How to Drink El Bandarra with Alex Virgili

How to Drink El Bandarra with Alex Virgili
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How to Drink El Bandarra with Alex Virgili

Where in the world does an hour turn into the whole day. Every Saturday and Sunday from 12 – 3, El Barcelonís, surrounded by their friends and family, spend the entire afternoon sipping vermouth before lunch even begins. Today’s guest is gunning for the whole world to embrace La Hora del Vermut!  

Exporting cultural traditions is not an easy task; it is made slightly simpler when that tradition revolves around drinking. Alex Virgili, General Manager of El Bandarra, had me longing for La Hora del Vermut, and it wasn’t even the weekend.

Born into a wine-making family, he and his brother are on a mission to make wine-drinking fun by taking those traditions of the past and reinventing them to enjoy today. He is here to teach us Hot To Drink El Bandarra Vermouth!

In this episode, you’ll discover:

  • What is La Hora del Vermut
  • Why we need to listen to our grandmothers
  • Why adding an olive to your vermouth is 100% necessary
  • How to make the perfect Al Fresco serve (below)

You can find it at Spirits Kiosk and get 10% off using my code: ALushLife10SK!!

Here is the cocktail of the week:

El Bandarra Al Fresco Perfect Serve

El Bandarra Al Fresco and Tonic

Prep Time: 2 minutes
Total Time: 2 minutes

The taste of Barcelona in a bottle. Al Fresco is El Bandarra’s long drink, perfect to extend the good times with friends.

Ingredients

  • ⅓ El Bandarra Al Fresco
  • ⅔ Tonic
  • Slice of orange

Instructions

  1. Add the Al Fresco to a glass filled with ice
  2. Top up with the tonic
  3. Mix gently
  4. Garnish a slice of orange
  5. Enjoy it Barcelona style.

Made this cocktail?

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This transcript is sponsored by:

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Alex. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!

Susan: I’m thrilled to have you on the show because you were the first person in my “How To Drink” series to discuss vermouth. Why don’t you introduce yourself to everyone and tell us who you are and what you do?

Alex:  Okay. My name is Alex Virgili and I’m from Barcelona. I was born in a family-owned winery in Barcelona province. I have a twin brother, I’m three minutes older than he. We are the young crowd of a winery.

My grandparents used to sell bulk wine in barrels, in little bodegas and bars. I’m talking about the Sixties all over Catalonia and in Spain, and that’s our origin. I’m pretty obsessed with exporting the success of the Aperitivo to the US, to the UK, and other markets.

Susan: Now, you say that your family had a winery. Were they making vermouth? What kind of wines were they making?

Alex:  So, imagine when my grandparents started in 1962, basically they bought a winery and they started selling bulk wine. At that point, the wine consumption in Spain was so high. It was around 70 liters per person per year of consumption, which now is less than 20. That’s the reality.

It’s a business that has decreased a lot. During the Seventies, Eighties, the bulk wine business was huge. It was a lot of liters and nowadays there are beers and other drinks, but not wine. That’s our origin.

Our grandparents, in 1962, they started with red wine. Basically, it was red wine, they launched a vermouth, but in bulk, in barrels, so they used to supply these bodegas and wine shops. During the Eighties, it was booming, the vermouth, I mean, it was a golden stage of vermouth. Then around 10 years after, during the Nineties, the consumption decreased a lot. What we did in 2014, we launched El Bandarra. Now, there are a lot of vermouth bars, but if we go back to 2014, vermouth was still old stuff in Spain.

Suddenly a group of wild hipsters, they started drinking vermouth in some bars in Barcelona. And this is when we said, “Well, this is great.” We asked our father, “Dad, do we make vermouth at the winery?” We didn’t even know. He said, “Are you an idiot? Of course, we’ve been doing vermouth for several years?”

What we did was, we took this recipe and we bottled it and we created El Bandarra. And that’s how it was born in September 2014.

Susan: So back to vermouth, just vermouth drinking in Barcelona and vermouth itself. Mi know that vermouth is a fortified wine. How were you making it and how were the people in Barcelona, I don’t even know how to say it. The people in Barcelona… drinking it?

Alex:  It in Catalan. It’s Barceloní.

Susan: How were they drinking it, before it became hipster?

Alex:  Hipsters are doing the same. How it’s made is with white wine and it’s a fortified wine with a different number of botanicals. Wormwood gives it bitterness. It’s one of the key ingredients. We also use cinnamon, clove, bitter orange, and over 50 botanicals. It’s 45% ABV.

