Who Will Save Sangria’s Soul?

After decades of disrespect, a new crop of bartenders are looking beyond sangria's cheap past to create delicious, high-quality drinks that combine fruit and wine. Regan Hofmann on how the college cliché is no longer immune to the craft boom.

new recipes for sangria

Like so many cocktails, no one knows exactly when sangria was invented. We can, however, pinpoint the exact moment the ancient Spanish punch became America’s favorite fruity wine cooler, the official drink of ladies’ nights and college dinner parties across the country. That was the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, the international exposition that also introduced the country to Belgian waffles and the Ford Mustang. At the Fair’s Spanish Pavilion, meant to encapsulate all that Spanish culture had to offer (which also included paintings by El Greco and Goya, as well as flamenco dancers), romantic Spaniards poured glass after glass of the baroquely named, never-before-seen punch for a rapt audience.

The original sangria, the one whose roots no one can quite trace, is simply any Spanish wine cut with fruit and spices often used to liven up poor product and revive bottles that are past their prime. “It comes from this family of wine punches—there’s one from Germany, there’s one from Switzerland—that all have their own tradition and culture,” says Chantal Tseng, co-owner of Washington, D.C.’s Mockingbird Hill. While it’s unlikely the World’s Fair vendors invented their drink wholecloth, their theatrical presentation and distinctive recipe took centuries of poorly defined history and cemented it as one easily marketable product. 

Some point to the early cocktail sangaree as a stop in sangria’s evolutionary trail, documented as far back as the 16th century and recorded for posterity in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 Bartenders’ Guide. Explains Mockingbird Hill co-owner Derek Brown, sangaree is “just the word used for a single serving punch.” Associated with maritime trade in the Caribbean, its etymological connection to the decidedly non-single-serving Spanish punch is a weak link. Sangria, after all, is derived from sangre, or blood, with a Latinate root that pops up in all the Romance languages and then some (sanguine, anyone?). The first sangaree maker may have run across the notion of a Spanish blood-named punch in his travels, but the two recipes evolved separately, like finches on the Galapagos Islands.

Today, more and more bartenders are looking to sangria as an opportunity for creative experimentation. In salvaging the delicious elements of the drink (fruity, refreshing, cool) from the tired (stale, sweet, unbalanced) they’re placing equal emphasis on fresh ingredients and on thoughtful drink-building. One key innovation: returning focus to the wine itself.

The World’s Fair sangria doctored up the classical punch formula for mass appeal, mixing Spanish red wine with brandy, sugar and chopped fruit. Ironically, it was intended to boost market awareness of Spanish wines, which at the time had little cachet and were primarily seen as cheap and inferior to European counterparts from France and Italy. But by linking it to the sweet, fruity new concoction, they contributed to its marginalization for decades to come. “To a degree, I don’t think there’s any cause to putting a great wine into a sangria—I think you’re kind of losing the point,” says Tseng.

In the classic recipe, that’s true. But today, more and more bartenders are looking to sangria as an opportunity for creative experimentation. In salvaging the delicious elements of the drink (fruity, refreshing, cool) from the tired (stale, sweet, unbalanced) they’re placing equal emphasis on fresh ingredients and on thoughtful drink-building. One key innovation: returning focus to the wine itself. When Ivy Mix, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda, began working on large-format wine punches to serve at her Pan-Latin-inspired bar, she was adamant about one thing: “Don’t call it a sangria.” That’s because, as she puts it, “When people say sangria, I think of something that’s cheap and probably not very well thought out or well made. It’s something that people who don’t know how to make cocktails can make, sell en masse, and make their money.” In creating her Por la Sangre and Oye Rubia punches, she began with the tasting notes of the wines themselves, putting the focus back on sangria’s most sidelined (and essential) ingredient.

On the other side of the pitcher, some bartenders are ditching the brandy and adding a more nuanced spirit backbone. At several of April Bloomfield’s New York venues, including the Ace Hotel’s Lobby Bar, new sangrias use pisco in place of the old-fashioned grape spirit, while in a recent article on reclaiming the drink, veteran bartender Jim Meehan introduced a set of aperitivi-inspired recipes using bitter liqueurs to offset the fruit’s sweetness.

Though it did little to boost Spanish wine’s reputation, sangria’s fame as an exotic crowd pleaser can’t be denied. Last year, the European Union ruled that sangria (defined for their purposes as “a drink obtained from wine, aromatized with the addition of natural citrus-fruit extracts or essences, with or without the juice of such fruit and with the possible addition of spices, sweetened and with CO2 added”) is a protected product of Spain and Portugal, and that commercial versions produced in other countries must identify their place of origin so as not to mislead consumers.

“It can be delicious as long as it’s made well,” says Mix. “Use fresh ingredients, fresh citrus juice and understand how all the ingredients work together.” Mix and her fellow bartenders are working to save sangria from itself, upgrading it from budget-party purgatory to cocktail status, with all the care and craft that goes with it. “People have been putting fruit into wine for a long time,” says Brown. They’re just doing it better these days.

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