Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Lighter Way to Mix It Up

Over the past year, there has been plenty of talk in bar and restaurant circles about wine-based cocktails. Some people in the industry have even coined the term "winetails," I guess mainly because people can't resist coining ridiculous terms.

Name aside, I wholeheartedly support experimentation with wine in cocktails. Much as I enjoy 101-proof rye whiskey or 110-proof green Chartreuse, sometimes even a spirits writer doesn't want to consume that much alcohol. Plus, I love wine.

I must warn, however, that using wine in cocktails is a surefire way to scandalize the serious wine aficionados in your life. Which is always fun.

The other day, for instance, I prepared my favorite wine-based drink at a little get-together. I opened a decent bottle of Rioja, poured some into a highball glass filled with ice, then topped it with an equal measure of Coca-Cola.

Those watching were aghast. "That's like a hobo drink," said my friend Erin.

In fact, that drink is called a Calimocho (or a Rioja Libre) and is the tipple of choice of wayward Spanish youths, a poor man's sangria. It is also extremely delicious and refreshing on a hot day.

"It's a dirty secret, but Coke with a big, fat red wine is great," says Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina Bebidas in San Francisco, where Sauternes, malbecs and muscats mingle with harder spirits on the cocktail menu.

Wine-based cocktails allow places without hard-liquor licenses to serve mixed drinks. And the move to wine as a drink ingredient seems to speak to many Americans' jitters about drinking hard liquor. "It has to do with lighter palates, people wanting something a little lighter," McDonnell says. "I'm all for lowered alcohol, and it's often a nicer overall experience. I don't always want to taste heat on the palate. I want balance."
Fortified wines such as port and sherry have been old-school standards since the early days of cocktailmaking. The classic sangaree, for instance, mixes ruby port with a teaspoon of sugar on ice; it's topped with grated nutmeg. Sherry cocktails such as the Adonis, Bamboo and Duke of Marlborough (all slight variations of sherry, vermouth and bitters) are included in nearly all early-20th-century cocktail guides.

Winemakers R.H. Phillips and Ecco Domani recently jumped on the bandwagon, hiring high-profile cocktail consultants to create drink recipes for their brands. The results yielded a few winners, including the Star Gazer, using R.H. Phillips's Night Harvest Chardonnay, dark rum, vanilla simple syrup and pineapple juice. The Ecco Sidro, made with a teaspoon of muddled ginger, 1 1/2 ounces of apple cider, a pinch of chai tea powder and two ounces of Ecco Domani Chianti, is popular at the Buddha Bar in New York.

McDonnell experiments boldly with wine at Cantina Bebidas. He'll mix vin santo with mescal and Benedictine, garnishing it with a flaming orange peel, to create the complex and sultry Duende. Or he'll add cabernet and muddled blackberries to a traditional caipirinha. "You add wine to the mix -- that residual sweetness, that acidity, that terroir -- you're bringing something into a cocktail that a margarita or a Sazerac or mojito will never have," he says.

Bartenders in the Washington area have been at the forefront of the trend. Todd Thrasher, sommelier at Restaurant Eve and cocktail master at PX, both in Old Town Alexandria, has many wine-based cocktails in his repertoire, including a champagne cocktail with house-made cherry bitters, a black currant fizz in which the currants are soaked in Gewuerztraminer, a drink called a Mona Lisa involving gooseberries that have been steeped in New Zealand sauvignon blanc, and a wine cooler made from plum wine, plums, lemon bitters and prosecco. He also plans to serve his own version of the Calimocho this summer, but with a homemade cola rather than Coke.

Thrasher says wine provides a complexity often missing from other cocktail ingredients. "You couldn't just add a few drops of that and a few drops of this to a drink and still get the same effect as adding wine to a cocktail," he says.

Gina Chersevani of Tallula Restaurant and EatBar in Arlington is also known for wine creations. "I have 40 wines by the glass here at the bar," she says. "I play with wine all the time." She makes a syrup from shiraz, balsamic vinegar and strawberries and adds it to bourbon for a unique Manhattan variation. But perhaps the most interesting experiment is her Sangria Cubes, which she adds to white wine, red wine or, my favorite, a little gin and champagne for a variation on a French 75.

One of my go-to warm-weather drinks is the Port Tonic, a blend of white port and tonic on the rocks. At Komi in Dupont Circle, Derek Brown has given the Port Tonic a new twist. His Formosa substitutes sparkling sake for the tonic, adding a sweet, yeasty taste and aroma that nicely complement the port.

No discussion of wine cocktails can be complete without mention of sangria, that oft-maligned party drink of cheap wine and soggy fruit. "My interest is in refining balance in sangrias," McDonnell says. He believes that anything can be a sangria as long as it's two parts wine to one part liquor and features an interplay of spice and sweetness. On Page F8 I include his popular Tuscan Sangria, which combines a sangiovese wine with Tuaca, Punt e Mes and limoncello.

It's a beautiful drink that you wouldn't want to demean by calling it a "winetail."

Jason Wilson