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Everything You Need to Know About Wine Cocktails

A primer about the place wine holds in cocktail culture

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For years, wine cocktails got a bad rap, and it was almost exclusively because of a thing called the wine cooler. Like yacht rock and The Golden Girls, wine coolers are associated with a different time in American culinary history, a time before artisanal cocktails and craft beer were listed on every other restaurant's menu.


Now the butt of jokes, wine coolers are made from a combination of wine, fruit juice, carbonated water, and sometimes sugar. But trace the history of the wine cooler and it leads to the wine spritzers of Eastern Europe and tintos de verano of Spain. Since the 1980s wine coolers have been mass produced, bottled, and sold in six-packs; they come in dozens of shades of pink and many different, often sickly sweet flavors.

Thankfully, the wine cooler is not the only wine cocktail around. The history of wine in cocktails is as old as civilization itself: Once early man discovered that fruit juices fermented into a boozy beverage, it was only a matter of time before the concept of distilling to further enhance a beverage's ethanol content was realized. Prior to the successful advent of alcohol distillation in the 13th century, it's likely that humans got drunk off of wine and wine mixed with other liquids, honey, spices, and herbs.

Wine is an indispensable cocktail ingredient.

By definition, at base, a cocktail consists of a distilled spirit, sugar, and a bitter. Though this definition is no longer commonly employed, it's an easy way to see how wine can fit into a cocktail, either as the distilled spirit (brandy), a sweetener (sparkling wine), or the bitter (vermouth). On top of its base ingredients, a cocktail can contain any number of liquids, fruits, infusions, dilutions, and flavorings. Wine, or a beverage made from wine, adds complexity to the sharp taste of high proof spirits, and is an indispensable ingredient behind the modern bar.

Regular young or aged wine sometimes finds its way into cocktails. For example, the classic French aperitif known as the Kir is a combination of crème de cassis (a black currant liqueur) and white wine. But most wines used in cocktails today are sparkling, fortified, aromatized, or distilled spirits made from wine. It's a mistake to think a cocktail that contains wine is lower in alcohol content than one that does not. This is sometimes the case, as in a spritzer or sangria, but not the case in a Sidecar or French 75.

Wine Coolers [Photo: Aly/Flickr]

Here now is a primer to the most common ways wine is used in cocktails today, starting with the precursor to the much-maligned wine cooler of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a popular wine cocktail known as a spritzer.

Wine Spritzer: A combination of wine, usually white or rose, and bubbly water served chilled.

As with most alcoholic beverages, the history of the wine spritzer is murky. It may have originated in Hungary in the mid-1800s, but most certainly appeared somewhere in Eastern Europe during that century. According to The Sage Encyclopedia of Alcohol: Social, Cultural, and Historical Perspectives, spritzers are German in origin. Because the drink  of the ease of its preparation and consumption, spritzers spread quickly throughout the wine drinking world. As previously mentioned, they led to the advent of the wine cooler, a tainted version of the classic drink. Numerous variations exist. Here are the most notable:

  • Tinto de verano (Spanish): Red wine mixed with bubbly water, served chilled. Sometimes Sprite or another soft drink is used in place of carbonated water. The literal translation means "red wine of summer."
  • Süssgespritzter (German): A combination of wine and fizzy lemonade.
  • Fröccs (Hungary): The Hungarian repertoire of spritzers is vast and calls for specific proportions of wine to bubbly water or other ingredients. For example, a Újházy fröcss ('Ujhazy spritzer') is made from 20 mil. of wine plus a type of pickle juice; Macifröccs ('teddy bear spritzer') is a combination of red wine, soda, and raspberry syrup.

Fortified Wine: A wine to which a distilled spirit, usually brandy (a distilled wine), is added.

Fortified wines are incredibly versatile. They are often consumed as is, but can add a sweet base or bitter note to cocktails. There are several major types, but only sherry is commonly used in mixed drinks.

