When I think about port, I think of my earliest, clumsy attempts at seeming — with requisite air quotes — “sophisticated,” or at least “fancy.” Back then, in my 20s, port seemed like the fast track to connoisseurship. “I’ll take a glass of the ’85 Fonseca,” I’d say to a waiter as everyone else was simply ordering dessert.
I admit I was kind of insufferable. But I did grow fond of port, and it did end up being the first wine I truly came to know, from drinking a lot of it as well as making several visits to the famed port lodges in Porto, the Portuguese city from which the wine takes its name. Yet over time, my love for port waned. Like everyone else’s, it seemed.
There are a lot of theories on why port fell out of favor. Sure, it’s seen as the kind of drink that an elderly British gentleman, dressed in tweed, might sip while smoking a pipe; not exactly a contemporary image. But even that can’t totally explain why fewer and fewer people drink port. This is a time, after all, when other, old-timey fortified wines such as sherry, Madeira, or even Tokaji are gaining a new following, promoted by young-ish, tattooed hipster sommeliers.
“Port sales are flat,” Aymeric de Gironde, sales director for the venerable Quinta do Noval port house, told me when I visited the Douro Valley a couple of years ago.
By now it’s clear that the valley’s future is in making non-fortified, dry table wines with the same grapes that used to be solely for port. “You can see the dynamism of the region. Lots of people are investing here. This could be one of the greatest wine regions in the world,” de Gironde said. But these developments probably mean that interest in port will continue to lag. Port — in particular the expensive, aged stuff — is not where the dynamism is right now.
The only category of port that seems to be showing any vibrancy is the low end. When it comes to attracting new, young port aficionados, several major port houses have tried to follow the same marketing playbook that sherry recently has. That would be cocktails, cocktails, cocktails. No longer is port pitched solely as an after-dinner drink. Bottles such as Graham’s Six Grapes, Croft Pink, Warre’s Otima 10-year-old and Noval Black, at around $20 or under, are all about aperitifs and mixology.
My two favorites are Noval Black, which spends about three years in a barrel, and Otima, a 10-year-old tawny. They are mere youngsters when compared with the kind of ports people spend hundreds of dollars on. But I enjoy the freshness and lively fruit that you find here.
“We plan to be even more aggressive in the future with Noval Black in cocktails,” de Gironde said. One thing Noval has done is hire high-profile bartenders, such as Jim Meehan of the famed speakeasy PDT in Manhattan’s East Village, who created both the Black Cup, a variation on the Pimm’s Cup, and the Port Authority, a boozy, savory wine cocktail with apple brandy and Chartreuse (both included below).
Just like many other now-neglected spirits and wines, port played a big role in cocktails before Prohibition. The Port Wine Sangaree, with port, soda water, sugar and grated nutmeg, is a cocktail as old as they come, dating to the 1770s.
Port also was used interchangeably with other fortified wines in the old days. Substitute port for vermouth in a martini, for instance, and you’d have the Coronet cocktail. If you added a dash of orange bitters to that, you’d have the Princeton cocktail. And if you used Old Tom gin instead of dry gin, you’d have a Union League.
As a cocktail ingredient, port mixes best with all kinds of brandies, generally either a cognac or an apple brandy. I find port also works well with spices and herbs, ginger beer (as you’ll find in the Philadelphia Scotchman) and pears (which you’ll find in the Perfect Pear).
I’ve been excited to rediscover port as part of my regular cocktail bar. Sure, I might not order port after dinner anymore. But as readers (not to mention acquaintances and family members) know, I can still be a little insufferable at times. Maybe just in a different way.
One cocktail I’ve recently enjoyed calls for 2 ounces of white rhum agricole and 1 ounce of 40-year-old tawny port, along with a dash of bitters. Its name: The MidLife Crisis. Garnish with a red convertible sports car, optional.
One of the world’s oldest cocktails, dating to the 18th century (Not to be confused with “sangria”). This recipe comes from the famed Jerry Thomas, whose 1862 The Bar-Tender’s Guide is considered to the first cocktail guide published in America. A good 10- or 20-year-old tawny port works best.
4 ounces tawny port
1 teaspoon sugar
Fill a shaker halfway with ice. Add port and sugar. Shake well, then strain into a tumbler or rocks glass filled with ice. Grate nutmeg on top.
From Dave Wondrich, based on Jerry Thomas’ original recipe
Jim Meehan is a master of port cocktails, and this one is no different. Though it’s still light, the apple brandy ensures this appeals to people who like boozy cocktails. The herbal Chartreuse adds complexity and depth and the olives introduce a savory note. Use a younger port like Noval Black, Graham’s Six Grapes, or Warre’s Ottima 10-year-old. Be sure to always stir this one.
2 ounces port (see headnote)
1 ounces apple brandy, preferably Laird’s
½ ounce yellow Chartreuse
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add all port, apple brandy, and Charteuse. Stir well, then strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with olives on a pick.
From Jim Meehan of PDT in New York
Port and pears always seem to go well together: Consider, for instance, the classic port-poached pear dessert. This cocktail is no different. The pear brandy brings the proof here, so don’t skimp. A quality domestic bottling such as Clear Creek or Aqua Perfecta or any poire Williams eau de vie works well.
1½ ounces tawny port
1 ounce pear eau de vie
¼ ounce simple syrup
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add all liquid ingredients. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with pear slice.
Who would have thought ruby port would work so well with cachaça and lime juice? Well, this punch is a flat-out crowd pleaser. The original recipe here called for white rum, but I like cachaça because it’s funkier and sharper and stands up to the strong flavors happening. Be sure not to omit the bitters here: They balance the lime juice.
16 ounces cachaça
5 ounces ruby or tawny port
10 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice (from about 4 limes)
5 ounces simple syrup
20 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine the cachaca, port, lime juice, simple syrup, and bitters in a pitcher. Add ice, then stir. Strain into ice-filled old-fashioned or small wine glasses.
Adapted from Duggan McDonnell of Cantina in San Francisco
This Pimm’s Cup variation uses port instead of Pimm’s. Its name comes from Noval Black, the excellent young port that inspired bartender Jim Meehan to make this cocktail. The drink works with any good ruby or younger, light tawny port; we used Warre’s Ottima 10-year-old, for instance. Meehan calls for club soda or 7-Up, but I prefer the latter.
1 ripe strawberry, hulled
½ ounce simple syrup
2 ounces port (see headnote)
½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
Muddle the strawberry and the simple syrup in a shaker. Add the port and lemon juice, then fill with ice. Shake well; strain into an ice-filled highball or Collins glass. Top with about 2 ounces of 7-Up. Garnish with the cucumber slice.
Adapted from Jim Meehan of PDT in New York
Port with apple brandy, orange juice, and ginger beer? Odd but delicious. The early-20th-century recipe for this cocktail called for applejack and ginger ale, but spicier ginger beer and real apple brandy work much better. Any good ruby or younger, light tawny port works; we recommend Noval Black or Warre’s Otima 10-year-old.
The reason behind the drink’s obscure and puzzling name is mostly lost to history. It might be in honor of Hughie Hutchinson, a successful boxer who had that nickname (and died of pneumonia at age 22).
¾ ounce port
¾ ounce apple brandy
¾ ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
1 ounce chilled ginger beer
Fill a rocks or old-fashioned glass with ice. Add the apple brandy, port and orange juice. Stir, then top with the chilled ginger beer.