Bartender wisdom from the Hotel Pulitzer
The Art of Good Cocktails in Barcelona: Fernando made me a “Vermut” – the classic drink of the Hotel Pulitzer’s rooftop terrace on family weekends – and my son a delicious watermelon and pineapple juice cocktail and brought them to our room on the third floor. It was night, and we’d already had dinner out in “Gaixample”, so not come il faut for an aperitif. But I had to try the drink that is attached to our favourite hotel, home to some of the best cocktails in Barcelona and what has become known as the best Vermouth in town.
Without asking, we were also kindly served delicious home-made potato chips, crisp and lightly salted, an assortment of nuts and corn kernels, and a small bowl of mixed olives: plump green ones, pitted and, to vary the texture and taste, softer and smaller wrinkled dark purple ones with the stone inside.
We sampled these treats as we watched our movie (free Wi-Fi all over the hotel) and then I checked out some definitions:
Some date Vermouth – aromatic wine fortified with bitter herbs, barks or roots – to 18th century Italy, but the Chinese were enjoying something very similar around 1200 BC. The name, originally Wermut, comes from the German for wormwood, one of the most common herbal ingredients. As a cocktail, it came in as a mixer in the late 19th century, while the Vermouth Cocktail includes some bitters or maraschino and a twist of lemon to the chilled Vermouth.
And it also turns out that in this part of Spain they say “Hacer el Vermut,” when you gather together before lunch, and you eat some tapas. Fernando’s Vermut uses orange instead of lemon, is a rich dark brown and is tantalisingly poised between bitter and sweet. Each sip said something slightly different.
Tall and handsome Fernando
The next day Fernando – tall and handsome, like a young and elongated Picasso (and as a painting, definitely from the Blue Period …) – told me about the procedure for selecting the new summer cocktails in Barcelona. Ten new creations will appear on the Pulitzer menu, usually a minimum of two that are vodka-based, two rum, one or two whiskey, one tequila – which Fernando notes is popular — and then a selection, perhaps gin, perhaps Pisco (from Peru, or Chile – there’s apparently a debate as to its origins!) which is a very strong aguardiente (“fiery water” between 29 and 60% alcohol). Each bartender joins in the fun – Fernando as head takes no privileges over Francesca and Magdalena – inventing ten brand new combinations, and then the process of selection begins. That means everyone can explain the history of each successful drink on the menu to clients… and maybe boast a little.
The one that beckoned me for freshness on a sunny day (and Barcelona is already getting hot) was the “French Aperol”, Fernando’s creation. I’ve noticed swathes of Italians drinking Aperol Spritz (3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, 1 soda) along the beaches and tourist hotspots of Tuscany, but this mixes the Aperol (Italian aperitif with bitter orange and rhubarb, similar to Campari but lighter in colour and alcohol content, and a little sweeter to the taste) with Saint Germain, an exquisite elderflower liqueur, wedges of orange, cava and soda. The second most beguiling to my mind was the “Velvet Rope”, Jack Daniels with triple sec, lemon, pineapple and coconut syrup. I like my tequila white – or “silver” as some say — (Herradura is good), neat, with salt and line and a “sangrita” chaser but the new menu’s Margarita with strawberry and jalapeño caught my eye… out of curiosity as to how the chilli pepper is used in the drink. Fernando incorporates it via a syrup with two parts sugar and one water, boil, stir a lot before it boils and when the sugar has dissolved remove from the heat. “Leave it in the fridge 2 or 3 hours, blend and strain.”
What didn’t work? Fernando laughed. A Gin Fizz with lavender. He wanted to try with fresh lavender, but it is not easily available so he bought a syrup to make an infusion, and … it simply didn’t taste right.
For those under drinking age or taking a break from alcohol and looking for the best cocktails in Barcelona, the home-made lemonade is another cocktail to savour, with lemons, cucumber and seasoned with fresh mint for a pick-me-up or fresh basil, for a more aromatic experience.
