Spirits: Cocktails Made With Wine

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

This is sure to offend some friends and relatives, but I must be honest: When I come to your home for a party and the only thing to drink is a big ol' liter and a half of oaky Yellow Tail chardonnay -- or worse, you show up at my doorstep with Yellow Tail's jammy shiraz -- a little part of me dies inside. First of all, you're making it clear you don't read my column. Second, you will never, ever be drinking any of my good stuff from the Special Cabinet.

Sneered at by drink aficionados and loved by just about everyone else, Yellow Tail has achieved a ubiquity that has been been well chronicled. It has been blamed for the rise of low-quality "critter" wines, the crisis of Australia's premium wine industry and the general downfall of the American palate. All of that has little effect on its massive sales.

I wrote last year about the emergence of wine cocktails, or "winetails" ("A Lighter Way to Mix It Up," June 11, 2008), and suggested that they might be the next big cocktail trend. Well, I think the winetail wave is about to break. Last week I may have seen the future, and it looks a lot like a big magnum of Yellow Tail behind the bar.

This summer I met a mixologist named Trudy Thomas, beverage director for the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., who told me she was consulting for Yellow Tail, developing cocktails using the company's wines. "Yellow Tail isn't afraid to try something like this," Thomas says. "They already dominate the wine market. Where else are they going to go but into cocktails? It's the next evolution."

I later received a handful of the 40-plus cocktail recipes Thomas has created. I had a surprising amount of Yellow Tail lying around my cellar: unused housewarming gifts or perhaps leftovers from my wife's book club. So I decided to experiment.

Readers, I wanted to hate these cocktails. I really did. But I simply cannot be a hater. For reasons I have yet to wrap my head around, I found several of these cocktails to be inventive and tasty. Thomas deserves some sort of special Mixology Achievement Medal.

Who would have believed that equal parts bourbon and Yellow Tail shiraz, along with a little lemon juice and simple syurp, would make such an interesting Manhattan variation? Would you have guessed that Australian Riesling would blend with pear brandy, amaretto and lemon juice into a wonderful autumn afternoon cocktail? And who would guess that a Yellow Tail cabernet blend, rum, bitters and ginger beer would make a terrific variation on the Dark 'n' Stormy?

After fooling around with Thomas's recipes, I feel even more convinced about the possibilities of wine as an ingredient. "You really can't duplicate the flavors of wine and what they bring to a cocktail," she says. Plus, replacing a high-proof spirit with wine lightens the alcohol volume significantly.

Of course, you can make these drinks with wines other than Yellow Tail. And Yellow Tail is not the only big wine company that has recently leapt into the winetail market. Only a few weeks before my Yellow Tail experiments, I had received a bottle of Croft Pink, touted by its maker as the "world's first rosé porto." It is "intended to be served on the rocks or chilled" and "steps out of the 'after-dinner' category to the bar menu."

Now, it may or may not make sense for a distinguished port house, founded in 1588, to be chasing the kind of drinker who would be interested in a $19.99 pink port. But as Adrian Bridge, chief executive of the Fladgate Partnership, Croft's parent company, explains in a news release, "Innovation will raise awareness in the industry of porto as a contemporary product."

Allow me to interpret that: Port is seen as a stuffy, clubby drink for old men. And the good stuff is expensive, to boot. In fact, port enthusiasts are dying off faster than they're being replaced. Meanwhile, 20- and 30-something female drinkers -- the ones who drive most drinking trends, the ones so many liquor companies covet -- almost never consume port.

Croft Pink by itself doesn't have much to recommend it; it's neither an interesting aperitif nor a good port. But here's the thing: Like Yellow Tail, it definitely brings an interesting element to cocktails. Neyah White, bar manager of Nopa in San Francisco, mixes Croft Pink in an ice-filled highball glass with gin and orange bitters, then tops it with ginger beer. Jim Meehan of New York's PDT makes a unique cocktail called Pretty in Porto with the unlikely combination of pink port, kirschwasser, grapefruit juice and Peychaud's bitters.

I look forward to the continuing experiments with wine. On my end, I know I'll no longer whine when I see that big liter-and-a-half at a party. I'll just make sure I've brought some good booze (and a shaker) to mix it with.

Jason Wilson can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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