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Seizing the moment: a trip to Barcelona's El Bandarra

In Barcelona, a historic tradition is being reinvigorated by an upstart vermouth created by three brothers. We get a taste of this quintessentially Catalan brand and its unique identity

El Bandarra's Al Fresco aperitif

At first, I thought it was the part when I was standing in the middle of the cellaring warehouse. One of the others scrambled to keep his jump in time with the rotation, lest his already compromised sense of balance be totally taken out by the hulking, four-inch-thick rope I’m swinging smashing against his shins.

Then again, maybe it was the part when we were all screaming and running from the lit firework. It was loud, frantic, whistling a metre or so above our heads and showering us in sparks that illuminated the otherwise pitch black steel fermentation tank we were huddled inside.

Actually, hang on, it’s starting to come back to me now. No, yep, I think it was probably that bit in that tiny church, when I was kneeling in prayer as the drop to Fisher’s ‘Losing It’ built to a towering, euphoric crescendo over a loudspeaker, and the man wearing the giant moustachioed rubber head poured sweet and piquant liqueur into my mouth like some kind of unholy communion.

Looking back, I’m still not sure what the weirdest moment of the day was. In fairness, I was quite drunk, and there were quite a few of them. All I know is that on the journey back, I was exhausted, I was a little confused, but I was happy. I went along with an open mind, gave myself to the brothers’ vision, and got something back I never would have expected. And to think, some people think winery tours are boring.

El Bandarra's winery in Penedès

In Barcelona, vermouth isn’t just a fortified wine; it’s something much more. And here, and in the surrounding suburbs and small towns of Catalonia, it’s a way of life. In these parts, the phrase tomar el vermut means more than its literal translation – it’s the call-to-action for a particular time of the weekend, otherwise known as the hora del vermut, just before lunch, when you meet up with friends and take a load off. You drink vermouth (and, sometimes, other aperitivo drinks), have a snack, and relax – at home, in a bar, on a terrace – and time stands still for a while. This cultural moment is what El Bandarra is trying to preserve, and to rejuvenate, and this is why I’m here.

The story of El Bandarra is a relatively new one, but the history of vermouth in Barcelona goes back a century or so, to the opening of the bar Café Torino in 1902, popularising the fortified wine with the young and hip, and creating the hora del vermut in the process. And while the drink’s ancestral home can probably be universally agreed to be Turin, Italy, (and to an extent the town of Chambéry in France) it thrived in Barcelona and around Catalonia, too – particularly in the small city of Reus, where there were reportedly around 30 producers who adopted vermouth as a spirit of choice shortly after it was introduced to the region by the Italians in the early 1900s.

The category as a whole is enjoying some time in the sun in the last decade or two. Even if you don’t know much about the specifics of vermouth, I can guarantee you’ve had it before – if only because it’s a key component in the most popular cocktails of the early 20th century and the modern era. To put it in layman’s terms, it’s a fortified and aromatised drink, made with a base of wine, fortified with neutral spirit, and flavoured with botanicals and other ingredients, most significantly wormwood (or wermut in German, hence the name).

White vermouth is made with white wine. Rosé vermouth, as you can probably guess, is made with rosé. Dry vermouth is white vermouth with, as the name suggests, no sweetening added, and is the one of the two ingredients in a dry martini alongside vodka or gin. Sweet, or red, vermouth is sometimes made with a base of red wine, but more often is made with white wine and darkened with caramel. Either way, it’s the part that adds body and sweetness to a manhattan, and is the third ingredient in a negroni after gin and Campari.

This is the context in which most people know vermouth, but in Catalonia it’s just as often drunk neat on the rocks, possibly with a touch of soda to lengthen the drink.

Starting a contemporary vermouth brand in Barcelona, then, is not like creating a gin in LA or a whisky in London. It’s not just something you do as an experiment: there’s a cultural resonance that’s unignorable. So when brothers Alex, Albert and Jordi Virgili say they took over their family’s winery in 2014 and set out to use the stock to create a new, more contemporary-feeling product in the category, it doesn’t feel like a cynical landgrab; it feels like something deeper.

And it clicks into focus on a hazy evening in early summer, sitting around a table in a square in El Bandarra’s urban home, the inner-city Barcelona neighbourhood of Poblenou, conversation flowing, a glass of the brand’s Rojo vermouth over generous chunks of ice, an olive and an orange wedge in hand. It’s the building of anticipation; it’s the moment before a moment – whether at 2pm on a Saturday or 8pm on a Thursday.

