For centuries, the duty of Portugal’s famed fortified wine, was, the saying goes, “to be red.” But in 1934, Taylor’s, a legendary port house, challenged that tenant when it introduced the first dry white port to the market. Made via the same method as red port, white port differs in the selection of grapes (a field blend of indigenous white grapes versus red grapes) and the length and manner of aging. They also differ in how they’re meant to be consumed.
“Red wine ports typically enter a lengthy aging process either in oak or bottle,” says Tyson Buhler, head bartender at Death & Co. in New York. “White ports are meant to be lively and fresh, and are commonly served young.” Further, white port is often characterized by flavors of golden raisins, orange peel and even almonds, as opposed to the spicy, berry-like aromas found in red port.
Port of Call
There are also a variety of different styles, ranging from sweet (also known as lagrima or “tears,” due to their viscosity) to medium sweet, to dry and extra dry, that fall into the white port category. It’s those on the drier end of the spectrum, like Fonseca Siroco, that have become darlings among bartenders. As Jessey Qi, the assistant general manager of Anvil in Houston, puts it, “White port works well with cocktails, tastes good and is relatively inexpensive.” Qi recommends splitting the base of drinks like the Tom Collins or French 75 between white port and gin—a spirit that is particularly friendly to white port, to lower the ABV—while adding additional depth of flavor.
Another natural starting point for mixing is the White Port & Tonic—the classic Portuguese aperitif served over ice with, variably, a twist of lime, mint or an orange slice. Death & Co.’s Astral Plane, for example, riffs on the combination by mixing medium-dry Quinta do Infantado white port with lemon juice and simple syrup, then leveling it out with a hit of salty, bitter Salers, Peychaud’s bitters and, of course, tonic.
At Anvil, meanwhile, bartenders Tommy Ho and Alex Negranza use white port in a modified sour called the Featherweight, which combines white rum with Warre’s white port, nectarine syrup, lemon juice and two dashes of peach tincture for a drink that’s meant to beat the Texas heat.
While white port’s light flavor profile and historic role as a warm-weather refresher have made it a common appearance in spring and summer cocktails, Derek Brown, president of Drink Company, the restaurant group behind Washington D.C.’s Columbia Room and Mockingbird Hill, among others, sees an all-weather application. “I was looking for something rich and slightly sweet,” he says, “and I love that combination of bourbon and port.”
The Robert Frost Cocktail, which he created for a holiday party at The White House, and installed on the opening menu of Columbia Room, is a combination of whiskey with Ferreira Dona Antónia Reserva Branco white port, amontillado sherry and orange bitters that’s stirred and served up in a chilled cocktail glass. It drinks like a re-imagination of many of the classic, late-19th century sherry-and-vermouth aperitif cocktails, albeit with a higher-proof hit from bourbon. “It’s great stuff but it’s never really been top of the list,” says Brown of the spirit. “I’m glad to see white port get its due.”