Between Grape and Grain: Wine Cocktails

Between Grape and Grain: Wine Cocktails

Sometimes you just can’t decide between a martini and a Malbec. What to do? Opt for a wine cocktail. While this term technically encompasses Champagne cocktails and pitchers of Sangria, clever mixologists all over the country are mixing wine with spirits, juices, bitters and syrups to create balanced, complex drinks. Confused cocktailians torn between grape and grain may find that mixing up a wine cocktail is just right.

At New York’s PDT (13 St. Marks Pl.; 212.614.0386), renowned for its well-crafted, classic cocktails, owner Jim Meehan incorporates at least one wine cocktail into the menu each season, and he reaches for bottles that haven’t spent time in new wood. “Oak is not a flavor profile I’m looking to showcase in my cocktails,” he explains. His potent Against All Odds Cocktail combines Bushmills Irish Whiskey, Rothman & Winter Apricot Liqueur and Clement Créole Schrubb with Chardonnay. Drinks like these tend to have a smaller niche than more fruit-forward options, like the Riesling- and pear brandy-based Falling Leaves, a concoction by another Manhattan-based cocktail master, Audrey Saunders.

Bradley Dawson's Easter Egg HuntBradley Dawson was making dinner for his wife when inspiration struck for wine-based recipes. “I wanted something fun to drink while I cooked,” the bartender at Portland, Oregon’s Belly Timber confesses. The crisp and refreshing Easter Egg Hunt uses Verdejo along with Angostura bitters, simple syrup and Hendrix Gin. Dawson recommends enjoying these drinks all by themselves, as well as with certain dishes on the menu—a Cucumber Fennel Bulb salad works particularly well with the citrusy Easter Egg Hunt.

So what makes a good wine cocktail? According to Robert Heugel, Owner of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, “You want the wine to appear in a manner that enhances the cocktail in a balanced, interesting manner. In general, red wines work better with bolder cocktail ingredients, and whites create more subtle, delicate cocktails.” He has found wine cocktails to be easily marketable since people are more familiar with wine than they may be with some of the new and exotic liquors on the market. The Claret Cup, a nineteenth century drink, was the basis of the idea for Heugel’s The Warrant, where bourbon, rosé wine and lemon juice are shaken over ice along with a Cabernet Sauvignon- and cinnamon-infused simple syrup. Heugel believes that wine cocktails work best as long drinks since wine’s alcohol isn’t as potent as that of spirits, so he tops The Warrant and other wine cocktails with soda. “I guess there’s a reason people have always sort of liked wine spritzers,” he speculates.

Mixologists are pulling all kinds of bottles from the cellar and using them in the shaker. Red or white, domestic or imported, wine is accessible and approachable, and home bartenders can easily follow suit. Dawson offers only one piece of advice. “Only corked wines don’t work.”

Easter Egg Hunt
Courtesy of Bradley Dawson, Belly Timber, Portland, OR
3 oz. Spanish Verdejo
1 oz. Hendricks or 12 Bridges Gin
½ oz. Simple syrup
1 dash of Angostura Bitters
Lemon twist for garnish.

Stir gently in large flute or trumpet glass. Serve with a large lemon twist.

The Warrant
Courtesy of Robert Heugel, Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston, TX

1½ oz. Bourbon
1 oz. rosé
¾ oz. Lemon juice
½ oz. Cabernet Sauvignon simple syrup (reduce equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and sugar with cinnamon sticks.)
Club soda
Lemon wedge and cinnamon stick (for garnish)

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top with club soda, and garnish with a lemon wedge and cinnamon stick.

Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirit writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website,

Published on May 19, 2009
Topics: Recipes, Wine Cocktails