It is rare that I don’t spend an evening holed up at a wine bar exploring (mostly for the better, sometimes for the worse) bold whites, rosés, and reds from small, family-owned vineyards I never heard of, or relishing a bartender-made tipple—whether crowned with an egg white pre-dinner, or unapologetically dark and boozy just before bed. It was years ago—when I first sampled the Champagne Cocktail, when I couldn’t keep my eyes off the Cognac, and then the bubbly, cascading over the elegant Angostura bitters-soaked sugar cube perched at the bottom of the flute glass—that I was convinced two of my passions, wine and spirits, could beautifully meld in the right hands.
Later, as bar trends shifted and opened my eyes to the breadth of cocktail construction, my love for Port, Madeira, and sherry deepened, delving well beyond mere nightcap status. Just like vermouth, the botanical-laden, go-to mixer that was increasingly starring in low-ABV aperitifs, these fortified wines were getting the glorious cocktail treatment. It was a wonderful turn of events. Evening after evening, I found myself clamoring for the old-school Adonis.
The demand for such beverages has joyfully intensified throughout the country, allowing bartenders to transcend the reputation of those misguided “winetails” of yore—the too-sweet ones that unfairly cast the entire category as light and inferior to other breeds of cocktails—by showcasing classy, food-friendly concoctions that are bright, refreshing, and floral instead.
Consider Donostia in New York, where the menu revolves around Spanish treats like morcilla bocadillos and mussels accompanied by white bean purée and piquillo salsa. Many of the plates of queso and jamón being churned out are savored with sherry—whether it’s sipped solo or in the form of a Chignon Cobbler dusted with Aleppo pepper. This same jovial spirit can be felt at Taberna de Haro in Brookline, Massachusetts, where the bar has been transformed into a separate entity known as Straight Law, emphasizing sherry cocktails like the Perfect Bamboo to enjoy with piquillo peppers, Marcona almonds, and stuffed olives. Likewise, the Ural Sidecar (Lustau Cream Sherry, Calvados Boulard, orange liqueur, lemon, and absinthe) served at Bar Vivant is one way to cap off a low-key meal of smoked salmon Montadito and bacon-wrapped dates at the popular Portland, Oregon, tapas bar.
This welcome ascension of fortified wines in mixology is also an opportunity to amplify the role of these ingredients in already familiar bar calls. Abigail Gullo, head bartender of the Caribbean-accented restaurant Compère Lapin in New Orleans, points out that classics like the Manhattan and Martini are ultimately wine cocktails, given the presence of vermouth in each of them. Rarely does her rendition of either one lead to guests describing them as weak.
“The idea of using wine in drinks is, of course, older than cocktails. A great deal of the modern rise in mixology was not only discovering these older recipes, but also finding the products these recipes called for,” she explains. “A Vesper, created by Ian Fleming in the first James Bond novel, is quite tasty with Lillet. However, he originally called for Kina Lillet, a more bitter version of Lillet. Well, in walks Cocchi Americano, which came into my life in 2010. It is a dry, aromatized wine with more quinine in its recipe and thus closer to the Kina Lillet. Now that makes a good Vesper.”
It’s been several years now that the likes of sherry and vermouth have stolen the hearts of bartenders (and their patrons), and cocktails featuring them will continue to be sought after. But, does the more pedestrian bottle of wine have a place in the world of cocktails? While it would be sacrilege to sip something as revered as a Premier Cru Burgundy in any way other than its unadulterated state, less-coveted bottles of red and white absolutely make for ideal cocktail components. Just think of the Kalimotxo, the red wine–Coca Cola hybrid that pervades Spain.
Sarah Egeland, general manager of the French-tinged restaurant Verdigris in Portland, Oregon, says that red wine “is extremely versatile. Tannins, acid, fruit: You have everything you need as a base for your cocktail.” As an alternative to reaching for the usual lemon or lime, she also believes that “super high-acid white wine” is the perfect substitute for citrus.
One of the most frequently ordered drinks at Verdigris is a sparkling one uniting saffron and cardamom syrup with lemon, olive oil, Lillet, and Cava, a simple, savory spin on my beloved Champagne cocktail. A drink like this, says Egeland, also helps drive food sales. “What’s better than pommes frites with Blue cheese and a zippy saffron sparkler? Wine cocktails complement food much more than, say, a Manhattan,” she explains. “You don’t lose those little delicate notes as you would with hard liquor.”
Kamal Kouiri, wine director and general manager of the Greek restaurant Molyvos in New York City, doesn’t necessarily deem pairing wine cocktails with food as the superior fit, but he agrees they “most definitely are different. The combination is unique, and your palate experiences other elements that wouldn’t normally happen with cocktails made with other spirits. When pairing wine cocktails and food, think of acidity, fat, sugar, and flavors.” One of Kouiri’s favorite drinks on the Molyvos menu, to go with the marinated sardines, is the Retsina Mojito, in which “mint and lime marry well with Retsina’s herbal qualities like eucalyptus and pine.” The Samos Punch, made with dry, aromatic Muscat, is another hit for Kouiri, who combines it with apricot liqueur, rum, Cointreau, and fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juices alongside peach nectar. “It’s an elevated sangria,” says Kouri, “that you can enjoy as an aperitif or with an array of Greek mezedes.” Next time I’m at the restaurant, I will try it with those crispy feta sticks I adore.
Gullo also takes sangria to new heights with the Rose Tattoo, blending red wine, rosé, rum, Amaro Montenegro, strawberries, and cola. When developing it, like the rest of the approachable quaffs on her menu, the kitchen at Compère Lapin was top of mind. “I have always worked at bars with great food, and it has always been important to me that my cocktails are not palate wreckers” she says. “Adding wine to a drink not only adds a layer of complexity, but also it can bring down the alcohol, allowing you to order more. That is good for my sales, indeed.”
In particular Gullo likes working with sherry because it pairs well with any spirit. Fino, for instance, is highlighted in the Continental Sour (gin, lemon, apricot, Swedish Punsch, and bitters), while an amontillado or oloroso gets the spotlight in the Wry Smile (rye, rhubarb, Grand Poppy liqueur, and sweet vermouth). Currently, she’s most besotted with the Southpaw Swizzle. “It uses oloroso sherry with deep, rich, nutty, dry notes, and aged cachaça, honey, and local citrus—right now, lime from my own backyard,” she says. “That, paired with our curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi, is divine. Sherry is 3,000 years of viniculture in a glass that goes with the most modern of cuisine.”