The coffee cocktail was one of the first drinks I ever learned. That was about 20 years ago, though the libation itself dates back to 1887 when it was first printed in Jerry Thomas’ third edition of How to Mix Drinks. The beverage's name itself is a misnomer, as it doesn’t actually contain any coffee, but I guess if you squint hard enough, it does have a sort of coffee-colored hue.
That aside, it is a delicious drink, and though anyone looking for a caffeine hit might be somewhat disappointed, what the dram does contain as one of its key ingredients is port, the rich and brooding fortified wine from Portugal’s Duoro Valley. While often stereotyped as a post-meal tipple, enjoyed perhaps by the fire, port—with its voluptuous notes of chocolate and spice—has actually found its way into several classic cocktails over the centuries that still deserve our attention. And now many of the country’s leading bartenders are again finding wonderful uses for port in their contemporary creations, too.
The coffee cocktail is one of the world’s oldest known port potations. It’s a simple mix of Cognac, port (I like to use a good tawny, such as the Croft 10 Year), sugar, a dash of bitters are a welcome, though optional, addition (I prefer Dale DeGroff’s pimento bitters), and a whole egg. Yes, you read that correctly, a whole egg. It’s essentially a flip, a colonial-era libation that was often served hot or cold and characterized by a base spirit, sugar, egg and nutmeg. Sublime stuff.
As its ingredients might suggest, the coffee cocktail is somewhat sweet and most definitely sits in the digestif category. It has a smooth, silky texture from the egg, a mild brandy kick, and both the bitters and nutmeg shaved atop impart a lively spiciness. This is your after dinner nightcap for the winter right here folks. Any self-professed "mixologist" should know this recipe without blinking, while it’s also easy enough for home enthusiasts to prepare as long as they know how to hold a cocktail shaker.
Not too dissimilar, and just as ambiguous, is the chocolate cocktail, which doesn’t actually contain any ... wait for it ... chocolate. A bizarre mix of yellow Chartreuse (a complex herbal and honeyed liqueur still made by the Carthusian monks in southeast France), port, sugar, and egg white, when shaken violently, the drink's constituents somehow blend together for an equally creamy result. Trust me on this one. A small shaving of quality dark chocolate on top is optional, but marries the cocktail's flavors and does actually give its misleading name some purpose.
Perhaps riding off the success of the sherry cobbler—at one time America's most popular mixed drink, circa the 1850s—the port cobbler is a delicious variation on that theme. In what is one of the most versatile categories in the drinks canon, a cobbler is defined by a base (such as sherry or port, though higher octane spirits also work), citrus, sugar, and perhaps some bitters. The solution is briefly shaken and served over crushed or cobbled ice, hence the name. Garnished your cobbler ostentatiously and with abandon.
At Dante, my restaurant in New York’s Greenwich Village, I’ve put a port cobbler on our winter menu using Fonseca Late Bottled Vintage 2009. To kick it up a notch, we add small measures of clear, unaged Armagnac, dry orange Curaçao, and maraschino liqueur, as well as marmalade, lemon juice and a few dashes each of Peychaud’s and the aforementioned Dale’s bitters. It has a deep and inviting crimson hue and an ethereal aroma from fresh mint and shaved nutmeg. There’s your refreshing winter aperitif.
Many moons ago, a young bartender tried to stump me by asking for a Princeton cocktail. It worked. I’d never heard of it at the time. Seriously, who had? Not knowing did intrigue me though, and I soon discovered that it was a stirred drink containing Cognac, port and bitters. When bartender George Kappeler was mixing these at New York’s famed Holland House, which once stood on the corner of 5th Avenue and 30th Street, this would have surely appeased the manhattan drinkers of the day, given the loose similarities in both recipes. It turns up in his book, Modern American Drinks, published in 1895.
The New York sour was also a popular cocktail of that era. First mentioned in 1908 in Jack’s Manual, this is, essentially, a whiskey sour with a gorgeous crown of floating red wine. I often recommend this drink today, and any bartender that knows their claret from cabernet should be familiar with the iconic drinks’ formula. I actually prefer mine with a little port in lieu of the red wine, as it adds a textural richness that I love.
On a recent visit to New York cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons, it was a nice surprise to see that owner Joaquin Simo had listed a Chicago fizz on his ambitious new menu inspired by Route 66. A rarely seen cocktail unfortunately, the Chicago fizz is a delightful tipple that sees dark rum and port shaken with lemon juice, sugar, and egg white; its frothy texture lifted by a spritz of sparkling water. If you want another refreshing, yet comforting, long drink appropriate for the winter, this is about as good as it gets.
And finally, it would be remiss to write an article on port drinks and leave out the oldest of them all: sangaree. Often cited as the precursor to what we now know as sangria (though one of the few things they have in common is the etymology of their names, both coming from sangre, or blood in Spanish), this 18th century punch calls for a wide variety of base spirits such as rum, brandy and whiskey (or beer), citrus, water, and nutmeg. Like many early punch recipes, this was a rudimentary affair that involved a very basic list of ingredients.
The port wine sangaree, which appears in the first edition of Jerry Thomas’ seminal cocktail book, How to Mix Drinks in 1862, is actually just one of six sangaree recipes, each with a different base. When partners opened Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon opened New York’s Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog in February 2013, their first award-winning cocktail menu paid due respect to the sangaree and many other long, forgotten libations. Instead of letting that port bottle gather dust, try it out in any of the aforementioned drinks.