Some say wine mixes poorly. And the kalimotxos, sangrías and rebujitos that appear any time masses of Spaniards gather do not seem to counter this sensation. To boot, a lot of wine snobs tend to be wary of cocktails. Imagine if they were made with wine!
Of course, wine has always been mixed. Yes, they say, but that’s because wines were of poor quality: they needed the extra ingredients to make them palatable. Tell that to the Greeks, who thought that it was barbaric not to add water to wine. It was not a matter of taste —pure wine was believed to provoke ire— but rather a question of keeping your cool…
Madeira, Port, and our very own sherry were early mixological stars, a position they hold to this day. And so were Malaga and Canary wines –the latter, a particular star in 17th century England in the Purl Royal, where it was mixed with herbs, including wormwood. Of course, those are fortified wines, which contributed to their popularity, but what about regular wines?
At the same time Canary wines were used in Purl Royal, German and French whites where appearing in punches. And in the 19th century, Bordeaux red, known as claret, starred in the claret cup, mellower than booze-spiked traditional punches.
While the most successful mixed, short drink of the 19th century was undoubtedly the Sherry Cobbler, Champagne was also very popular. A weird trend, born around 1890, saw the French bubbly added to almost any cocktail, including the Manhattan!
Although cobblers were sometimes made with red Bordeaux, the real cocktail hit for red wines was the New York Sour. It was a very simple, wonderful drink: a basic whiskey sour with a ‘snap’ of red wine carefully poured on top. It works great with an honest Rioja, for example.
In Spain, bartending icon Pedro Chicote published in 1933 a curious recipe, called the Nanino Cocktail, mixing four wines, including Valdepeñas, Rioja and Madrid, with a couple of dashes of maraschino and brandy. It was probably one of the earliest efforts to promote wine beyond traditional daily consumption.
Chicote was known to drink very little: his favourite tipple was not a cocktail, but Rioja mixed with water.
Undeniably, many more cocktails were made with wine. None, however, really took off and, until very recently, aspiring bartenders were told by their elders that regular wines just didn’t have anything to do with cocktails. But things are starting to change. Mixology is going through a new phase of creativity, and nothing is off limits.
Bartenders now find out that many things they were taught to avoid actually produce great results. Slowly but surely, wine is creeping back into the discussion and we have seen some very interesting things over the last couple of years.
The wind of change blew from the United States. Ten years ago, one could find a bar in Seattle where all drinks on the menu called for wine, under one form or the other. But Spain was quick to follow. Our pioneer, the self-styled “wine mixologist”, is Óscar Díez. Based in Toro, he logically started working with local wines. Investigating wine history, he unsurprisingly found out that wines had always been mixed, which seemed to validate his approach.
Some are already following Oscar’s lead. In Madrid, David González Manzano has recently been working with wine from his region. It was not such a big change: a bartender in a Japanese restaurant, he is a sake expert and has been working with rice wines for years. “This all came about because relatives have a bodega in Madrid. They asked me to give cocktail classes and then we thought about mixing with wine”, he told us.
His experiments proved popular enough for the D.O. Madrid to ask him to give a masterclass at the latest edition of Madrid Fusion. Its focus was on suggesting wine cocktails that anyone could make at home, so the recipes were rather simple: wine-based capirinhas and mojitos, for example. A particular hit was the Madrid Sour, based on a joven red wine from Madrid mixed with sugar syrup, lemon and egg white.
At work, though, David uses wine in more ambitious preparations. One of them, the Asami, includes Galician white wine and grape juice in a gin-based cocktail, and took him to the world finals of the prestigious G’Vine competition.
To summarize roughly, cocktails are mostly made of a strong spirit (the base), a modifier (whether alcoholic or not) and a flavour enhancer. The most obvious way to use wine is as a modifier. “It’s great to cut out sweetness, to add acidity, to complement other flavours”, according to David Manzano, “but it all depends on where the wine is coming from, its grape, its flavours… Tempranillos work great with berries”.
Wines can also be used as bases, but they’re often too light in alcohol to give the intensity consumers are expecting from cocktails. This, however, can be solved with a little help from spirits such as vodka or rum. And if you don’t ‘strengthen’ them too much, you have relatively low-alcohol cocktails, one of the big trends at the moment – it’s better for your health.
Wine can also be used in different ways. For example, Alberto Pizarro, elected best Spanish bartender by his peers in 2014, makes a wine syrup with Verdejo. It’s very simple: he heats the wine (but not to boiling point) to get rid of the alcohol and then mixes it with an equal volume of sugar. This innovative syrup is put to good use in Grandma’s Drawers, a cocktail mixing the acidity and bitterness of a Pineau-des-Charentes-based vermouth, lemon juice and hint of mezcal’s smokiness. More intense wine reductions can also be put to good use.
Another approach, as David González Manzano told us, is to remember that vermouth is wine-based so bartenders can try to replicate aromatized wine, mixing wine with spices in their cocktails.
Alex Day, owner of famed NY bar Death & Co, does just that when he pre-batches Cabernet Sauvignon with Yellow Chartreuse, Grand Marnier and Orange Bitters. The mixture is later used as just another ingredient of his cocktails, and we’ve seen a few bars in France make their own hippocras (a cordial made from wine and flavored with spices). Spain has a part to play in this (small scale) revolution, celebrating the diversity of Spanish wine through cocktails. It is, after all, just another way of drinking them.