Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

10 Beverage Upgrades: Fortified & Aromatized Wines These ancient concoctions promise modern flavor building

Offered at Sable in Chicago: Tônico e Porto Branco—a low-ABV wine cocktail composed of white port, magnolia oil- scented kirschwasser, tonic and frozen cherries.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Banovic

Has anyone else noticed that those dusty bottles of oxidized vermouth and weird sherry varietals have been inching from the hidden spaces of the back bar toward the front?

Interest in classic cocktails has peaked and, with it, ingredient awareness. Wines that have been fortified and aromatized are the original cocktail backbones, as well as the trendy new toys.

Fortification is the addition of a neutral spirit to increase alcohol content, while aromatizing refers to the infusion of botanicals and bittering agents (roots, herbs, bark, spices, citrus or flowers) to give flavor or medicinal qualities. Wines can be aromatized and/or fortified and have much in common, as they can be distinct in both their classification and use.

Here are 10 that demonstrate the most potential for today’s modern cocktail development.

Dry & Off-dry Sherry

Sherry is making a meteoric revival, driven largely by the revival of historic libations such as the sherry cobbler. This late 1800s refresher is composed of sugar, sherry and “cobblestoned” or crushed ice, and maybe some fruit. A vast array of sherry styles contribute unique flavors to drinks, not just as modifier, but as base spirit. Fino and Manzanilla can inject a light, briny acidity, while oxidized versions like Amontillado or Oloroso impart aged, caramelized notes—and even umami—making these dry sherries elegant and interesting foundations for contemporary cocktails.

Menu Examples

Foreign Affair
Aperol, Lustau Jarana Fino Sherry, lemongrass, Brut, soda water
—Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, Portland, Ore.

Don Javier
Sotol por Siempre, Cimarrón Blanco Tequila, Aurora Manzanilla sherry, crème de cacao, mole bitters
—Sylvain, New Orleans

Sweet & Blended Sherry

Mixologists are embracing sweeter sherry as a key cocktail ingredient to both modify and balance drinks. Sweet sherries come in a wealth of styles, so tasting is key to creating and mixing great sherry-inclusive cocktails. The most familiar cream sherry—essentially sweet Oloroso fortified with Pedro Ximénez (PX) or Moscatel grapes—spans the flavor and quality boundaries. Sugar-concentrated varietals like complex PX or Moscatel, made from sun-dried grapes, lend dark, sweet, molasses–like viscosity to cocktails, while the higher quality versions offer that crucial offset of acidity that can steady a sweetened drink.

Menu Examples

Sherry Cobbler
House sherry blend, Crème de Noyaux, orange marmalade, bitters, seasonal fruit
—Pacific Cocktail Haven, San Francisco

The Sortini
Citrus, smoke & spice, sherry, Vermouth di Torino, orange
—Oleana, Cambridge, Mass.

Port

The fortified wine from Portugal’s Douro Valley is often pigeonholed as a stodgy after-dinner tipple. Port in cocktails is, however, classic. Fortunately, all styles of port in classic, as well as creative, concoctions are making a real comeback. From refreshing sangaree (predecessor to the wine punch) and port cobblers (fruitier than sherry cobblers) to rich coffee and chocolate cocktails, Chicago or New York fizzes—all these traditional cocktails inform modern drinks. If the flavors and varieties overwhelm, you might start conceiving with a simpler clear white or newly popular rosé port.

Menu Examples

Tônico e Porto Branco
White port, magnolia oil-scented kirschwasser,
Q tonic, frozen cherries
—Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago

Dial “L” for Lavender
Botanist gin, rosé wine, Wild Moon lavender liqueur, white port, honey syrup
—Republic, Bloomfield, Conn.

Red/Italian Vermouth

Vermouth, whose name comes from the German word for wormwood, is a flavored wine category that lends bitter flavors and has great longevity, increasing its value at the bar. Carpano Classico is one of the originals, and “Italian” or “sweet” are usually derivative of that. Typical of the style, these fortified wines have complex, herbaceous, sweet-bitter flavors that Europeans prefer sipped plain as sessionable aperitivos. Americans made sweet vermouth a popular ingredient in the mid to late 1800s, especially with the Manhattan.

Menu Examples

Creole Cocktail
Russell’s 6 Year Rye, Ramazzotti Amaro, Cinzano 1757 Vermouth, Bénédictine
—Viviane, Beverly Hills, Calif.
The Isabella
St-Germain, Cocchi Rosa, grapefruit and prosecco
—Bistro Milano, New York

White/Blanco Vermouth

“French” or “dry” vermouth is an aromatized and slightly fortified white wine with very little to no sugar. This Marseilles style was originally created in France by Joseph Noilly in 1813, and came to North America almost concurrently with its sweeter sister—and then came to prominence with the introduction of the martini and its offshoots. Fortunately, it has made a resurgence as a cocktail ingredient with a number of distillers making it—each with its own twist. When using, do not assume automatic substitution for its traditional counterparts.

