Bringing It Back Bar: What to Do With Pineau Des Charentes

Every bar sports marginal bottles that elude even the most seasoned drink-makers. That is, until someone dusts them off and uses them in a new way. In "Bringing It Back Bar," we shine a light on overlooked bottles and devise recipes to take them from back bar to front shelf. Up now: Pineau des Charentes.

In the case of the modern cocktail, mishap is often the mother of invention: A preoccupied bartender mistakenly reaches for the wrong bottle and an ill-fated Negroni becomes a sparkling Sbagliato

Rewind to the late 16th century, and the happy accident finds precedent in Pineau des Charentes. As the story goes, in 1589, in Charente—a department in Southwest France—a vintner transferred his white grape must to an oak barrel containing a small amount of Cognac eau de vie, having mistakenly assumed it to be empty. Prompted by a huge yield a few seasons later, the winemaker, needing all barrels on deck, reopened the cask to find a curious new drink: The Cognac had stunted the wine’s fermentation, and the sweet, fruit-forward Pineau des Charentes was born.

These days, Pineau is made using a ratio of three parts must to one part Cognac, which has been distilled and aged for at least one year prior to the must’s introduction. White Pineau, which derives from a variety of grapes including ugni blanc, merlots blanc and noir, colombard and sauvignon, ages at least 18 months; red Pineau, made from cabernet franc, malbec and merlot noir, ages at least 12 months. In both cases, the Cognac must be at least 60 percent alcohol to mute fermentation and promote sweetness.

Prior to its introduction into the U.S. market, Pineau was rarely consumed outside of Charente, save for in Belgium, where it’s gained an unexpected following. “When there is demand for the spirit, it’s most often for the young stuff that’s fairly cheap,” says Nicolas Palazzi, PM Spirits owner and wine importer who is patently responsible for the spirit’s recent American adoption. “The old stuff pretty much doesn’t exist,” he continues, “[and] when you find some, it’s sometimes not very good, so the idea is to try to find stuff that is complex and layered.” When Palazzi began bringing in white, red and rosé Pineau—much of it aged—it quickly became a bartender favorite.

“Since Nicolas Palazzi introduced me to Pineau des Charentes, it’s become one of those ingredients that finds itself in a cocktail at the most unexpected times,” says Alexander Day of Manhattan’s Death & Co., who uses it in two brandy-based drinks: the Gun Club Toddy, which pairs Pineau with chamomile-infused Calvados for a riff on the classic Hot Toddy, and the Midnight Rider, which incorporates apple eau de vie, Irish whiskey, Pineau and peach preserves.

“I’m particularly fond of using [Pineau] to amplify brandies, taking advantage of their inherent roundness and giving them just a bit more body,” explains Day. “Whereas a vermouth will add structure to a cocktail, Pineau can act as a booster.”

Brian Means, bar manager at San Francisco’s Dirty Habit, agrees. “I love using young Pineau in cocktails, either as a modifier or as the main ingredient in an inverted cocktail,” he says, adding that it works especially well with complementary spirits, like Cognac, fruit brandies, bourbon and rye or tequila, the latter of which he uses alongside red Pineau, dry Curaçao and banana liqueur in his Charente-16. “The black pepper in the tequila works nicely with the red fruit and baking spices in the [red Pineau] and is rounded out by dried orange peel and roasted banana,” says Means.

At Manhattan’s Attaboy, bartender Dan Greenbaum’s favored Pineau cocktail is The Pompadour, a tart drink adapted from cocktail maestro Frank Meier’s 1936 edition of The Artistry of Mixing Drinks. Shaken with aged rum and lemon juice, Pineau gives the bright, puckery Pompadour a kick of acidity.

Stirred or shaken cocktails aside, Day suggests that one of the simplest and most delicious ways to approach young Pineau is to serve it (weather permitting) with a splash of seltzer on a hot day. As Pineau ages, oxidation helps to concentrate its flavors, says Palazzi, its characteristic fresh fruit tones morphing into dried fruit and nutty characteristics, similar to those found in Madeira. “You end up with something that still has a bunch of sugar, but the acidity tends to rise a little bit. It’s more balanced,” he explains. “It’s more mouth coating.”

According to Palazzi, aged expressions are best served on their own, but when he does mix it into drinks, he keeps things simple: his favorite Pineau cocktail, created by a friend and distributor in Texas, combines one ounce each of aged rosé Pineau and High West Rendezvous Rye, served on the rocks.

It’s simple, but highlights the complex flavors of the aged spirit, says Palazzi. “If you use something as an ingredient in a cocktail, you should taste it.”