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  • Sangria gets a full makeover in the US
  • Sangria gets a full makeover in the US
  • Sangria gets a full makeover in the US
  • Sangria gets a full makeover in the US
1. Making cocktails at Iberian Pig (Atlanta). 2. Jason King from Iberian Pig. 3. Salero in Chicago. 4. David Disney from Salero. Photos courtesy of bars and restaurants.

USA

Sangria gets a full makeover in the US

Bill Ward | July 16th, 2015

Spaniards traveling to the United States might have trouble finding a sangria that they would recognize. The quintessential Spanish cocktail shows up on thousands of menus across the land.  But what’s in the glass generally is “a far cry from what you get at gas stations and even most restaurants in Spain,” said Erin Ungerman, co-owner of four Spanish-themed restaurants in Minneapolis, Minn.

In a nation obsessed with fresh, seasonal ingredients in food and beverages, sangria has proved a perfect fit. As in Spain, there are as many renditions as there are restaurants serving them, but most versions veer, sometimes wildly, from the traditional.

At Ungerman’s eateries, the sangria has “a secret ingredient or two” and is topped with Cava, which “makes the flavors jump out.” At Salero in Chicago, David Disney “leans classic” but often substitutes wines from Burgundy (village reds, Chablis) as the base and adds some white-peach sorbet to his blanco version. And at the Iberian Pig in Atlanta, Jason King serves up red and white sangrias with just three ingredients apiece.

“We have recently changed it to be easier to make and much tastier and a little lighter,” King said. And more popular. “We’ll make up 40 gallons for the weekend and sometimes run out on Saturday night and have to make more,” King said.

That fits a national popularity spike for the cocktail. And while no statistics are kept on sangria consumption nationally, any regular restaurant-goer can attest to the greater quality and quantity of offerings available. 

Meanwhile, bottled versions are among the fastest-growing US categories, with sales rising more than 50% between 2010 and 2014, to nearly 2 million cases sold last year. Earlier this month, the Eppa Sangria captured a silver medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

A trend for tapas and fresh ingredients

Sangria was introduced to the United States in 1964 during the World’s Fair in New York, and for decades it was confined to a smattering of Spanish restaurants, mostly in larger cities. But as the 21st century dawned, two trends changed everything: the sudden popularity of tapas restaurants and the thirst, if you will, for the very best ingredients in food and drinks. Voila: Red and white sangrias provide the perfect complement for the food and the setting.

Still, Alex Raij, who co-owns three Spanish restaurants in New York, Txikito, La Vara & El Quinto Pino, had a problem: She didn’t like sangria, or at least didn’t think she did. But at separate parties, she found the inspiration for the red and white versions that now dot her menu.

The white one, she said, “is based on one a friend of mine, a professional waiter, made, and I said that’s the first good sangria I have ever had.” The red rendition was spawned when her friend Ruben García, of Jose Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, served her not a sangria, but a rum cocktail “that was super refreshing because of the passion fruit.”

With her, um, passion stirred, she set out to concoct “the best sangria we can make, made to our own taste, with serious adult flavors. It’s my own criteria, and there are aspects that are secret.”

The key, she said, was making strongly flavored, iconic elements such as passion fruit “a back note, something that harmonizes rather than takes over.” In her white sangria she also uses ginger syrup and only two fruits: apples and lemons, “with the skins on so that adds a bitter part, makes it serious and not candy-like.” As a result, Raij said, “people who don’t think of themselves as sangria people like our sangria.”

Avoiding sugary flavors in sangria

In Chicago, Salero’s Disney also is striving to avoid too much sweetness and thus makes “a citrus-forward sangria,” he said, even utilizing orange-flavored ice cubes. Avoiding sugary flavors is especially important at this time of year, he added. “You want something that’s going to be more light, refreshing, bright. Sweetness and sun don’t go together so well.” A finishing touch might include frozen blueberries. “I don’t know if it imparts flavor, but people like it,” he said.
Atlanta’s King also landed on a citrusy element for his red sangria, one not likely to show up in Iberia: ruby-red grapefruit juice. “I’ve heard people say that it’s not real sangria,” King said, “and others say ‘it’s probably the best I’ve ever had’ and ask for the recipe. And a lot of times they don’t believe me because it’s so simple.”

At Txikito, Raij has gone one step further, adding a zurracapote to the mix. This Basque favorite has more dried apricots and fruits and spices such as cinnamon in her version, along with fortified red wine syrup, “so it’s like a double wine,” she said.

High quality wine is a must

An approach that these mixmasters have in common: the importance of using high-quality wine. “Most people seem to believe that sangria is for using bad wine,” Disney said with a chuckle. “Not anymore.”

The good news: These drinks have proved in many cases a “gateway” to Spanish wines in general, according to Disney. “I feel overall people are a little intimidated by Spanish wines just because they're not as familiar with them as they are with New World wines or Italian or French wines,” he said. “Sangria definitely closes that gap.”

The better news: Sangria is appealing to Americans of all demographics. “It’s totally universal, all reaches of life,” Underman said. “You would be shocked at how many people love sangria. There was a guy the other night [at Rincon 38], and I thought, ‘you look like a Napa Valley cab dude, but you just want to sit and pound sangria.’ ”

At the Iberian Pig, Said King: “Just yesterday we had twins in their 70s who stopped in for a glass of red sangria, sat at the bar and had a glass, next to people in their 20s. It’s the kind of thing everyone thinks about when they think Spain.” Even if what they’re quaffing might bear little resemblance to what Spaniards are used to enjoying in their tabernas back home.

Some sangria recipes, US-style

Red Sparkling Sangria
Courtesy of David Disney, Salero, Chicago
1 Liter Tempranillo
13 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
8 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
10 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice
10 oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 oz. fresh squeezed orange juice
Mix all ingredients and chill overnight. Pour 4 oz. of sangria mix in a Bordeaux glass with a lemon and lime wheel and an orange flavored ice cube and top with 2 oz. of Cava.

White Peach Sparkling Sangria
Courtesy of David Disney, Salero, Chicago
1 liter Godello
10 oz. lemon juice
10 oz. Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac
10 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients and chill overnight. Pour 4 oz. of sangria mix in a Bordeaux glass with a white peach sorbet ice cube and frozen blueberries and top with 2 oz. of Cava

Red Sangria
Courtesy of Jason King, Iberian Pig, Atlanta
4 oz. Viña Borgia Garnacha
2 oz. fresh ruby-red grapefruit juice, strained twice to remove all pulp
2 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients, stirring thoroughly. Spritz some soda water into a Hurricane glass, add ice and pour in sangria mix. Add chopped lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit as garnish

White Sangria
Courtesy of Jason King, Iberian Pig, Atlanta
4 oz. Hera Branca Vinho Verde
2 oz. fresh pineapple juice
2 oz. simple syrup (one part water to one part sugar)
Mix all ingredients, stirring thoroughly. Spritz some soda water into a Hurricane glass, add ice and pour in sangria mix. Add chopped lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit as garnish

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