El Bandarra vermouth and snacks in the Poblenou neighbourhood of Barcelona

Tapas and wine are to follow, along with more vermouth. There’s jamón, tortilla, huevos rotos. The conversation gets looser. As will be no surprise to anyone who’s frequented Barcelona a few times before, or has met winemakers before, a kind of bar crawl across Poblenou ensues. In the middle of it, though, there’s a trip to the brand’s as-yet unfinished but gleaming headquarters. What started as a passion project is now a fully fledged drinks brand with representation in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, the UK and beyond, and I’m beginning to find out why.

Dusting off a slight hangover the next morning, I head down to the car for the journey from the city to the country. We drive along the highway 45 minutes outside Barcelona with Sant Sadurni on our right, home of cava’s big hitters, as the land flattens out and bountiful vineyards start to fill the landscape. We’re in the region of Penedès, and we turn off to the beautiful small town of Vilafranca. This is where the brothers were born, and where they’ll at some point return to.

In case it’s not obvious from the headlines that come out of this part of the world every couple of years, the towns and cities of Catalonia – Barcelona very much included – are very much Catalan, not Spanish, in their cultural identity and to many, Catalan is the nationality they call their own.

And it becomes obvious the more time we spend with Alex and Albert that El Bandarra is very much a Catalan brand. In the UK and the rest of Spain, the scribbles of classic tapas on the side of the bottle are in Spanish; in the brand’s home region, they’re in Catalan. And the point is made indelibly at the headquarters of the local castells team – Vilafranca del Penedès is an epicentre of the sport, a historic and proudly practised art of creating human towers through a mixture of strength, balance and human geometry.

Castells is no niche interest, either – it’s still practised today in a setup as professional as a lower-league football club, with presidents and coaches running and coaching the team, and the club’s identity woven into the fabric of the region. Castellers de Vilafranca compete against other Catalan and international teams in cups and exhibitions, both of which draw tens of thousands of fervent supporters in town squares and stadiums alike. To put it in context, previous efforts have filled FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou’s near-100,000 seats. The Virgilis grew up supporting the team, and Alex is a part of it now.

Castells is as professional as a football club, and it’s woven into the Catalan identity

Just like the hora del vermut, the sport is something Catalonians are fiercely protective of, and something they want to preserve as a totem of their cultural identity. After being shown some basics in the gym of Cal Figarot, the clock ticks towards lunchtime and it’s time to tomar el vermut at the canteen – before lunch, with snacks, in proper Catalan style.

It’s a sumptuous warm-up for a meal on a hot afternoon, shaking off muscle aches from the modest human tower we were shown how to create. Before long it’s off to Posada de Sant Pere for yet more authentic Catalan hospitality, where classic Catalan dishes are cooked with the help of a huge wood-fired grill, and the meal finishes in characteristically low-key fashion by pouring sweet wine in a porrón jug into our own mouths from as great a height as we can muster. It’s not quiet. Back home, other diners would scowl; here, they applaud.

Now that I’ve seen where the drink lives, the next day is the chance to get acquainted with where it’s born, and a trip to the winery – one that’s at least nominally framed as an educational visit, before things get weird – is a chance to do just that.

The Casa Berger winery has been operational since the late 19th century, while the Virgili’s grandparents bought it in 1962. The estate grows about 10% of the grapes used to make the wines; the rest are bought from local growers in the négociant style familiar across the world of wine. Until the modern era, the family business was in bulk winemaking – not bad wine, remotely, but wine meant for mass consumption and produced to fulfil a need. That, of course, made it the ideal supply chain for a vermouth, which needs a good base product but equally gets much of its character from fortifying and flavouring.

It’s important to say that the Virgilis haven’t ripped the heart out of their family business in pursuit of modernity. While Alex and Albert are the brains behind the brand, the more studious Jordi is the winemaker, and Casa Berger still makes some great and accessible wines across a range of classic styles, including a cava, a brut nature, an off-dry rosé and a dry white, made with macabeu, parellada and muscat grapes. While the vineyards and winery complex is bucolic, gorgeous with hulking old warehouses and tiny church buildings, the present and future of the brand is more modern – something that’s made clear by the interiors, which are full of gleaming, modern technology, huge steel tanks and exacting science.

