure of seltzer, a Spanish vermouth goes from lovely to perfect. The liquid becomes slick and mirrorlike, refracting and reflecting the flavors with which it has been infused, which themselves are transformed in turn. Soft flavors of cardamom take on a shocking sharpness. Dark notes of licorice go bright and sunny. Mellow wisps of cinnamon acquire the snappy, sparky heat of Red Hots.
The olive in that glass is a hint of what’s best to eat alongside vermut: anything briny, salty, a little bit intense. I like to pair a glass with gildas, composed skewers of spicy pickled guindilla peppers, tender green olives, and preserved anchovies—they’re on the menu at Txikito, and likely anywhere else with the good sense to serve Spanish vermouth. If a skewer is too much work, try the drink with funky aged ham, the weirdest tinned fish you can find, a pile of burstingly fresh tomatoes dressed in sherry vinegar and flaky salt, or—as I had once, in Barcelona, sitting across the table from a charming vermut-maker who kept refilling my glass—just a pile of potato chips doused in peppery hot sauce. (His concoction, Casa Mariol, is so inky and rich that it’s billed as a vermut negre—black vermouth. If you spot a bottle, do yourself a favor and buy it.)
There are a number of places in the city where you can get your fix of Spanish vermouth. El Pingüino, a restaurant in Greenpoint with Spanish-bodega vibes, does a note-perfect vermut-and-soda. At the Lower East Side hot spot Ernesto’s, you can get a Pintxotini (gin generously splashed with Atxa vermouth and olive brine) with a gilda as a garnish. At Mercado Little Spain, the chef José Andrés’s mega-market inside Hudson Yards, there’s an entire vermutería, Bar Celona, which offers a serious selection of pours including Priorat Natur, a spicy, oddly savory vermut whose color is the dusky orange of an apocalyptic sky. But vermut should be part of your plans even if restaurant-going isn’t. Sit outside—in a back yard, on a stoop, on your windowsill—and let the heat index try its damnedest. Even as the sidewalk seems to shimmer, even as newly laid asphalt oozes around the edges, even as the groan of a million fans and A.C. units rises to an aching, desperate roar—in the molten air of a New York summer, a glass of Spanish vermouth is a thrilling exercise in fighting fire with fire. ♦
Read More: We Should All Be Drinking Spanish Vermouth