“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.
Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.
I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.
When I told this to my friend Dave Wondrich, our foremost historian of the American cocktail, he shrugged. “Well, what do you expect?” he said. “Wine People suck.” Though I believe he was joking, that’s still a harsh, knee-jerk sentiment.
Yes, too many Cocktail People still live by the cliché that wine is stuffy. And too many Wine People live by the misguided idea that cocktails are gauche. This volume of Planet of the Grapes will attempt to bring together the two camps.
I don’t believe that we’ll soon see Wine People and Cocktail People holding hands at the bar and singing Kumbaya. But I think wine cocktails are a safe place to start a dialogue. Wine People might learn to loosen up a little bit and see that it’s not heresy to mix a little wine with some spirits. Cocktail People might learn to embrace wine…if for no other reason than that you simply can’t drink cask-strength whiskey, absinthe, and 110-proof green Chartreuse every day. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)
When I think of wine cocktails, my first thoughts almost always drift toward Spain and Italy, where there are serious traditions of mixing with vino. Here in America, however, the wine cocktail trend has slowly been building. But it’s really just a return to the early days of cocktail-making, when wines such as port, sherry, Champagne, Madeira, and Sauternes were standard ingredients.
Wine cocktails are what I serve to people who say “I don’t like cocktails,” and I have converted more nonbelievers to the pleasures of cocktails with the drinks in this volume than just about any other. Wine-based cocktails seem to speak to many Americans’ jitters about drinking hard liquor. “It has to do with lighter palates, people wanting something a little lighter,” said my friend Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina in San Francisco as well as Campo de Encanto pisco. “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.”
A few summers ago, I met a mixologist named Trudy Thomas, beverage director for the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona, who told me she was consulting for Yellow Tail, developing cocktails using the company’s wines. “Yellow Tail isn’t afraid to try something like this,” Thomas said. “They already dominate the wine market. Where else are they going to go but into cocktails? It’s the next evolution.”
Now, one thing that both Wine People and Cocktail People can agree on is that they both hate Yellow Tail.
For instance — and this is sure to offend some friends — but I must be honest: When I come to your home for a party and the only thing to drink is a big ol‘ liter-and-a-half of oaky Yellow Tail chardonnay (or worse, you show up at my doorstep with Yellow Tail’s jammy shiraz) a little part of me dies inside. First of all, you’re making it clear you don’t read my work. Second, you will never, ever be drinking any of my good stuff from the Special Cabinet.
Sneered at by drink aficionados and loved by just about everyone else, Yellow Tail has achieved a ubiquity that has been well chronicled. It has been blamed for the rise of low-quality “critter” wines, the crisis of Australia’s premium wine industry and the general downfall of the American palate. All of which has had little effect on its massive sales.
With that in mind, I received a handful of the 40-plus cocktail recipes that Thomas created. I had a surprising amount of Yellow Tail lying around my cellar: unused housewarming gifts or perhaps leftovers from my wife’s book club. So I decided to experiment.
Readers, I wanted to hate these cocktails. I really did. But I simply cannot be a hater. For reasons I have yet to wrap my head around, I found several of these cocktails to be inventive and tasty. Thomas deserves some sort of special Mixology Achievement Medal.
Who would have believed that equal parts bourbon and Yellow Tail shiraz, along with a little lemon juice and simple syrup, would make such an interesting Manhattan variation? Would you have guessed that Australian riesling would blend with pear brandy, amaretto, and lemon juice into a wonderful autumn afternoon cocktail? And who would guess that a Yellow Tail cabernet blend, rum, bitters, and ginger beer would make a terrific variation on the Dark n’ Stormy?
After fooling around with Thomas’ recipes, I felt even more convinced about the possibilities of wine as an ingredient. “You really can’t duplicate the flavors of wine and what they bring to a cocktail,” she said.
This is not to suggest that one should use middling or bad wine in cocktails. Quite the contrary, as you’ll see in the recipes to come. Just as with spirits, a good recipe that calls for a mediocre wine only improves when you improve the wine. Consider for instance, the trio of riesling cocktails in this section. Each calls for two ounces of riesling, so you’ll definitely want to find a quality bottle from Germany or Alsace. Perhaps not your most expensive aged bottle of riesling. But a good-value selection nonetheless.
I look forward to the continuing experiments with wine cocktails. On my end, I know I’ll no longer whine when I see that big liter-and-a-half at a party. I’ll just make sure I’ve brought some good booze (and a shaker) to mix it with.
Pisco, Peru’s famed spirit, is distilled wine. So it’s no wonder that it mixes so well in wine cocktails. Here, malbec keeps the concoction in South America, and blends well with the spicy dashes of bitters. A spicy shrub can work in lieu of bitters, such as Bittermens’ Hellfire Habanero Shrub.
