Brunch goers love their Mimosas; the Kir Royale is the go-to aperitif for many, and sangria has become perennially popular. But wine cocktails have evolved considerably beyond these standard sips in recent years.
Mixing wine with spirits is nothing new. “Wine has been in cocktails since the beginning of cocktails,” says Jamie Boudreau, proprietor of Canon: Whiskey and Bitters Emporium in Seattle. The days of ubiquitous and unexciting wine spritzers left many people with a bad impression of these quaffs, however.
That’s changing, thanks in part to the current interest in mixology. Bartenders are finding that wine and spirits work quite well together.
“Wine has a broad range of flavors to offer,” says Jeff Grdinich, bar manager at The Rose in Jackson Hole, WY. “Adding wine to certain cocktails can bring an excellent sense of terroir and all of its unique flavors.”
Wine also compliments spirits in cocktails because it can bring these notes without adding a lot of alcohol content, “thus providing balance to a more-spirited drink,” he adds.
Generally with wine cocktails, “The lower proof makes the overall cocktail more palatable, and the wide range of flavors will pair with any base spirit,” Boudreau agrees.
Bar managers and mixologists are bringing back or introducing wine cocktails to add variety to their menus and entice customers with unique concoctions. Success with wine cocktails starts by creating a truly balanced drink, educating consumers on the nuances of the flavors and pairing these libations to showcase their unique tastes.
What’s the secret to developing a solid wine cocktail? A good way to start, says Vicki Honerkamp, mixologist at Jake’s Fine Dining Atop the Midnight Star Casino in Deadwood, SD, is to replace wine for another spirit in cocktails to get a feel for how the flavors mix.
“To create a wine cocktail, don’t be afraid to go beyond vodka or rum. Whiskies can be wonderful with some red wines,” she says. “Try a Manhattan using a nice jammy shiraz or a carmenere in place of the sweet vermouth.”
Keep in mind that you need strike a balance with the wines and spirits you’re mixing. “Like any cocktail, the key is balance of flavors, alcohol, textures, etc.,” says Grdinich. Finding the right combination “will give the best end result of either a drink with many carefully intertwined layers of flavor or one with an entirely new composition,” he notes.
What type of wine should you use for specific cocktails? As with most drinks, the best wine cocktails begin with the finest ingredients. “Wine cocktails shouldn’t rely on that bottle from above the stove,” Grdinich says. In other words, the same adage applies that does in the kitchen: “If you wouldn’t drink with it, don’t cook with it—and don’t mix [drinks] with it either,” says Grdinich. “Like any other ingredient, it needs to be of the highest quality.”
That said, think about specific flavor profiles and how they go together. “If most of your ingredients have dark, pit-fruit or smoky flavors, try using a red wine,” says Honerkamp.
If the cocktail has more citrus, apple, or flowery flavors, “using a white wine or sparkler would probably be best,” she says. Ports and sherries work well in cocktails, too, Honerkamp adds.
Honerkamp’s drink menu features The Star-Chill, which is made with Disarrono, Peychaud bitters and Gustav Schmitt riesling spatlese, garnished with a whole star anise and sells for $6.50. Her Chardonnay Nights Punch ($8) incorporates Ghost Pines chardonnay, Peychaud’s bitters, fresh orange, cranberry juice and coconut water.
WINE COCKTAILS WITH FOOD
Wine cocktails definitely pair well with food, say bar experts. But some disagree on whether you should match these drinks with foods similarly to the way you would pair the wine featured in the cocktail.
Boudreau has found that wine cocktails don’t pair quite like wine, “but you can make the pairing more specific,” he says.
For instance, he says, “You need something that works with poached pear? How about a Starry Night?” which mixes chardonnay with Poire William eau de vie and Luxardo maraschino liqueur. “With wine accented by a liqueur or base spirit, you can pinpoint the exact note you want to hit,” Boudreau says.
Canon’s drink menu features The Three Skylarks ($10), mixed with Lillet rose, Becherovka herbal liqueur, Giffard peach liqueur, Regan’s orange bitters and tonic. The Latin Trifecta ($10) is made with Cabeza tequila blanco, Cynar, Lustau dry oloroso sherry and Regan’s orange bitters.
But Honerkamp sticks with pairing cocktail similarly to the wine ingredients. “Pair as you normally would and you can hardly go wrong—as long as your cocktail does not overpower the flavors in the dish,” she says.
PROMOTING WINE COCKTAILS
As with beer cocktails when they first began cropping up a few years ago, many customers might be initially put off by wine in drinks. So they may require a little hand selling or special promotion.
Another question is how and where to list them on the drink menu—with the cocktails or as a separate category? Preferences vary from venue to venue.
At The Rose, Grdinich doesn’t separate the wine cocktails from the other mixed drinks. “There’s occasional surprise, albeit usually pleasant, to find wine in the drinks, but usually the only questions are in regard to the resulting flavor profile of the drink,” he says.
Educating consumers on these cocktails is all part of innovating behind the bar. “There’s about the same amount of need for education in regard to this as there is with many of the other now-frequent yet esoteric ingredients on a menu,” Grdinich says.
The key to selling wine cocktails is unpretentious, friendly conversation with guests, he says. “We usually find the story behind the product, flavor or drink itself works best rather than too much technical geekery.”
In general, wine cockails “appeal to drinkers looking to get a burst of flavors and textures not necessarily available in all spirits,” explains Grdinich. “These tastes, combined with things like the potential tannins, acidity and minerality in wine, can really appeal to many palates.”
Some of The Rose’s wine cocktails include the Crema De Quechua ($8), made with Macchu pisco, Kina aperitif wine, coconut, lime juice and seltzer; Death in a Berry Patch ($12), which combines la Gitana Manzanilla sherry, raspberry syrup, a dash of Pernod and cava; and the Smoking Donkey Driver, which mixes Kronan Swedish Punsch liqueur, Lustau Amontillado sherry, Del Maguey Vida mezcal and Bittermens mole bitters.
The diverse mix of wines allow for much variety in cocktails, agrees Boudreau. “Because there is such a huge range of wines, one can produce a wine cocktail for pretty much any palate,” he says. “Vermouths for classics, dessert wines for those with a sweet tooth, drier wines perhaps to make low-alcohol options. Your imagination’s the only thing holding you back.” ·
Michelle Paolillo Lockett is a food and beverage writer based in the New York City area.
Spirits With Some Sparkle
The trend toward wine cocktails has evolved to create a new category of sparking liqueurs. These vodka-based spirits are made using the same premise for the wine cocktail, striking a delicate balance of flavors enhanced by wine. Here’s a quick snapshot of some of these new libations:
Nuvo Sparkling Liqueur, launched in 2007, is a mix of French vodka, sparkling white wine and passion fruit nectar. The spirit has made waves in the urban music scene: Nuvo has graced the lyrics of songs from rapper T-Pain and a few others.
Absolut Tune, a blend of vodka and New Zealand sauvignon blanc, was introduced by Pernod Ricard USA in the U.S. in late 2012. The brand partnered with Swedish song duo Icona Pop for a promotion last year.
Le Sutra tapped rapper and producer Timbaland for its launch in 2012. The line of sparkling liqueurs mixes vodka and white wine in four fruit flavors: grape, strawberry, blueberry and peach.
Prevu, released in 2012, is a mix of vodka and Cognac. The rose-colored, sparkling liqueur is organic and boasts flavors of black currant, raspberry, blackberry and violet flower.—MPL