Alex, Albert and Jordi Virgili of El Bandarra

It’s also significantly less classic, and more – well, sexy. El Bandarra translates in both Catalan and Spanish as something like ‘the rogue’, and much of the brand is built around naughtiness and, to put it bluntly, sex. Male libido – on the part of Albert and Alex, but particularly the latter – has fuelled much of the identity of the products in the stable. The change of operations in 2014 was kicked off by marketing images of Alex naked in the vineyard covered only by grapes. The biggest-selling dry wines in the range are the relatively polite El Xitxarel-lo and El Cabronet: a white and red that are plays on words on the xarel-lo and cabernet sauvignon grapes, but also around the playful insults xitxarel and cabrón. There are also the Organic & Orgasmic white and red blends, organic wines that are marketed specifically to a young and thirsty audience. Pleasingly, this is a world apart from something like the grossly gendered beers that garner so much rightful criticism in the UK brewing industry – the Virgilis have aimed to create a horniness that spans genders and orientations. Organic & Orgasmic puts on regular speed-dating nights for both the straight and LGBTQ+ community, aiming to get people drunk and, if they choose, down and dirty.

The brand was launched with marketing images of Alex naked in the vineyard covered only by grapes

With this in mind, the day at Casa Berger that began with reasonably ordinary works and ended being driven around the vineyard on a tractor trailer wired up with a soundsystem, karaoke and heavy rope in the cellaring warehouse, and the transcendent moment in the church (the giant head worn by the man who gave us our communion was designed after the features of the Virgilis' father), makes significantly more sense. Events ranging from the horny to the downright bizarre are a staple of the Virgilis’ way of doing things, from formerly owned event series La Festival (pop-up shops with serving free-flowing wine to party-ready millennials) to those speed-dating bacchanals and all-day summer parties for hundreds of friends at the winery.

Elsewhere in the stable, the ingenuity continues – fuelled in part by the formation of the wider Democratic Wines group with the Arambarri brothers of the Vintae Group in Rioja, which acts as an umbrella company for brands across the two family’s product lines. Launches can seem spontaneous, but all are still recognisably Catalan, from La Sueca – a take on sangria that Alex describes as “not a fucking souvenir” – to L’Hòstia, a modern-day reimagining of Catalan liqueur ratafía, with a flavour profile not dissimilar to Jägermeister and a brand identity that aims to punch up at the Austrian brand. This, incidentally, was what Daddy Virgili, er, blessed me with in the church.

But El Bandarra, to the Virgilis at least, is the central brand – the one that’s provided them with the gleaming office (gigantic fireman’s pole included, obviously) in Poblenou and gained them international attention. The Rojo, Blanco and Rosé are not made to be as supple and refined as a purist’s cocktail vermouth like Antica Formula, nor are they made to be mixed in stirred cocktails, but they’re a fraction of the price and come in a litre bottle.

El Bandarra's range including Blanco, Rojo and Rosé and Alfresco

That doesn’t mean a lack of refinement, though. A vertical supply chain and Jordi’s committed winemaking means a great, reliable base product, and a considered range of botanicals for each bottling means a flavour profile that’s straight-up delicious, but also complex. Each brings something different to the table when sipped on the rocks, from the bright, stone-fruit freshness of the Blanco to the classic, dark and cola-like bittersweet Rojo. All are steadily making waves in Barcelona and around Europe, with their instantly recognisable branding, ability to be poured cold from bag-in-box draft machines. Added to the range recently is Al Fresco, the only one of the four that’s not technically a vermouth but a red, gently bitter aperitif that can be mixed with tonic or in a Bandarra Spritz (which, as anyone who’s been for a summer drink before dinner in the last decade knows has the capacity to go stratospheric).

Built out of a family business, and fuelled by the deep connection between brothers and friends, The El Bandarra brand is on its way up. And seeing it up close a few years into its journey feels like it’s becoming everything it was built to be. It’s past meeting present, and looking to the future. It’s the DNA of proud grandparents in the 1960s and naughty brothers in the 2020s. It’s fiercely Catalan. It’s the building of anticipation; it’s the moment before a moment. It’s the hora del vermut, but it’ll last a good while longer yet.

elbandarra.com

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