We add some alcohol at the vermouth house for 15% of alcohol volume. And at that moment, we add the sweetness. The traditional method is adding a little bit of caramel and the old vermouths in Spain do it. It’s the traditional way to do it.

You add some caramel which gives the color and the sweetness. We use a white wine, not red wine. We have 500-liter barrels at the winery with all vermouth. We use the Solera system. We refresh old vermouth with new vermouth and it has a lot of density. This vermouth, we call it the Elixir of Bandarra. We add some Elixir to each bottle of Bandarra. What it gives is a touch of the old vermouth. That’s how we make it.

Now the answer to your question about how we drink it. Our grandparents used to use a siphon or soda. It was typical. Now, it’s great to drink it over ice with a slice of orange and an olive, because I have an addiction to olives!  

Susan:  How were they drinking it? In the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties? Now, is it pretty much the same?  I’m talking traditional vermouth drinking.

Alex:  You mean the moment of consumption. 

Susan:  Yes.

Alex:  It’s the same. That’s the nicest thing of the wild hipsters, they get it. They’ve fallen in love with the traditions and they are doing them the same way.  It’s called “La Hora del Vermut,” the vermouth hour. It’s during weekend, Saturday and Sunday from 12:00 to 3:00 PM.

This is the moment where there’s this socialization and it’s great. It’s before lunch, because we have lunch very late in Spain. It’s the aperitivo moment. I love this moment because, some people have gone out the night before, some people have kids or a mortgage, Still, it’s a moment of socialization, even if you have kids around and people get drunk with vermouth, it’s socially accepted because it’s as if they are eating some tapas, not drinking.

If they would drink another gin and tonic or some other drinks you would say, “Oh, this guy. or this mummy is getting drunk.” But since they are drinking vermouth, then it is socially accepted. It’s a nice way to meet friends and share some food before lunch. So that’s the moment – it’s called La Hora del Vermut.

Susan:  I love that it’s called the “Hour of Vermouth. It seems to last all afternoon, even though it’s technically one hour. So, when you went to your family, your dad and mom and said, “Do we make vermouth?” What was in your head? What did you want to create and how did you go about creating it?

Alex: First, we tasted it and we loved it and thought that this vermouth was a great product. Then we thought, because it’s wine-based, we are in the middle between wine, beer, and spirits. Vermouth is in the middle. It’s an easy serve. We thought we need to put this drink in a food market or in a festival in Spain, and I’m talking about the first two years when we were seeding the brand in Barcelona mainly and Catalonia region.

We created a few, very successful white wines before Bandarra. One which was called El Xitxarel·lo, which means a young, stupid guy in Catalan. While we are Catalan, we are very proud to be Catalan, our idiom is full of insults and swear words. It’s a very rich language in terms of insults. At the point when we launched, two years before launching El Bandarra, we launched this white wine, which has 67 insults on the screen-printed label.

It was very successful. In our opinion, the wine world needs to be fun. I mean, let’s have fun. It should be easy and fun. We already did some crazy stuff before Bandarra in the wine category. So, with Bandarra, we started in the Aperitif category, so it was pretty easy, because before El Bandarra, we did some successful launches, and that’s why they said, okay. I mean, after a wine with 67 insults in the bottle, they said, “Okay, let’s go. Let’s make El Bandarra.”

Susan:  Okay. Yes, we like our crazy ideas they’re going to work. Right. Where did you start? What was your thinking and how long did it take to get the first thing in the bottle that you liked?

Alex: We started with, Rojo. In Spain, out of every 10 bottles of vermouth, nine are Rojo. It was the main vermouth that we had at the winery. We started with this one for the first three years, we were only focused on Bandarra Rojo.

Susan: What was the flavor profile? Did you have an idea, or did you want to make it taste like something specific that you had before?

Alex: When we tasted the original recipe, we thought, “Wow, this is amazing.” And, at some point, we told our father “Maybe we should add more sweetness.” He came back to me, “No, we’re not going to change the recipe.”

Susan: So, it was the traditional recipe?

Alex: Yeah, at some point, we thought maybe we should add some more sweetness, but it has a good, really perfect balance between bitterness and sweetness. Maybe it’s a touch dry, but it’s not as dry as or more bitter as others, it’s a soft vermouth. It’s very soft. That’s what we did. We maintained the recipe. At that point, there was no branding. It was only in barrels. No branding.

Susan: How did you come up with the name and the branding and the fabulous bottle?

Alex: So, do you know what El Bandarra means?

Susan: I don’t think so.