2 ounces malbec
1 ounce pisco, preferably Campo de Encanto
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
2 dashes “hellfire” bitters
1 dash mole bitters, preferably Bittermens’ Xocolatl Mole Bitters
Orange peel cut into shape of a crown
Fill a shaker halfway with ice. Add all liquid ingredients. Shake well, then pour into large balloon-style wine glass filled with ice. Garnish with orange peel crown.
From Otis Steven Florence at Pouring Ribbons and Attaboy in New York
A classic German riesling trocken works much better than the Yellow Tail that this was originally created for. The key is choosing one that has a higher alcohol content (over 10% ABV or higher) and has a touch of residual sugar. A domestic pear brandy such as Clear Creek or Aqua Perfecta or any poire Williams eau de vie works well.
1½ ounces riesling
1 ounce pear brandy or pear eau de vie
¼ ounce amaretto
½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon simple syrup
1 pear slice
Fill a shaker halfway with ice.
Add the riesling, pear brandy or pear eau de vie, amaretto, lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake well, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass. Garnish with the pear slice.
Adapted from Trudy Thomas of the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The second of our trio of riesling-based cocktails again shows how well fruit eau de vie — in this case apricot — plays with the grape. When working with egg whites, always be sure to first do a brief “dry” shake, without ice, then add ice and shake profusely. Get creative dashing your bitters in the foam.
2 ounces riesling
1 ounce apricot eau de vie, preferably Blume Marillen
½ ounce honey syrup
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 egg white
Combine riesling, apricot eau de vie, syrup, lime juice, and egg white in a shaker. “Dry” shake without ice, then add ice and shake profusely for at least 30-60 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe. Top with a line of Angostura bitters.
From Adam Bernbach at 2 Birds 1 Stone, Doi Moi, Estadio and Proof in Washington, D.C.
Crisp Herbal Retreat
Celery bitters and absinthe are two ingredients with which one must exercise restraint. But here, they complement the riesling and vermouth to create a cocktail that drinks light, but delivers big, complex aromas. Again, look for a riesling that has higher alcohol and a little residual sugar, such as a kabinett with over 10% alcohol by volume.
Absinthe to rinse the glass
2 ounces riesling
1 dry vermouth, preferably Dolin
2 dashes celery bitters
Lemon peel twist
Rinse the inside of a chilled cocktail glass with absinthe until coated, and pour out excess.
Fill a mixing glass halfway with ice. Add riesling, vermouth, and bitters. Stir vigorously, then strain into the rinsed cocktail glass. Twist lemon peel to express oils then drop in drink to garnish.
From Otis Steven Florence at Pouring Ribbons and Attaboy in New York
Cinderella, or The Glass Slipper
In my opinion, Sauternes makes everything better, and this unique old cocktail, from the 1867 guide American Barkeeper by Charles Campbell, proves my adage true. The float of ruby port on top keeps the noble-rot wine and orgeat concoction from tilting too far into the realm of sweet. For orgeat, look for the artisan Small Hand Foods or Torani or make your own. This works on the rocks, too.
½ ounce orgeat syrup
4 ounces Sauternes, Tokaji, or other botrytized wine
1 ounce ruby port
Fill a shaker halfway with ice. Add orgeat and Sauternes. Shake well, then strain into chilled highball glass. Float port on top. Garnish with pineapple wedge.
From David Wondrich, foremost expert on the American cocktail and author of Imbibe! and Punch.
Light Guard Punch
The ultimate Planet of the Grapes punch, with sherry, Sauternes, sparkling wine, and brandy. This recipe, meant to quench a regiment’s thirst, comes from Jerry Thomas’ seminal 1862 The Bar-Tender’s Guide. For the sparkling wine, Champagne works best, but you could also use a dry, crisp, not-too-sweet cava or crémant. For a more pineapple-y twist, you can experiment with gently muddling the pineapple before adding the brandy and wines. The base mixture needs to be refrigerated for at least 2 hours.
1 pineapple, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped
750-milliliter bottle fino or manzanilla sherry
750-milliliter bottle cognac or Armagnac, preferably VSOP
750-milliliter bottle Sauternes (or Tokaji)
Three 750-milliliter bottles sparkling wine
4 lemons, cut into thin slices
Combine the pineapple, sherry, cognac and sweet wine in a large mixing bowl or pitcher. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 2 hours.
Just before serving, fill about one-third of a punch bowl with ice, then pour the mixture over the ice. Add the sparkling wine. Stir gently; garnish with lemon slices.
VARIATION: Instead of pouring the sparkling wine into the punch bowl, pour a ladleful of the mixture from the punch bowl into each glass (about 2 ounces), then top each with sparkling wine.
Adapted from The Punch Bowl by Dan Searing (Sterling Epicure, 2011)
Harvest Pear, Mirrorball, and Crisp Herbal Retreat images by Michael Bucher. Cinderella, Spice King, and Light Guard Punch images by Rachel Wisniewski.