Vermut: Catalunya’s
Nº 1 Favourite Aperitif

🕔 6 mins (total)
Vermut with olives, berberechos (cockles) and mussels
Vermut with olives, berberechos (cockles) and mussels

Catalans typically go out for an aperitif before Sunday lunch, and not just any old aperitif, but a vermut. It had always been considered a perfectly socially acceptable beverage to drink in the early afternoon of a Sunday, and although the custom had faded somewhat, it had never really lapsed entirely, but in recent years, its popularity has soared to new levels.

In Catalunya in general, and Barcelona in particular, Sunday vermut aperitifs have become trendy with the city’s younger imbibers, and so are à la mode once again. A similar pattern has also been evident here on the Costa Brava in recent times. Obviously, it’s not at all forbidden to drink something different, and, of course, people do partake of other beverages too, naturally, but the custom is commonly referred to as “going for a vermut”, no matter what it is you’re drinking.

The apéritif

First of all, the word “apéritif” we tend to use mostly in English is actually French. It doesn’t change too much in Castellano-Spanish, where it becomes an “aperitivo”, or in Catalan, “aperitiu”, but they all have their origin in the Latin word “aperire”, which meant “to open”. It is said that the aperitivo was born with the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who made a wine-based drink to which he added herbs to help “reopen” the stomach when a person had lost their appetite. Over the centuries, more spices were added, giving birth to what would evolve into vermouth, which is supposed to “whet the appetite”.

What is Vermut, exactly?

For anyone who’s not 100% sure what exactly a vermut is, here’s a little explanation:

“Vermouth” (as it is spelt in both French and English) is a wine-based liqueur, flavoured with a touch of wormwood (the herb used to make absinthe) along with other bitter herbs – although there are hundreds of possible spices and plant ingredients that can be used in its production, in hundreds of different combinations, with typically between 50 and 80 ingredients involved in the production of any one brand. As a result, no two vermouths are quite the same, and the range of flavours, aromas, and nuances is greater than is found in any other type of liqueur. Does that clear it up any?

And what are its origins?

Although vermouth is enjoyed around the globe today, it was originally very much a European drink. As we mentioned, Hippocrates used to mix wine with aromatic herbs and spices for medicinal purposes, in particular wormwood, the use of which originated in ancient Egypt. Wormwood (“Artemisia absinthium” in Latin, or “wermut” in German) was believed to be effective in treating intestinal disorders, including parasites. This was the same Hippocrates, by the way, who is considered one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine. You’ve heard of the Hippocratic Oath, right? That was him! He is often referred to as the “Father of Medicine” – so we think we’ll take his word for it that “wermut” is good for us!

The earliest historical reference to what was eventually to become vermouth as we know it today dates back to Italy in the year 1549 and a recipe for a drink believed to have therapeutic and healing properties that involved mixing wine with absinthe. It was believed that this aromatic drink made its way originally from Bulgaria, via Hungary and Germany, to Italy, and by the end of the 17th century, it was being called vermouth, the French pronunciation of the German wermut, meaning absinthe, and it was from around about this time that it began to be sold commercially.

The liqueur that we know today is typically one of two types: the “black” or red variety, which has its origins in Italy and is sweeter than the “white” version, created in France, which is drier and usually has a higher alcohol content. You can always trust the French!


The popularity of vermut here in Catalunya began at the end of the 19th century, in the year 1892 to be precise, in the town of Reus (already a great wine-producing region and a world leader in brandy) when three companies started producing the liqueur. By the turn of the century, there were 30 companies producing over 50 varieties, leading to the creation of the trademark “Vermut de Reus”.

Some of the most well-known brands today have been around for well over a century, including Miró (1914), Padró & Co (1886), Rofes (1890), Yzaguirre (1884), Cooperativa de Gandesa (1919), Perucchi (1876) or De Muller (1851) and come from various different parts of Catalunya, not just Tarragona.