Alex: El Bandarra is that kind of friend, she or he, who when you go out, he’s the one who remains in the club until the end of the night. He or she is that this kind of person that is a good person, but he’s a troublemaker. So that is El Bandarra, what El Bandarra means? So, we hope that it brings takes out the Bandarra that you have inside of you.

Susan: All right. #1 – who thought of the name? #2 – are you or your brother El Bandarra?

Alex: I’m El Bandarra, but it was my brother’s idea. We are a great team, Albert and I spent most, all, of our whole life together. We are twins and he’s a genius, he’s a super creative person. He came up with this idea, so I always say that he’s the software and I’m the hardware.

He comes up with great ideas and I try to make it happen. I’m a salesperson. I love to sell when you have a good product. If we need to spread the word, I’m the one. He came up with the idea saying why don’t we call it Bandarra and why don’t we look for packaging that reminds us of this golden stage of vermouth from the Eighties, and that’s how we came with this design with this colorful bottle.

Susan: You said something about it being from the Eighties.

Alex: There were a lot of soda brands. So, during the early Eighties, Seventies, all over Spain, in every little town, there was a carbonicus. A carbonicus was where distributors used to refill bottles of soda. They were everywhere. There were hundreds of different brands that used to use this kind of bottle that we have. It has this tap mechanical tap. Suddenly, the system was not, in terms of sanitization, it was not the proper.

There was a law during the Eighties that they had to switch their business to beer distribution, but not the refilling system of soda. This type of packaging was left aside, and that was when we thought, “Okay, let’s find this bottle again, that you can refill.” You can refill the bottle, and that’s what we did. That’s the bottle and then the design, this lettering, this color for letterings.

Susan: I’m grabbing, I’m grabbing a bottle. Okay.

Alex: So, if you can read some.

Susan: Okay. I don’t speak Spanish as you know. There are about how many words? Maybe 50, 30?

Alex: There may be 40 or 50.

Susan: Caramba, pimientos de Padron, muy buenas, salud, bombas, bravas, Oh, is that tortilla? Yes.

Alex: Croquetas…

Susan: Bacalao, all of these things that have to do with.

Alex:  Tapas

Susan: Tapas and eating.

Alex: So, there are some tapas and expressions, like salud and caramba, so different expressions that you will hear if you go to “La Hora del Vermut.” All these tapas match perfectly with El Bandarra. That’s the concept, the packaging helps you to decide which tapas you can order.

Susan: Wait. No. Are the bottles different?

Alex: No, the Rojo, the one that you have there, it’s in Catalan. As I told you, if we’re Catalonia, we sell the screen-printed bottles in Catalan and for the rest of Spain, we sell it in Spanish. If you want to preserve your language, you need to speak it, use insults also and the tapas and everything. That’s why we have the Spanish bottle and the Catalan bottle.

The lettering, we took the idea again, from an earlier time. During the Sixties, in many bars in Barcelona, in Madrid, they used to pin this lettering in their windows. There are many bars with paintings of the different tapas that they were offering. That’s where we took this design from and we put it in our bottle of El Bandarra. That’s how we created our packaging.

Susan:  I love that for such a modern product that you have harked back to the past. it’s quite romantic.

Alex: We have an obsession for this. Now we are working on a campaign for Al Fresco, our new aperitive. In our new campaign, we will talk about our grannies, our abuela’s.

Susan:  Were you always thinking to bring out a white rosé and red, or was it only the rojo?

Alex:  For the first three years was Rojo. We launched the brand in 2014, then after two years of seeding the brand, we drove the brand from regional to national in Spain. That was when we started having more distribution and more clients. Some clients asked us why didn’t make a white. So, we thought, “Okay, let’s make a white.” When we bottled the Blanco, at some point, we thought that maybe we put in too much vanilla. We thought it smelled too much of vanilla or we tired different botanicals.

At some point, we realized it was a mistake. We said, “Okay, we have bottled it already. Let’s start selling it. People loved it. The white is great. Then one year after, we thought, “Why don’t we make a rosé?”

That’s why we created El Bandarra Rosé, which is the lightest one. It has 30% less sugar than the other ones. We made the three vermouths, but then, last year we launched El Bandarra Al Fresco and I’m very proud of this launch.

Susan: The Bandarra Al Fresco.is an Aperitivo, right?

Alex: Yep.

Susan:  Now Aperitivo drinking, as opposed to the hour of the vermouth – the hour that is the whole day. I know a lot about the Italian Aperitivo culture. Is it the same in Spain and in Barcelona?

