La Hora Del Vermut: It’s Time for Texas to Embrace Spain’s Vermouth Happy Hours

click to enlarge La Hora Del Vermut: It’s Time for Texas to Embrace Spain’s Vermouth Happy Hours
Ron Bechtol
For all of Spain’s manifest contributions to the world’s cultural catalog — think Cervantes, Goya and Gaudí, for example — food and drink are strangely under-represented.

Oh, yes, there’s gazpacho, the occasional paella, and who can forget the recent craze in which anything served in small portions qualified as a “tapa.” But let’s face it, Spain: in American minds, you’re no Italy.

That oversight is a shame, though, because there are so many ways we could be inspired by the country’s rich culinary history. No, I’m not going to toot the sherry trumpet one more time. Its virtues are many and varied, and the drink deserves a much wider audience. But the stuff’s a hard sell hereabouts.
I am, however, going to take a stab at vermouth, a beverage that seems uniquely suited to Texas.

For the record, vermouth is a wine minimally fortified with brandy or a neutral spirit and bolstered with flavorings derived from roots, barks and other botanicals, one of which was traditionally vermut, (wormwood), as the Germans would have it. Sweet, red vermouths are generally thought to have originated in Italy, while France claims the white, and usually drier, version. It’s the red that the Spanish have generally embraced, turning it into a tradition that celebrates its versatility in La Hora del Vermut: The Hour of Vermouth.

As initially celebrated in fusty bodegas in Barcelona and Madrid, and more lately during a kind of renaissance replacing the gin-tonic craze in so-called vermuterias across the country, vermouth hours take place as a warmup to lunch. As lunchtime traditionally doesn’t start before 2 p.m., that means you could begin at around noon with a tall tumbler of vermouth poured over ice, garnished with olives and orange wheels, and served with, say, potato chips and briny bits of seafood.

You’ve got to love a culture that has you prepare the palate for lunch with drink and light snacks and again for dinner with more drink and tapas. We could be doing this here, folks, though I’ll be the first to admit that before dinner is likely easier to imagine than pre-lunch, given our eat-and-run tendencies.

So, what do you say to joining me at 5 p.m. for La Hora Texana del Vermut? Call it a happy hour with a Spanish accent, if that helps.

In Spain, we’d be drinking Spanish red vermouth, and I happen to have three on hand: Vermu Lustau and Vermouth La Copa González Byass, both from sherry country, and Vino Vermut Lacuesta Rojo from Haro at the northern tip of the Rioja wine region near Bilbao.

The latter is the lighter of the trio but it’s no less complex. Neither sweet nor dry, it’s said to be composed of “almost 30 different herbs, spices and aromatic plants … macerated in white wine.” Cinnamon and gentian notes stand out to me, along with a whiff of coffee. The light bitterness on the finish makes it especially refreshing over ice with orange and a spear of rosemary. An optional splash of Topo Chico brings it all into the New World.

Of course, we aren’t actually drinking in Spain, so there’s no rule that says we have to down locally produced vermouth. Italy boasts numerous versions, so let’s go there. Many of you may already know the widely available Martini & Rossi, a classic component of cocktails such as the Manhattan. The craft cocktail movement in the U.S. has also brought the deeper and richer Carpano Antica Formula to our attention. That one is my favorite in a Negroni. Not as old as Carpano, which dates back to 1786, but still venerable at nearly 130 years is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino.

Cocchi’s back label boasts “rich and vibrant notes of cocoa, citrus, rhubarb and a balanced bitter undertone.” I got the cocoa and a whiff of rhubarb, but I was more tuned into what I will call cola notes — and these suggested a different kind of garnish. Inspired by Cherry Coke — or a Manhattan without the bourbon or rye — I squeezed a quarter of a lemon over the ice, added the Cocchi, then threaded some Luxardo cocktail cherries on a bamboo skewer and dipped it down into the glass. More Topo followed. Worked for me.

Que viva la España!

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