Sherry: No other fortified wine has gone through a revival as robust as sherry's. In recent years, bartenders and sommeliers have highlighted obscure sherries on separate lists and dedicated sections of cocktail menus to sherry cocktails. According to Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World's Best-Kept Secret, sherry is produced in Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María. The process of fortifying sherry depends upon the type of sherry (fino, Manzanilla, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, Pedro Ximénez, or moscatel). At some point during the production of each type, brandy is introduced to the fermenting liquid. This both raises the beverage's alcohol content and halts the fermentation process, in a way setting its taste so that the flavor and alcohol content does not continue to evolve.

Sherries [Photo: Shutterstock]

The many shades of Sherry [Photo: Shutterstock]

Sherry has historically been misunderstood in the U.S. as a hyper-sweet wine; in fact, traditional, unblended sherries are rarely too sweet. In Sherry, author Talia Baiocchi writes: "There is no other wine in the world whose spectrum is more versatile and wildly contrasting, and no other that defies an easy explanation quite so well." There are dozens and dozens of cocktails that use sherry today. Here are a select few:

  • Sherry Cobbler: The renaissance of this classic drink is credited to cocktail historian David Wondrich. It's a combination of sherry, sugar, and citrus, shaken and served over crushed ice.

  • Adonis: A cocktail created in New York and named for the first Broadway musical to run for more than 500 performances. It's a combination of dry oloroso sherry, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters.

  • Lankershim Fizz: A frothy combination of gin, Pedro Ximenez sherry, simple syrup, lemon juice, an egg white, and club soda.

  • La Perla: In The PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan writes that the combination of reposado tequila, manzanilla sherry, and pear liqueur was invented within the last decade by Jacques Bezuidenhout and named after Tomas Estes's bar La Perla in London.

Madeira: A fortified wine — usually made from Malvasia, Bual, Verdelho, or Sercial grapes — produced on the Portuguese archipelago in the north Atlantic Ocean. It is often consumed as an aperitif or digestif and used in cooking, but may also be used in mixed drinks, especially in punch, according to David Wondrich in Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl.

  • Quoit Punch: A 18th century creation. A combination of lemons and their juice, sugar, Jamaican rum, cognac, and madeira.

Marsala: A dry or sweet fortified wine produced in Sicily near the city of Marsala made usually from Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d'Avola, or Nerello Mascalese grapes. It is classified by age and color, from Oro (golden) and Ambra (amber) to Rubino (ruby). It is aged for anywhere from several months to five years, and while it is often used in recipes for sauces, stews, and sweets, it does not often appear on cocktail menus.

Aromatized wine: Fortified wine that has been flavored with spices, herbs, or flowers.

Aromatized wine is often served as part of a mixed drink or is diluted in some way. It is also often served as an aperitif. Aromatized wines, which historically were used as medicine, tend to be strongly flavored and can be bitter, making them a perfect foil for strong liquors in a mixed drink. Others, like Barolo Chinato, are sipped as is, no mixer needed.

Many aromatized wines are steeped with quinine, a flavoring derived from cinchona bark. Quinine gives tonic water its somewhat bitter taste, and has the added distinction of causing liquids to glow in the dark. These are the most common aromatized wines that are mixed into cocktails.

Quinquina: An Italian aromatized wine flavored with quinine.

Americano: An Italian aromatized wine flavored with gentian root, which imparts bitterness in addition to the quinine.

Vermouth: From the German word for "wormwood," vermouth is an essential ingredient of the modern bar. Most vermouths do not contain wormwood, but get their bitterness from other herbs and spices. Vermouth comes in many styles, including light, dry, sweet, and red. The beverage was first bottled in 18th century Italy and remains a crucial ingredient in the classic gin martini. Other notable vermouth-based drinks include:

  • Vermouth Cocktail: Vermouth and bitters.
  • Manhattan: Rye, whiskey, or bourbon, vermouth, bitters (there are many variations).
  • Gibson: Gin and vermouth garnished with a cocktail onion.

