Four years ago, I visited Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain and for the most part tumbled head-first into the clichés: Hemingway’s bars, a bullfight, sangria. With that taken care of, on a more recent visit I was free to drink things that Spanish people actually drink instead of jugs of the touristy—albeit delicious—red wine cocktail. No one I spoke to could remember the last time they had had sangria. Luckily, I can however, remember all the stuff I had and have returned with notes. For those with sangria-withdrawal, I have another fitting, red-coloured alternative (skip to the end for the answer).
We have to start with wine, since that’s the bulk of what Spain drinks, by all accounts (Hemingway’s included). Considering my only exposure to Spanish wine prior to this had been a dim awareness of Rioja, I had to be pretty quickly schooled on all things vino. The first lesson was on the “denomination of origin (DO),” or a quality stamp conferring authenticity on various types of wine. In Madrid I kicked things off with an Ysabel Rueda which had the magic DO, that the restaurant staff eagerly pointed out. It is made in the Rueda region in northwest Spain, an emerging hot-favourite terrain for the new-age epicure. The citrusy white wine cut through the heavy cheese assault from the croquettes and risotto at lunch.
Legend had it that the monstrous task of unifying Spain in the 1400s was undertaken by King Ferdinand and his wife under the influence (of Rueda). Almost every wine I had was made from the “star” verdejo grape, largely grown in Rueda. Later I tasted a Moscatel in Malaga, a plum cake-ish dessert wine that announced Christmas in my mouth. “It needs a lot of sunshine,” said Antonio Montejo, my dinner companion that evening. “And we have 300 days of that. So that’s not really a problem.”
Let’s face it; capitalism won, so there is no point avoiding the mass-produced (and tasty) Cruzcampo Cruzial. The Spanish brand of bottled beer is found widely across beverage menus in a variety of flavours. The one I had in Sevilla was so sweet, so cold, so lemony-perfect for the temperatures outside.
But in contemporary Spain, craft beers are closing in on wine as the nation’s favourite. “Wine used to be the most important thing,” said Evelio Mayor, the manager of Tyris on Tap, a craft beer joint in Valencia. “But beer has been expanding.” Located in a modern-looking room in the historic centre of the city, the bar offers six types of beer, including the Pim Pam pumpkin ale, a Halloween special (slightly spiced and mild). But the standard blonde ale was the clear favourite, Mayor said, as he poured a small glass for me.” So you can taste what we are talking about,” he continued. I could see why it was working the room: Not too strong, and smooth to drink. Establishments like his had been growing by 30 per cent each year, he claimed. Valencia alone has more than half a dozen.
At Café de las Horas, bartender Douglas Muñoz shoved what felt like half a pail of sugar into a blender. Antique portraits stared him down from either side, as he preceded that by adding contents from three different bottles with practiced energy. The air was refulgent with the scent of fruits and spicy somethings I couldn’t quite out my finger on. Three minutes later, a little jug of innocent-looking orange liquid arrived at the table. It was everything but. A cocktail of orange juice, cava, vodka and gin, Agua de Valencia is the city’s most famous native offering. “I don’t drink while I work,” said Muñoz, laughing. “But there’s no problem tasting a little bit.”
Muñoz, originally from Venezuela, has been preparing the drink every night for ten years according to a special in-house recipe. Though proportions and sometimes the white alcohols used may vary, Muñoz claimed theirs was a straight-up classic. I had to agree. Agua is best had as an on-the-spot concoction but can also be shop-bought (for the tourists, largely). Most Valencians though, simply blend it at home.
Cuenca’s local offering, the Resoli, was thrust into my hand upon the insistence of the hostess. Made from anise, cinnamon, citrus bark, and cloves among other things, and decanted into my system after a heavy dinner, it had an aftertaste of coffee and the top notes of cough syrup. “It tastes like medicine,” I grumbled. My companion, Ana Maria Chacon Garcia, from the tourism board was bemused at first. She repeated what I said and then laughed to herself. “Well,” she responded. “No medicine here in Cuenca tastes like that.”
In Valencia, the land of oranges, they have naturally turned to that fruit for their liqueurs too. At the Original CV, a small artisanal shop housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings in the Market Square, the owner Isabel Reig pressed a bottle of the bronze-coloured liqueur into my hands. The alcohol popped with citrusy, orange rind-ey flavours, and with just 12.5 per cent alcoholic content had little impact on my blood alcohol levels.
Valencia doesn’t just have innocent oranges integrated into devilish alcoholic drinks; it also has the entirely sober horchata. A summer drink made from sugar, tiger nuts and water, it is believed to have originated during Muslim rule in the province between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. It is available in cafés, street stalls, and traditional milk bars called horchaterias, and is usually accompanied by fartons (long sponge biscuits). In Valencia, Horchatería Daniel, Horchatería Santa Catalina, Horchatería Panach are good places to sample this Bournvita-coloured beverage. It was served in plastic cups when I tasted it from a stand-alone stall outside the Oceanografic oceanarium, a single-note sweet, distinctive taste not quite comparable to anything else. Amaya Raez, my guide from the tourism board, explained to me the Spanish way of life in the summer months: lunch at 2 p.m., followed by siesta and then horchata in the evening, around tea-time.
Gazpacho is probably better classified as a food not a drink, but it’s liquid Spain in a bowl so let’s bring it on the list. To consume gazpacho is to enter a very special kind of Spanish heaven, one with little trinkets of green capsicum and cubes of breadcrumbs floating in an incandescent red sea. Gazpacho originated in Andalucía and fittingly I had my first taste of the cold soup in Malaga, a hot, southern city. The chilled bowl arrived as an appetiser, with the tomato broth bursting with onions and peppers; sweet and sour and spicy all at once. (Purra, a less crimson version I had later in Malaga was thicker and integrated the bread into the broth itself. But I would defer to the canon.)
After that transformative first contact, I wanted gazpacho every day, all day. In Madrid I entered bars, seeking gazpacho in my broken Spanish. At the Cerveceria Cruz De Malta, I cut straight to the chase, and walked up to the bartender.
“Do you have gazpacho this evening?”
“We have it today, tomorrow, day after, the day after that.” He stopped to kiss a passing waitress, then turned back to me.
“So always, then? Great.”
“It’s the best gazpacho in Madrid.”
“Well then, I must try it.”
Although it was a decent attempt it wasn’t that best on that trip. Still, reasonable gazpacho seasoned with banter works pretty okay too.