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How to Mix Wine-Based Cocktails

Alex Blair, the bar director at OK Omens in Portland, Oregon.

Even before frosé madness swept the nation in 2016, wine had been a reigning champ of summer drinking. In our 2019 Summer Drinks issue we give the term “wine cooler” new meaning by tapping bartenders across the country for their favorite wine-based cocktails for summer. Ready to start mixing? Follow these simple tips.

Pick Your Profile
The dynamic flavor profiles found in wine, from dry and fruity to bright and savory, make it an incredibly versatile cocktail ingredient. “High-acid white wine is great because you can mimic certain citrus flavors without necessarily using citrus,” says Daniel Miller, the beverage manager for Philly-based Vedge Restaurant Group. “I like those really bright, crisp whites that offer flavors of green apple and Asian pear, like some Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs. With orange wines, you can get those Sicilian flavors of orange peel, golden raisin and almond.”

At Racine’s in New York City, bartender Alisa Savina uses a dry rosé as the base for her cocktail The Ballerina, emphasizing the wine’s citrus and herbal notes with a grapefruit and rosemary syrup. “Rosé is an interesting ingredient to play with,” says Savina. “It has a great complexity and various tasting notes. Pair it with different herbs, spices and citrus, and you will be surprised by the result.”

But mixing isn’t limited to whites and rosés. “The tannins in red wine can add a lot of grip and texture to a sour,” says Alex Blair, bar director at OK Omens in Portland, Oregon. “Red wine adds acid, tannin and alcohol but no sugar. You can basically sub out half of your base spirit in a sour with tannic red wine and up the sugar or add a small measure of sweet liqueur for a fun, more textural drink.”

Find Your Balance
Just like making any other type of cocktail, the key to mixing wine-based drinks is balance. “You want the flavor of the wine to come through without being overpowered by the spirit,” says Miller. “If you’re using an orange wine with a lot of tannins and a lot of structure and salinity and flavor, you can use a darker spirit and it will still hold up. But if you’re making a really refreshing gin drink, you probably want to use a crisper white.”

At The Carillon in Austin, beverage director and sommelier Susie Scott uses a fruity, citrusy rosé to make her L’Auberge Español, a riff on a Paloma. “While the tequila could be considered the base of this cocktail, the wine is what creates the flavors reminiscent of a classic Paloma,” Scott says. “The tequila adds balanced structure while the wine contributes to the fruity aromas and thirst quenching citrus character.”

The Paloma is a good example of a style of cocktail that works particularly well for incorporating wine. “A lot of summery citrus drinks work well,” says Miller. “We’ve done a Singapore Sling variation, but we lowered the proof by making the base a wine-sherry split. I think wine would also work well in any sort of Rickey variation—basically anything tall and crushable. Whatever cocktail you’re making, anticipate the fact that it will have more volume. I don’t tend to serve wine cocktails up; they all get served over ice.”

Rethink Your Likes & Dislikes
A good rule of thumb is not to mix a drink with a wine that you wouldn’t drink on its own. That being said, a flavor that you may not love in a wine by itself can offer new depth to a cocktail. “Wines don’t have to be great to be good for mixing,” says Alex Blair. “A lot of wines carry specific, strong characteristics like tannin, acid, fruit, mineral, salinity, oak, etc. If you are using a wine specifically for one of these characteristics, it doesn’t need to be super well balanced by itself.”

If you open a bottle of wine that you’re not crazy about, consider instead the primary flavor profile and whether it might work better for cocktails. “I dislike fat, oaky, buttery Chardonnays,” says Blair. “However, if they’re well made, they’re a pretty strong carrier for that American oak character, which is something we definitely enjoy in a lot of spirits and cocktails. So maybe I’d take that oaky-AF Chardonnay and mix it with blanco tequila, some ice, tonic water and a lime zest to make a delicious and refreshing highball-spritzer.”

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