Menu Examples

Contessa
Malfy Citrus Gin, Aperol, Contratto Bianco Vermouth
—Luca, Denver
The Stowaway
Dark rum, Aperol, Dolin Blanc, cava
—Death & Taxes, Raleigh, N.C.

Chinato & Vermouth Con Bitter

Bittered vermouth and chinato are intricately flavored aromatized wines in the vermouth style, which include added bittering agent quina/cinchona and, often, gentian, with sugar to balance the bitter. Bolstering the bitter and adulterating with sugar (and sometimes vanilla), these date back to Torino in the mid-1800s. Chinato is densely herbaceous, intensely aromatic, possessing a strong quinine bitterness balancing heavy baking spice and, therefore, used sparingly. Vermouth alla vaniglia, with its vanilla presence, works especially well with caramel components and the spice of whiskey and aged rum.

Menu Examples

The Classic
Old Tom Gin Lane 1751, Campari, Mancino Chinato Vermouth
—The Fainting Goat, Washington, D.C.
Fair Isle Cocktail
Monkey Shoulder Whiskey, Cocchi Barolo Chinato, fresh grapefruit juice, The Bitter Truth Grapefruit Bitters
—The Wooden Table, Greenwood Village, Colo.

Kina/Quina

Wine-based aperitifs such as quinas like Lillet have a significant quinine content or cinchona bark. With other bitters, citrus, herbs, spices and botanicals, they often have a bitter-balancing sweetness, making them an excellent substitute for sugar, simple syrup or sweet liqueurs. Quinas were popularized in the early ’50s. In Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale, James Bond orders a Vesper, which is “three measures Gordon’s Gin, one measure of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken until ice cold, then served in a deep champagne goblet garnished with a large, thin slice of lemon peel.” An excellent recipe for riffing.

Menu Examples

Necromancer
Lillet Blanc, absinthe, lime juice, elderflower liqueur, gin, lemon twist
—Radio Milano, Houston
Corpse Reviver No. 2
Gin, Lillet, Curaçao, lemon
—The Mansion Inn, New Hope, Pa.

Americano

Americano is from the French amer (bitter), the defining characteristic of this tipple derived from gentian and/or wormwood. These fortified and aromatized apéritif wines are proprietary formulations from a variety of herbs, roots, citruses, spices, barks and other botanicals. Though most frequently made from white wines with bitter-balancing sugars (such as Moscato d’Asti or mistelle), they are often darkened with those “secret” botanicals and then dyed with cochineal to achieve a ruby hue. With residual sugar, they remain crisp, woodsy and citrusy, and can stand in for lighter vermouth or more bracing amaro.

Menu Examples

Beet Your Maker
Whiskey, Cocchi Americano, beet, five spice, lemon
—Death & Taxes, Raleigh, N.C.
Little Pink Corvette
Bulldog Gin, St. George Bruto Americano, grapefruit, strawberry, lemon
—South Water Kitchen, Chicago

French-Style Apéritif

Like the rest, this wild-card group of French apéritif wines is infused with herbs, spices, citrus peels, gentian and the hallmark cinchona bark. Fortified wine-based apéritif and quinas span the space between sweet vermouth and amari, with flavors from mildly bitter to almost astringent, with a range of sweetness levels that provide syrupy texture or leave plentiful bitterness on the palate. They run crimson to golden or grassy-clear, but color tends not to indicate flavor. Traditionally enjoyed on ice with lemon, French apéritifs are finding their way into modern cocktails that require deeper, more interesting flavors and aromas.

Menu Examples

Negroni Scorretto
Gin, Cocchi Americano, Salers, watermelon
—Sarma, Somerville, Mass.
Ten Duel Commandments/Lin-Manuel Miranda
Templeton Rye, Byrrh, lemon juice, a 4 Hands Single Speed reduction, strawberries, brown sugar
—Blood & Sand, St. Louis

Italian Vino Aperitivo

Aperitivo is the ritual of going out for a pre-dinner drink, as well as the beverage appropriate to that ritual. The word comes from Latin for “to open,” as in a way to encourage the appetite: light, not too sweet nor alcoholic, and a bit bitter to prepare the digestive system for a meal. While vermouth is the most prevalent vino aperitivo, there is a new slew of uncategorized aromatized and fortified wine-based aperitivi that have been renewed by current cocktail culture. They vary by region and maker, but offer an alternative to traditional vermouth or red bitter amari, such as Campari, in everything from a spritz to a Negroni.

Menu Examples

Negroni Bianco
Gin, Gran Classico Bitter, Contratto Bianco vermouth
—La Spiga, Seattle
The Cannonball
Chamomile-infused Reyka vodka, Cappelletti, lime, toasted celery reduction, Brut sparkling wine
—Teardrop Cocktail Lounge, Portland, Ore.

 

About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.