Stirred vs Shaken
Then we talked about the role of Vermouth and bitter or dry drinks, like Aperol or Campari, in opening the appetite, and why a Dry Martini and other strong cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan are stirred and not shaken – ever. “This is because they are cocktails using only distilled drinks, no juices nor sodas. They need to conserve all their flavour and yet be very cold, and this is the best way to do it. When there are juices, purees and other ingredients, like an egg, for example, they are much better shaken, because that way the air bubbles give the cocktail volume and texture.”
I also heard why these should never contain a straw and how a good dry Martini needs time for preparation – perhaps three minutes, Fernando said. One part martini to three gin, the martini serves mainly to aromatise, the ice and half is thrown away before the chilled gin added. Fernando pricks the olive, so the flavour comes out and pinches the lemon peel, so the bitter oil of the skin infuses the drink. A “Dirty Martini” adds olive juice, giving it a slightly cloudy and oily look, while in an “Extra Dry Martini” the full measure of martini and ice are thrown away. His Manhattan has three parts bourbon and two parts, Martini Rosso, with orange bitter or skin (no cherry for him).
What are the locals’ favourite cocktails in Barcelona, I asked? “Mojitos,” he smiled, tiny crow’s feet appearing at the edge of his eye. Also, more traditionally, Sangria, but with the proliferation of industrially produced Sangria, it has returned to being a domestic drink, as “most people now prefer to make their own, natural variant and enjoy it at home. Ours is home-made.” Worth trying especially for visitors not from Spain. It’s been a long time since I’ve been impressed by a Mojito, but the new cocktail list has a Mojito that sounds ravishing: Mint, lime, rum, ginger syrup, fresh pineapple juice and soda. Next time.
Gin – the most popular drink in Barcelona
To my surprise G&T is one of the most popular cocktails in Barcelona. “It has been fashionable for two or three years, or even more.” Said Fernando, “This is why at the Pulitzer we have 16 types of gin.” Eleven are international and include along with Beefeater and Bulldog and Bombay Sapphire and those others you would expect, Gin Mare (flavoured with rosemary, thyme, cardamom, and more) and G’Vine Floraison from Cognac (infused with white grape, coriander, berries, nutmeg and liquorice).
“Can you tell the difference?” I asked. Of course he could.
The driest, and evidently a favourite, is Brecon (from Penderyn distillery in Wales), then Beefeater and Seagrams, their distillation process making them a London Dry Gin. Bulldog, he said is aromatic, while there are others that are fruity. His knowledge about the distillation inspires the way he chooses to garnish the drink, Beefeater for example with strawberry – the aroma of the fresh fruit potentiating the gin.
“With Seagrams we put lemon in the glass, because lemon is used in part of the distillation process, and with Hendricks we add cucumber, because in the third day of distillation an infusion of cucumber is used.” G’Vine gets a red grape while Hoxton gets grapefruit, which Fernando says complements the coconut used in distillation.
What kind of background leads to this detail and specialist knowledge? Fernando studied Logistics at university, which begins to make sense. Then “I used to work cleaning a bar on the beach in Sitges. I was very fast and when I finished cleaning I would go and read the labels on all the bottles. I have a good memory.” Proportions being essential in cocktail-making, a mathematical mind combines well with a meticulous passion for creating an inspiring new balance of flavours – based on ingredients, tradition and geography. And there are the aesthetics of cocktail presentation too. Fernando was enthusiastic about infusions in ice trays. “Pepino (cucumber) looks lovely swirling in the drink as an ice cube …” He also uses fruits and berries that have been dried through “lyophilisation” (a new term for me – when the product is frozen and then subjected to a vacuum removing the water”). Once dropped in the cocktail, they swell slightly and release a hint of their flavour, such as the blackberry that is used in Tanns Gin & Tonic.
Never heard of it? Now for the first time the Pulitzer is featuring Spanish gins, a highlight on the menu – Tanns, Mariana Gin & Tonic, with orange peel; Nordes with bayleaf and grape; Botanic with almonds, and Only with juniper. “People want to go where the tourists don’t go and want to try what the tourists don’t find out about … the Spanish gin is something new here and we have five for our customers to discover and savour.”
So what are the trends for new cocktails in Barcelona? The next craze he predicts will be the Vodka Tonic, but with different and aromatic tonics.