Lillet: According to The Wine Bible, two French brothers created Lillet in 1872 when they blended Bordeaux wine with a mixture of macerated fruits and a bit of quinine. Now protected under AOC guidelines, it is only produced in Bordeaux and the recipe for Lillet is a company secret but is said to include green, sweet, and bitter citrus along with cinchona bark (quinine). Lillet Blanc is made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle; Lillet Rosé contains Muscatel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon; Lillet Rouge is made from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

  • Lillet Cocktail: A combination of gin and Lillet.
  • Vesper: Gin, Lillet, and vodka, stirred and served up

Sangria: A Spanish beverage that combines wine with cut up fresh fruit.

Traditionally brandy, a distilled wine, is also added. Sangria is considered an aromatized wine. There are white wine versions, sparkling versions, and red wine versions and, while the drink is usually served cold, it is also sometimes served warm.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

Perennially in vogue, Spain's most famous cocktail is best known as a sweet, wine-based, punch-like beverage seasoned with fresh fruit. No one knows exactly who first thought to drop slices of fruit into wine, but it was certainly a Spaniard. According to dozens of sources, the drink was formally introduced to the U.S. at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Last year, the European Parliament passed a law that defines true sangria as a wine-based beverage that comes from Spain or Portugal.

Sparkling Wine: Wine made fizzy due to the addition of carbon dioxide. The gaseous bubbles in sparkling wine are a result of either carbon dioxide injections or natural fermentation.

The only constant in a cocktail that involves sparkling wine is that it's served chilled.

Champagne: The most elegant of all sparkling wines, true Champagne is only produced in Champagne, France. The distinction of the region has to do with the flavor profile of the final wine. It's may be a shame to mix a fine Champagne into a cocktail, but many hard alcohol-based drinks benefit from a bit of effervescence.

  • Champagne cocktail: According to the International Bartenders Association, this drink is composed of Champagne, sugar, Angostura bitters, brandy and a single maraschino cherry. Though it was likely invented in the mid-1800s, it's popularity today could be attributed to its on screen success. It was one of two true cocktails ordered in the film Casablanca. The other was the French 75.
  • French 75 (Soixante Quinze): The measured combination of gin, lemon juice, sugar, and Champagne. Multiple sources write the cocktail was invented in France at the New York Bar in Paris by barman Harry MacElhone. It is named after the powerful French guns that shot 75 milliliter shells at the Germans during World War I, the drink is sometimes made with brandy or Cognac instead of gin.
  • Mimosa: Possibly the most famous of all Champagne cocktails, it's the combination of orange juice and Champagne. Endless variations exist, and it is often not made with actual Champagne, but with some other kind of sparkling wine.
  • Buck's Fizz: Traditionally a Mimosa sticks to a ratio of 1 part Champagne to 1 part orange juice. In a Buck's Fizz, it's 2 parts Champagne to 1 part orange juice.
  • Kir Royale: A Kir is a combination of crème de cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and white wine. It becomes a Royale when Champagne is used instead of white wine.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

Prosecco: Italy produces many sparkling wines but none are as famous or as widely used in cocktails as Prosecco. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Prosecco DOC can be spumante or fully sparkling; frizzante or semi-sparkling; or tranquillo, still. The wine is made from Glera grapes, known also as Prosecco. Other grape varieties may be included so long as they don't make up more than 15 percent of the total percentage of wine.

