How to use wine as a cocktail ingredient
At first mention, wine cocktails might inspire flashbacks of lifeless spritzers and tepid sangria laden with soggy fruit — or even more horrific visions of trailer park brand wine coolers.
But once you brush away the dust, pop the cork and really let it breathe, wine might just be the most underrated and influential cocktail ingredient of the ages. Its numerous styles and profiles — from dry, fortified, sparkling and spiced — have played a fundamental role in the evolution of cocktail culture.
Wine itself predates recorded history, so given its venerable track record, it’s actually not surprising to note that we’ve been mixing with it for centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans downed “wine cups” flavoured with honey, spices, fruit and herbs which they often diluted with water, sometimes pulled from the sea. (Sounds suspiciously like the original vermouth to me — pass the orange peel and olives). These concoctions helped make crude wines remotely palatable and were quaffed as health tonics to treat ailments from indigestion to snake bites.
At some point, Bacchus grew a moustache, covered himself in tattoos and got swept up in the spirit of mixology, because centuries of mulled wine, Bishops, punches, flips, sangarees and cobblers followed, establishing wine’s sub-legacy as a classic cocktail ingredient.
As either base or a splash of nuance, wines add depth and zest to some of the most famous drinks of all time; the Manhattan, Martini, Cobbler, Champagne Cocktail and French 75 couldn’t exist without the gift of grapes. In this zeitgeist, where nothing old remains so for very long, classics remain prominent prototypes. Take the sherry cobbler, for instance — a simple mixture of sherry, seasonal fruit and sugar served over crushed ice. The cobbler was the most imbibed drink of its time, the late 1800s, and it remains a go-to for many bartenders seeking to maximize approachability while still doing justice to sherry’s complexities.
“Cobblers are always refreshing and if executed properly, wine becomes the star of the cocktail, shining through beautifully with the mere addition of different types of sugar and citrus,” notes Evelyn Chick, bar manager at The Harbord Room in Toronto. “There are endless possibilities and flavour combinations with this timeless classic.”
In the wake of the brown-and-stirred cocktail boom, drinkers are seeking full flavours that pack less of a punch, delivering satisfaction without the crippling morning-after consequences. More often than not, wine is the answer; sherry and vermouth, with their bold profiles and stunted strengths, are replacing spirits in contemporized classics like sherry sours and vermouth-forward Manhattan variations without sacrificing the essential selling points of a good cocktail — aroma, flavour and texture.
“Champagne, sherry and still wines all add great complexity to a cocktail without sending ABV off the charts,” explains Mike Shum, bartender at Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim.
“Because of their lower ABV, cocktails can support a higher volume of wine or fortified wine, which means the flavours can play a larger role without weighing down a cocktail,” Chick agrees. “There are certain aromas and tastes that may disappear through distillation. With wine, a lot of the original elements of the grape remain in the product after fermentation, giving you a much larger array of base flavours.”
Wine also works well as an additive or base, Chick notes, nailing one of wine’s most attractive features as a cocktail ingredient — its versatility. With so many styles to work with, from sprightly finos to rich and silky PX sherries, robust Ports, creamy traditional method bubbles and spicy vermouths, it seems the most difficult thing to achieve when mixing wine is banality.
Unlike spirits, many wines undergo drastic evolution in the bottle. Many wine lovers even claim their favourite drink, like Frankenstein’s monster, is alive — and there’s something particularly exhilarating about pseudo-sentient liquids that never provide the same experience twice. “There is a certain note of finality when using wine as it evolves in the bottle and with age so you will never have the same product again,” Shum observes.
While fortified wines like some sherries, Port and Madeira have a more prolonged shelf life for savouring or mixing as desired, there’s a finite window of time to enjoy most wines once the cork’s been pulled. As oxygen steadily strangles exposed vino, it can be revitalized instead of wasted in batches of punch or sangria. Mixing wine can be economical way for bars to keep down liquor cost and skirt the shame of spoiled product, notes Oliver Stern, bar manager at the Toronto Temperance Society.
“When my red wine starts to go off, I reduce it with sugar and turn it into a syrup. We use it as a base for several cocktails like sherry cobblers and house drinks like Girl in Trouble (recipe below),” Stern said.
Even would-be wine is finding its way into contemporary drinks; the funky and acidic punch of verjus (the pressed juice of unripened grapes) has become a trendy cocktail ingredient. “It’s a great way to bring out bright, citric flavours in cocktails without actually using citrus,” Stern explains.
Wine is also the essence of brandy, which is featured prominently in classic cocktail recipes, and eau de vie like Latin American Pisco and Italian grappa — but that’s another story. Plenty of famous wine-heavy cocktails — Sangria and Kalimotxo, the Kir Royale and the Negroni Sbagliato — hail from localities that produce an abundance of wine. Homegrown product continues to inspire modern mixology.
Jeffrey Van Horne, bar manager at Lot Six Oyster Bar in Halifax, Nova Scotia, works local wine into many of his cocktails. The maritime climate, Van Horne explains, is best suited to producing aromatic, off-dry white varietals like l’Acadie Blanc, Seville Blanc and Muscat that play nice with fruity flavours.
“I like to use our famed Nova Scotia Tidal Bay as a base for infusions. It’s is a terroir driven blend created in Nova Scotia and produced by almost all of our wineries,” Van Horne explains. “Wine based infusions are basically like making your own vermouth. In the end, you’re left with a highly aromatic, fruit-forward wine that can easily take the place of most vermouths in citrusy cocktails like the Corpse Reviver Number Two.”
Though contemporary cocktail bartenders are taking an innovative approach with wine, it’s a tried, tested and true ingredient that’s laid the blueprint for some of the world’s most memorable drinks. As Chick reflects, “probably the most successful approach I’ve taken is just to let the wines shine through without tempering too much with their flavours.”
However you pour it, wine has a story to tell; cocktails are just one more expression.
we’ve got grapes
Courtesy of Jeffrey Van Horne, bar manager at Lot Six Oyster Bar in Halifax
- 1 oz Plymouth gin
- 1 1/2 oz fresh grapefruit juice
- 1 bar spoon of lemon thyme tincture
- 3 oz Nova 7
- Splash of soda
Add all ingredients to a collins glass full of ice and stir briefly, garnish with a grapefruit zest and a sprig of thyme.
lemon thyme tincture
Combine the zest of 2 lemons and 8 sprigs of thyme with 2 ounces of vodka in a mason jar. Muddle briefly then add another 6 ounces of vodka then seal jar and let infuse for 2 to 3 days. Check after 2 days to make sure the infusion doesn’t become too bitter.
girl in trouble
Courtesy of Oliver Stern, bar manager at the Toronto Temperance Society
- 1 1/2 oz Absolut Elyx
- 1/2 oz red wine syrup
- 1/4 oz LBV port
- 1/4 oz cassis
- 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
Shake and serve over crushed ice, garnish with blackberries and lemon zest.
persistence of memory
Courtesy of Evelyn Chick, bar manager at The Harbord Room
- 1 oz Grappa di Bassano
- 1 oz Fonseca White Port
- 1/2 oz luxardo apricot
- 1/2 oz chamomile syrup
- 3/4 oz lime juice
- Barspoon absinthe
Shake and strain into a chilled coupe.
Courtesy of Mike Shum, bartender at the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver
- 1 oz New York Distilling Co. Dorothy Parker gin
- 1 oz Le Vieux Pin sauvignon blanc
- 1/2 fresh lemon juice
- 1/3 oz simple syrup
- 1 fresh shiso leaf
Shake and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a shiso leaf. Use a Perlini system or top with a little soda for effervescence, if desired.