Why Port Wine Cocktails Are Worth Your Attention
Port sometimes suffers from a popular misconception. A fortified Portuguese wine long seen as an after-dinner drink, it’s often seen as an outdated libation. Some consider it as more the territory of grandpas playing checkers than hip, vibrant cocktail lounges.
However, inspired by Port’s complex flavor profiles, styles and low alcohol content, bartenders have turned to this digestif as a crucial cocktail ingredient. There are three reasons for the popularity of Port cocktails and why they’re well worth a taste.
1. As a cocktail ingredient, Port offers a deep store of flavor complexity.
When they use Port in the context of a cocktail, bartenders cite its flexible nature and how it plays well with other spirits.
“Port is very versatile as a modifier in cocktails,” says Chris Burmeister, lead bartender at Citizen Rail in Denver, which includes Port cocktails on its bar menu. “In fact, there are many classic recipes from the late 1800s and early 1900s that use Port as the base in cocktails or punches, so it’s been around for a long time.”
While Port works beautifully as a base for cocktails, it can also be substituted for accent liqueurs like vermouth and amaro.
“Cocktails featuring fortified wines, such as Port, Sherry and Madeira, have grown in popularity over the past few years, though these ingredients have certainly been used in craft libations for decades,” says Patricia Campbell, beverage director at Adele’s in Nashville. “I love using them to replace vermouth, amaro and other bitter, or semisweet elements in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Martini, Negroni and more. They elevate a cocktail with added flavor and complexity.”
2. Different types of Port provide different elements.
Port isn’t a one-size-fits-all ingredient, and specific varieties lend unique nuances to a cocktail. A younger ruby Port offers a fresh, red-fruit-forward taste. Oak-aged Tawny Port can give rich notes and a higher level of sweetness. White Port, as its name suggests, comes from white grapes and contributes bright acidity and a bouquet of fruit flavors.
Jenee Craver, beverage director at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, experiments with different styles.
“Port is an incredibly versatile tool to use in cocktails because of its many different styles—fruity, bright, acidic, sweet, nutty, dry—that fall under two categories: wine matured in sealed bottles, or wine matured in wooden barrels,” says Craver. “Depending on the type of cocktail you’re building, you can use a style of Port to finesse the overall balance of the ingredients.”
3. Low-alcohol lovers will find plenty to appreciate about Port cocktails.
The trend of cocktails that feature low alcohol percentages by volume (ABV) isn’t going anywhere soon. As a wine, Port contains considerably less alcohol than vodka, gin or whiskey, making it perfect for less-potent beverages.
“If I’m drinking [cocktails] at home, I’m definitely gonna go for something low-ABV,” says Matt Ray, beverage director of the Ace Hotel New Orleans. “A lot of times, that’s Madeira for me, but I also really love Port [as an ingredient].
“Port has a wide expression of styles. . . That breadth is really unique and special for this type of spirit. Also, [Port] is inexpensive and delicious, and [they] won’t wreck you.”
Jump straight to a recipe
Courtesy Matt Ray, beverage director, Ace Hotel New Orleans, New Orleans
An homage to Port’s long history in the American cocktail landscape, Ray offers a variation on St. Charles Punch, a classic Port-based New Orleans cocktail. “[It’s] a staple on all of our menus in all of our restaurants,” he says. “I think it’s one of the best cocktails to come out of New Orleans. It’s a delicious [version of the] Sour, and it’s simple: just Port, lemon juice, simple syrup and high-proof brandy.”
- 1½ ounces ruby Port
- ¾ ounce brandy
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
In mixing glass filled with ice, add ingredients and shake well. Strain into rocks glass with crushed ice. Garnish with seasonal fruit, if desired.
Sommeliers Lilly & Greg DeForest Campbell enjoy experimenting with under-the-radar, wine-based cocktails, and they found an ideal vehicle for Port in this obscure libation. “The Fox Hunter Martini is a drink I was introduced to by Greg’s parents a few years ago,” says Lilly. “Its base is [usually] Bourbon and Madeira. Our variation features Bourbon, Port, sweet vermouth and a few dashes of Angostura bitters.” They recommend Dolin Rouge vermouth and Quinta do Crasto 2011 LBV Port here.
- 2 ounces Bourbon
- ¾ ounces vermouth
- ¾ ounce late bottled vintage Port
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- Lemon twist, for garnish
- Luxardo cherry, for garnish
In mixing glass, add ingredients and stir. Strain into coupe glass. Garnish with lemon twist and Luxardo cherry.
Courtesy Drew Hairston, beverage manager, Dirty Habit, Washington, D.C.
White Port’s light, refreshing flavor profile is a natural fit for warm-weather cocktails, says Drew Hairston of Dirty Habit in Washington, D.C. “[I really enjoy] a traditional Portuguese highball of white Port and tonic,” he says. The recipe below makes for a summer-perfect cocktail.
- 2 ounces gin, preferably Old Tom
- 1 ounce white Port
- 3 dashes of orange bitters
- 1 lemon peel
In mixing glass filled with ice, add ingredients and stir. Strain into chilled martini glass or coupe glass. Twist peel above drink to express oils.
- 1St. Charles Punch
- 2The Fox Hunter Martini
- 3Hi Ho Cocktail