  • Bellini: Nearly as famous as the Mimosa is the combination of Prosecco and peach nectar or juice. Multiple sources say it was invented in 1948 by Giuseppi Cipriani at Harry's Bar in Venice. According to the Cipriani family (still prolific restaurateurs), grandfather Giuseppi was inspired by the works of 15th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini in which the skirts of the women were peach-colored. Endless, unofficial, variations exist, including the Puccini (mandarin juice and Prosecco), Rossini (strawberry puree and Prosecco), and Tintoretto which combines the Prosecco with pomegranate juice.
  • Sbagliato: Literally translated as "messed up" or "mistaken," according to Imbibe, the recipe is a result of a busy bartender accidentally using Prosecco instead of gin in a Negroni. Served on the rocks, the drink contains sweet vermouth, Campari, and Prosecco.
  • Sgroppino: A cold, frothy combination of lemon sorbet, limoncello, vodka, and Prosecco.

Mulled Wine: Wine that is warmed, usually with spices, flavorings, or fruit.

Mulled wine. [Photo: Shutterstock]

It's said to have originated in Rome in the 2nd century. Unlike sangria — even warmed sangrias — it is known more for its spiced, warming flavors than its freshness. It is called mulled wine in England and the U.S. but goes by other names in other countries including Glühwein (Germany), Glögg (Norway and Denmark), bisschopswijn (The Netherlands), vin chaud (France), vinho quente (Portugal and Brazil), svařené víno (Czech Republic), Sıcak Şarap (Turkey).

Distilled Wine: Wine that has been distilled, a process that stops fermentation and increases alcohol content by removing much of the liquid (mostly water) that diluted the original beverage.

In English, this is called brandy. All such spirits contain between 35 and 65 percent ABV.

Brandy: Technically brandy may be made from the distilled fermented juice of any fruit, but it is then labeled with that fruit's name: Peach brandy, for example. When the beverage is labeled "brandy," it is always made from wine that was made from grapes. It is a high-proof alcohol and is made in slightly different ways around the world.

  • Brandy Alexander: The most famous cocktail made from brandy, though there are many. It contains brandy (sometimes Cognac), crème de cacao, and heavy cream.

Grappa: This Italian distilled wine is unique in that it is made from the fermented mashed grapes, seeds, stems, and vines that are the byproduct of winemaking. This process is protected under DOC regulation.

  • Limoncello Cocktail: A combination of limoncello, simple syrup, and grappa.

Pisco: A clear or amber-colored high-proof spirit distilled from grapes grown in and around Chili and Peru. The Puro (Pure) variety is made from a single variety of grape, (Quebranta or Mollar); Aromáticas (Aromatic) is made from Muscat or Muscat-derived grape varieties, Albilla, Italia, or Torontel grapes; Mosto Verde (Green Must) is distilled from partially fermented must; Acholado (Multivarietal), is made from a blend of different grape varietals.

  • Pisco Sour: The most well-known Pisco cocktail is made from Pisco, lime or lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, and bitters.

Cognac: Brandy that is made in and around Cognac, France. It is an AOC-regulated product; Cognac cannot be produced anywhere else in the world. It also must be made from a minimum of 90 percent Ugni blanc (Trebbiano) grapes. It is always aged in Limousin oak casks for at least two years before being bottled and sold. It is graded: V.S. ( for "very special") has been aged in cask for two years; V.S.O.P. (for "very superior old pale") means it has been stored for at least four years; XO (for "extra special") means it has been aged for a minimum of six years. Cognac was once frequently used in classic American drinks like the Mint Julep.

  • Sidecar: Made from cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice, it's believed to be named after the motorcycle attachment and traces its origins to London at the end of World War I.
  • Between the Sheets: A cocktail containing white rum, cognac, triple sec, and lemon juice.

Armagnac: Like Cognac, Armagnac is a French AOC-regulated spirit that cannot be made outside of the Armagnac region in Gascony in the southwest of France. It is made from a blend of ten possible grapes grown in that region, and like Cognac, it is commonly graded as V.S., V.S.O.P., or XO. Armagnac is sometimes used interchangeably with Cognac in cocktails.

  • May Daisy: Jim Meehan's The PDT Cocktail Book lists this recipe for a sour that's a mix of Cognac (or Armagnac), lemon juice, green Chartreuse, and simple syrup garnished with mint.
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