It’s always a privilege for us to be writing about a place at the very start of its journey – when the concept is still new enough to be one-of-a-kind on a UK-wide scale, with the decoration so fresh one can virtually smell it and yes, when we feel we’re hanging out in a joint most people just don’t know about yet. This was definitely the case popping into Vermut the other day – Britain’s very first dedicated vermouth and sherry bar. It’s an exquisitely decorated space that, for the moment at least, even Cardiffians don’t seem to have clocked, and a space that Undiscovered Wales would rather be drinking in than almost anywhere else in the city.
Why we love it
Vermut is the city centre’s newest bar, and by a country mile the boldest, too (it takes real courage to actually rewrite what a bar in this country should be), so while a cult following is absolutely on the cards, we just hope against hope it never succumbs to the mainstream as so many eateries just up on St Mary’s Street have. And why do we care so much? Because sometimes – relatively rarely, in our experience as travel writers – a bar or restaurant crops up with a theme so ridiculously good that you just want to press the ‘pause’ button then and there so that it is never able to alter an iota from the lovely moment in which you first got to hang out there.
Vermút is, of course, the Spanish word for vermouth, a fortified wine jam packed with botanicals that is popularly consumed in varying guises in many countries, but that has arguably its most noteworthy producers and its most conoisseuring drinkers in Spain. In Spain, vermút is no mere ingredient in a drink: it IS the drink. Just like first whisky and then gin in Britain, after languishing in dark ages that continued until embarrassingly recently, became drinks to be enjoyed in their own right, so, believe Vermut’s Powers That Be, vermouth will become. Owners Paul and Shumana were the husband-and-wife force that created outstanding Spanish deli-cafe double act Ultracomida in Aberystwyth and Narberth, and they followed that up with pintxos bar Curado (next to Vermut), so their thoughts on Spanish culinary matters have some pretty hefty clout. And if Vermouth does catch on, Vermut will have been the trailblazer. There is no other dedicated vermouth and sherry bar in Wales or, to the best of our knowledge, the UK.
Perhaps the main point with Vermut is this. It has a devastatingly beautiful appearance, with its cosily ochre bottle-lined walls, its ancient-looking floor-to-ceiling tiled advertisement for Vermut Zarro, a Madrid vermouth, in the ‘cwtch’ and best of all its bar of captivating azulejos (decorated tiles) sourced in Spain and evoking images of serendipitous backstreet Iberian mansions (the kind you discover by accident when you get a little lost in your Barcelonas and Lisbons, ooh and aah at, try to find again and can’t). Yet it is not striving whatsoever to be flash either with its array or fortified wines or with its theme. It is actually trying to normalise vermouth appreciation. Whereas the ‘new wine bar’ of yore would create intentionally glam environs to make the clientele equate sampling a new vintage with something privileged or even elitist, Vermut sets out in its own very classy way to make drinking the drink the casual affair it is in hole-in-the-wall bars in Madrid. Drinkers are encouraged to stop by, perch on a stall and try a glass of something they are unlikely to have ever tried before.
Here, unlike in other bars, there is none of that dressing up of the drink in elaborate cocktails. It is presented neat or, at most, with a subtle accompaniment to coax out the flavour: a slice of lemon for a lighter-hued vermouth or orange for a darker.
Here, unlike in other bars, there is precious little of the big-name vermouth brands and a great, great deal of smaller and back-of-beyond wineries’ offerings: enough different types, in fact, to fill the shelves that wrap prettily around the entire premises. Many are the embodiments of arcane age-old family recipes from all corners of Spain, brought back to life and full of the taste of the botanicals pertaining to that region.
‘With vermouth in Spain’, Paul tells me, ‘it’s always been about the local ingredients. If rosemary was prevalent in a particular area, that area’s vermouth would always utilise the rosemary.’
One of Paul’s favourites, however, is the Bodegas Alvear rojo, a deep-red number from a winery dating back to 1729: one of the more established traditional vermouths in Spain but almost unheard of in Britain.
To match the eclectic drinks line-up, there is also a ‘para picar‘ or ‘to snack’ menu showcasing various pintxos, moreish (and indeed, Moorish) snacks designed to fill your belly whilst you quaff that herald from Northern Spain. What did we get to try? Morcilla, or succulently moist black pudding, served with goats cheese and peppers.
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Vermut it’s 11 miles west to one of our favourite places to stay in the Cardiff area, Llanerch Vineyard – the UK’s first (yes another alcoholic first) vineyard hotel.
At a glance
Welcome: 9.5 This bar is very, very close to perfection where service is concerned – Paul and Shumana’s insane knowledge of Spanish food and drink has become contagious amongst the staff who are happy, very very happy to help you select your vermouth and pare it with the right pinxtos.
Food: 10 Not Cardiff’s priciest, but certainly some of Cardiff’s most intuitively sourced, where striking regional Spanish flavours bounce around your palate
Location: 8 We walked past Vermut, knowing it was there, and still didn’t find the entrance! Sequestered away in a former bakers, yet only a quick skip from Cardiff’s main drag
Cost: You’ll get to sample some of the most authentic Spanish food in Wales for very modest prices – in keeping with the hole-in-the-wall concept.
Opening hours: 5-10pm Wednesday to Sunday
Address/telephone number: 2 Guildhall Place, Cardiff CF101EB / 029-2034-4336
Website (too new to even have its own website, but shares one with Curado Bar next-door).