Alex:  In Barcelona, we are the kings of La Hora del Vermut. Not only us, but all the brands of vermouth are also. Then there’s the early afternoon and early evening. We call it tardeo. Tarde is the word for evening in Spanish. Tardeo is that moment, after lunch, that you meet some friends who start drinking, and then the night comes.

So, this first drink we call it tardeo. The thing is that this moment, it’s not a vermouth moment. We tried to push a Bandarra Rosé in 2019 to work as a new aperitive. We don’t call Al Fresco a vermouth because it’s not a fortified wine. It’s not a vermouth. With Al Fresco, we use a grenache, so it’s a rosé wine that has a very deep color. We harvest and collect the grapes. We pick the grapes at the winery, then we crush the grapes and pump the entire grapes into our press.

At that moment, we make a skin contact maceration with the must. It lasts minimum of two days. So, during those two days, the grape juice and the must stay in contact with the skins. Then we press and we ferment the juice. The result is a wine with a lot of flavor, a lot of color, a deep red color. It has 14.5% of alcohol volume.

So, what we do with this wine is we make a maceration with wormwood to get the bitterness, but we also use different citrus, like grapefruit, bitter orange and different red fruits as well. So, more fruit, more than the ones that we use for El Bandarra vermouth. For Al Fresco, instead of caramel, we use nectar of must or the juice from the grapes for that touch of sweetness. We add a touch of must to give the sweetness.

That’s how we do it. It’s not fortified because we don’t add alcohol. The 14.5% of alcohol volume comes from the wine. I am so proud because we created Al Fresco to be mixed with tonic. It was not easy. I mean, when you will have the idea and then you start sampling and tasting, it’s hard work of course, although you are always drinking, but it’s a hard work.

Susan: Well, I’m sure because you’re using so many things. You don’t know, should I take out the grapefruit? Should I put it back in? Should I take out the this? Should I put it back in? It’s difficult to make a recipe. So how long did it take?

Alex: One year, one year.

Susan: And always trying it with tonic to make sure you get the proportions? Right? Because I assume that was the idea to always have it with tonic.

Alex: Yes. Yes. Because the idea it was something new for us. To make the perfect serve, that would have around 5, well, less than five, like 4.5% alcohol volume. So, it’s when you mix one part of Al Fresco, two parts of tonic it’s our perfect serve. 4.5%, super refreshing, easy drinkable. Salud!! And I would like to tell you about Al Fresco. Why this name. What do you think about Al Fresco?

Susan: Outside?

Alex: Right. Well, let me tell you that in Spain, our concept of Al Fresco is our grannies. So, if you come during summer in many little towns and villages, the grannies take their chairs, and they go outside in the street and they meet with their friends. They share information. They are like the FBI of each little town and that for us is Al Fresco.

I have to say that also the tonic water means something to me. Like many of my friends, the first person that introduced me to tonic water was my grandma, because they drink a lot of tonic, so that’s where Al Fresco comes from. I think we should hear more and listen more to our grannies because they are amazing. I think it’s a universal concept – the respect and the energy of our grannies or grandmas.

Susan: My grandmother was the one to teach me to drink one spirit only because then I wouldn’t get a hangover. She also was the first person to introduce me to the caipirinha. So, I had a grandmother who liked her drink and yes, and she saw, I liked my drink. And so, she would teach me these things.

Alex: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They never get drunk. They always stay in this perfect level. We have a word in Spanish – it’s called piripi. When you feel you are a piripi – it’s this moment when you’re not drunk, but you’re you have this feeling.  The grannies are the best.

Susan: They’re in a constant state of piripi

Alex: Yes, that’s the art of piripismo.

Susan: Yeah. That could be your next drink. Right. You’re going to launch Piripi!

Alex: We launch Al Fresco in July 2020. So, we were in the middle of a pandemic. We thought, okay. But I have to say that even from all from our learnings, mainly in the UK market, we tried to push the serve as how we drink it in Barcelona or in Madrid or all over Spain.

And it was a bit hard. We listed the Rojo in, I would say 40 different accounts in the UK, but the Brit consumer didn’t understand. Then we tried, as I told you, with the rosé with tonic and it didn’t work. And we said, okay, let’s launch Al Fresco.

It’s amazing how in many export markets and many in the UK, they understand perfectly the aperitif category. They love Barcelona and our energy as a brand. And it’s doing really well, even with the COVID restrictions. I mean, I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t like Al Fresco, so it’s great.

