Plain old port may be your grandfather’s drink, but port cocktails? Well, that’s something you can happily claim as your own.
Currently all the rage with the younger set in Porto, Portugal, the local cocktail scene is abuzz with port, the famed fortified wine that’s sourced from Portugal’s Douro Valley, set just inland from Porto.
Here’s a primer on all things port so you can dive in on this emerging cocktail culture with ease. Saúde (cheers)!
The History & Production of Port
Crafted from distilled grapes, port—its name derived from the city of Porto—claims a long history. It’s been produced in the Douro Valley (which was the world’s first demarcated wine region and designated as such in 1756) for centuries, and the area continues to turn out various styles of fortified wine via dozens of local wineries, known as quintas. Among the quintas open for tours and tastings are those behind some well-established brand names that stand out on the local liquor store shelf, like Dow’s, Warre’s, Sandeman, and Taylor Fladgate.
Porto and its neighboring city of Vila Nova de Gaia both experience lower temperatures than the valley and have accordingly provided a more conducive setting for the wine’s required aging process. As such, many of the port brands maintain wine-aging lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, which double as public tasting rooms (like Porto Cruz, known for its happening rooftop hangout Terraço 360º).
Port comes in three main styles: ruby, tawny, and white. Additionally, there are two vintage styles: vintage and late bottled vintage. Deep-red ruby, made from red grapes and aged in stainless steel or concrete, tends to be the least expensive. Tawny claims a brownish hue, owing to oxidation during its aging process in wooden barrels. White port is made from white grapes and ranges in flavor from dry to sweet. Vintage means all the grapes are sourced from a harvest in a declared vintage year, which meet longer aging times in both barrel and in bottle. Late bottled vintage is also sourced from vintage-year grapes but doesn’t require as much aging time before release.
How Port Is Traditionally Served
The customary way to serve port is out of a special decanter, after dinner, and alongside a strong cheese like a Stilton. But producers have noted that the new generation isn’t consuming port in the tradition of their elders. As such, sales have merely held steady or have downright decreased in markets around the world. Add to that a flood of less-expensive, sweeter versions on store shelves that have lessened the drink’s reputation, and you have all the factors that have helped contribute to the current shift to port cocktails.
The Rise of Port-Based Cocktail Culture
“Most guests who say they don’t like port have only tried excessively sweet, low-quality ports,” explains David Pinto, bar supervisor at the Six Senses Douro Valley hotel in Lamego, in the Douro Valley. Pinto says that his bar team can usually turn guests on to port by having them sample a less-sweet version, a different style, or, of course, a cocktail.
“It took a ton of experimentation before we knew how to handle, combine, and harmonize ruby and tawny ports into tasty creations.”
One such cocktail that has taken off at the Six Senses hotel is the Port Tonic. It’s a simple recipe: dry white port mixed with tonic water and often garnished with citrus. It offers lower alcohol by volume than a gin and tonic but boasts similar flavors. Or try the Made in Douro, which combines white port with a Portuguese barrel-aged gin. At Terraço 360º, order the Rosemary, a mix of the brand’s Porto Cruz white port with rosemary, ginger, and tonic water. The Port Tonic is popular at Dick’s Bar at The Yeatman hotel in Porto, as well, and mixologists there also add port twists to classic cocktails like mint juleps and old-fashioneds.
Pinto notes that finding the right mixtures for the flavorful concoctions requires some finesse. “Port is a hugely challenging ingredient, principally due to its sweetness, which makes it hard to balance,” he says, adding, “It took a ton of experimentation before we knew how to handle, combine, and harmonize ruby and tawny ports into tasty creations.”
He, like other members of the hospitality and port industry, wants port to succeed, and he sees cocktails as a door for younger consumers to appreciate the libation. Purists caution, however, that cocktails just don’t offer the same level of understanding of port as drinking it straight, and they hope that this newest generation of tipplers will grow to love the simple joys of sipping a vintage port, too. After all, explains Port Cruz’s rep Elsa Couto, “Cocktails will never replace a pairing of vintage port and blue cheese.”
Port Cocktail Recipes
Can’t make it to Porto to imbibe? No problem. Here are two lip-smacking port cocktail recipes to sample right at home:
Yeatman’s Port Tonic
• 3 oz. Taylor’s Chip Dry White Port
• Tonic water
• Orange zest
Fill a short glass with ice. Pour in port, then top off with tonic water. Garnish with orange zest.
Porto Cruz’s Rosemary
• 3 oz. Porto Cruz White Port
• 1 slice ginger
• 1 sprig rosemary
• Tonic water
Place ginger and 0.5 ounces Porto Cruz White Port into a long drink glass, then fill it with ice. Pour in 2.5 ounces Porto Cruz White Port, add a sprig of rosemary, and top with tonic. Mix and serve.