Shaken, not stirred?

Today, probably the most recognizable brand worldwide is Martini from Turin, Italy. But then, there is also, of course, the cocktail of the same name, and this can sometimes lead to a little confusion!

The cocktail (which may or may not have taken its name from the Italian brand, depending on who’s telling the story!) was originally based on a mix of gin and vermouth with a ratio of 2:1. It was particularly popular during the Roaring Twenties and beyond, when the ratio of gin to vermouth steadily increased during the 1930s (3:1) and 1940s (4:1) on so on until by the end of the century there was so little (50:1) or no vermouth involved at all, that one wit declared that “a perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”.

So, if you would like to order yourself a Martini brand vermouth, be sure not to order simply “a Martini” or you may end up with just a glass of gin with some ice! Vermouth is also becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient in cocktails and drinks “mixology” in general.

Vermut is a very popular aperitif in Catalunya.
Vermut is a very popular aperitif on La Costa Brava.

Vermut Sunday” in Palamós

So what better way to spend your early Sunday afternoon than “going for vermouth”! In Catalunya, this will almost certainly be accompanied by olives and possibly by berberechos (cockles) and maybe mussels. (“Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-oh!”?? Hmm…, that almost sounds a bit Irish!) You may also be offered anchovies and/or boquerones (seitons in Catalan) as accompaniments, especially if you are anywhere near the lovely town of L’Escala, where they are a local specialty.

Anchovies and boquerones are actually the same fish, the anchovy; the difference is in the preparation. When anchovies are prepared in vinegar, they are called boquerones in Spanish and seitons in Catalan. There isn’t really an English word for them. “Anchovies prepared in vinegar”? When they are salted, they are called, well, anchovies! In Spanish, that’s anchoas; in Catalan, it’s anxoves.

Anyway, as explained above, the vermut itself may vary greatly from bar to bar, and the presentation may include orange or lemon peel or cinnamon sticks, and the olives may be in your drink or on the side, or possibly both! If you happen to be in Palamós and feel the urge for an aperitif, you should really head for the Bodega Xarel·lo or Mala Uva, two of the most popular places in town with some of the best vermut you’ll find anywhere! At Xarel·lo, they add a very generous dash of gin, too – so beware, or you may end up missing or deliberately skipping lunch altogether! It’s been known to happen!

Live music during the Vermut a Palamós springtime campaign

In fact, due to the ever-increasing popularity of Sunday afternoon aperitifs, the Town Hall in Palamós launched an initiative called Vermut a Palamós in 2018, involving over 20 local bars to promote “going for a vermut”. This has now become an annual event every spring, typically each weekend throughout April into May, involving live street music, many shops opening, especially on Sunday mornings, and, most importantly, a vermut & una tapa at very economical prices in each of the designated bars, with the aim of attracting more visitors to the town on Sundays.

Kickstarting the campaign this year on Saturday, 6 April (2024) is the Fira dels Millors Vermuts de Catalunya down by the old port at the L’Estenedor de Xarxes (the fishing nets area). It starts at 11:00 and finishes at 17:00, and you can taste samples of the famous drink from all around the territory, accompanied by assorted olives, anchovies, assorted signature croquettes, and plenty more. Visitors can taste and buy at the stands staffed by the producers themselves, so it really is a great opportunity to get to know first-hand this local product that has already become part of social life in Palamós.

From noon till 13:30 there is a live concert on Plaça de la Murada with probably the best views of Palamós as an impressive backdrop, and that’s just the beginning! Every Saturday and Sunday throughout April and May, there are more live performances and various locations in the town. Check out the full programme of events and the 32 bars and restaurants participating in El Vermut a Palamós 2024, including what each place offers during the campaign.

So, wherever you are, head out for a Sunday aperitif and join the locals. It’s a great way to meet people, but don’t forget about your lunch! And also remember, it doesn’t necessarily have to be vermut – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Sunday either!


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