We realize also that there are some other spirit brands, or Aperitivo brands that appeal to women maybe. You don’t see that in Spain. Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, in Spain, we have the macho Espanol, and they don’t drink vermouth, maybe they drink beer. What we realize is the Al Fresco has a perfect gender split, like 50/50. It’s very important for us to target as many people as possible.

It has this taste, this touch of bitterness, but also fruitiness and sweetness.  I mean, I’m a vermouth drinker. I love vermouth Rojo, but I have to say that many, some days when I arrive at home, I like to drink something refreshing Al Fresco, it’s amazing. Al Fresco and tonic. You drink it, take a long sip, it’s super easy to drink.

Susan: Since we’re talking about drinks. Do you see the Al Fresco, obviously goes with the tonic perfect serve, do you see your others being mixed in cocktails or used in a different way as well?

Alex: So, Yes. I have to say that in Spain, the cocktail culture is less extended than in the UK. For example, we have a huge culture of gastronomy, Mediterranean cuisine. I think that the part of the gastronomy in the UK is cocktails, it’s cocktails. I learnt a lot in the UK because my girlfriend is based here. So, if I went to make love, I have to come to London. So, it’s a good reason to come.  I love London. I learned a lot from the last few years here in London about cocktails.

And I have to say, the first time when it started selling and I went through some accounts, from some on-trade clients and I asked for one Bandarra and they gave me a cocktail, like a super posh cocktail. And I was like, we don’t make Bandarra for that. I want to drink it over ice with a slice of orange and that’s it.

But then I realized that there’s a lot of cocktail lovers and there’s a huge consumption of cocktails. So, El Bandarra wasn’t born to be an ingredient for cocktails, but at the end I thought, okay, it is what it is. I have to say that for a super easy Negroni and refreshing Negroni, it’s perfect because at the end, Italian and France vermouths are more bitter or have more density. Our vermouth is easier to drink. I don’t like Negroni, but I have to say that because I think it’s, hard to drink, I prefer something easy to drink, but anyway, if you want to make an easy Negroni, El Bandarra is a good tool.

For example, El Bandarra Blanco has more sweetness. It’s feels like it’s sweeter than the Rojo, but it’s because it’s less bitter. Many bartenders use it for different cocktails, but I would recommend drinking it straight, make it simple.

I was so eager to start drinking my El Bandarra Al Fresco that I totally forgot to go back and ask Alex about his olive addiction. So a few days later we caught up again to finish up our chat.

Susan: So I interrupted you before and you were about to tell me about this love of olives. 

Alex: I mean, first of all, Spain is a first producer in the world for olives. It’s the main producer and, I mean, we love olives and I have to say that I’m pretty much of an addict. Once I start eating olives, then I can’t stop. Maybe the Blanco or the Rosé we’ll put over ice with a slice of orange and we add an olive as well. It’s great because, as an aperitif, you have this perfect balance between the sweetness and bitterness of El Bandarra

Adding an olive – with the saltiness of the olive, amazing how it tastes and when you eat the olive with this vermouth taste, it’s like making love. It’s good. It’s great.

Susan: And is that something that was traditional  – putting an olive?

Alex: Yeah. Yeah.  If you come to Barcelona or Madrid or any city all over Spain. It’s very typical.  You will get this perfect serve with an olive, but it’s better if you ask for two olives. Always better than one.

Susan: Or as many olives as possible.

Alex: That’s it.

Susan: So I was wondering with your vermouth, because it is made out of wine, do you ever make sangria from it?

Alex:  Yeah, it’s an ingredient for sangria. As you know, the most international Spanish cocktail is sangria. And with sangria, every bar, every restaurant, all over Spain, they have their own recipe, most of them use a touch of Bandarra Rojo or Blanco.

Normally for that red sangria, many restaurants use that and there’s also the very  amous,  sangria of Cava. With a white sangria with Cava, they can use a touch of Bandarra Blanco to give a point of sweetness.  I’m not a sangria drinker. I’m more of a vermouth drinker, but, yeah, a touch of Bandarra, is always great for enjoying sangria also.

Susan: Fab.  Now I always end by asking my guests the same question: If you could have any drink anywhere right now, where would that be?

Alex: So it would be a El Bandarra Al Fresco and tonic for sure. And I would say, Formentera,  it’s a little Island, close to Ibiza.  Very, very cute and very small, it’s a paradise. That’s what I would and where I would drink

Susan: Oh, that sounds divine. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Thank you for being on the show and, hopefully, I’ll see you in Formentera.

Alex: Okay. For sure.

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