“I love the way Pineau des Charentes can fill many roles,” says New York–based bartender and educator ms. franky marshall. “It can be the star of the show, or a stealth support player that works well with so many spirits and wines.”
For those unfamiliar with Pineau des Charentes or how to use it in cocktails, there’s never been a better time to get to know the French aperitif. The low-alcohol ingredient bridges the gap between wine and spirits, making it ideal for a wide range of drink styles, whether it’s the showpiece in an aperitif or adding balance to more complex cocktails. It’s little surprise that bartenders are leaning into this versatile secret weapon to add complexity and balance to cocktails.
Made in France’s Cognac region, Pineau des Charentes starts with many of the same grape varieties used to make Cognac, such as Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. The pressed juice is then mixed with Cognac eau-de-vie that has been aged at least one year. The 3-to-1 ratio preserves the juice’s freshness and light acidity, and adds just enough oomph, at 17 percent alcohol by volume (34 proof).
But it’s the aging process that makes the aperitif so unique, marshall says, giving young Pineau des Charentes “depth of flavor without being overwhelmed by the wood,” while in older expressions, “you can start to detect rancio”—an elusive, umami-like flavor—and “experience a longer finish, and taste more dried and tropical fruit notes.” Young Pineau des Charentes (aged for at least 18 months, 12 or more of those in oak barrels) is typically fruit-forward and clean, with a dry, refreshing finish; old and very old styles of Pineau des Charentes (aged five and 10 years, respectively, in oak) are nuanced and complex, with layers of dried fruit, nuts, honey and spices. As a result, the flavor profile among bottlings can vary widely, from fruity to floral, light to rich.
This spectrum of flavors and resulting versatility—not to mention its relatively low ABV—has bartenders reaching for Pineau des Charentes in an extensive range of cocktails. “It is exciting to bring into your bar because it has so many different uses,” explains Abigail Gullo, creative director at the Loa Bar at the International House Hotel in New Orleans. A young white Pineau des Charentes provides the backbone to Gullo’s Bon Bon Vivant, a Boulevardier variation that incorporates small but flavorful touches of fino sherry and briny Islay Scotch, diluted with frozen cubes of coconut water.
Built around Pineau des Charentes’ natural sweet-tart profile, “the other ingredients fit in like a jigsaw puzzle to create a really solid drink,” Gullo explains. Notably, no sugar or other sweeteners are included in the aperitif-style recipe; Pineau des Charentes “adds just the right amount of sweetness,” Gullo says, plus depth of flavor.
“In a time when so many people are sugar- or sweet-adverse, using Pineau des Charentes is a great way to amplify and help translate flavors, while adding a complexity of its own, rather than just adding a blank, neutral base like simple syrup,” Gullo says
“In a time when so many people are sugar- or sweet-adverse, using Pineau des Charentes is a great way to amplify and help translate flavors, while adding a complexity of its own, rather than just adding a blank, neutral base like simple syrup,” Gullo says.
For fans of sessionable low-alcohol drinks, Pineau des Charentes offers an option for building low-octane drinks that still pack in plenty of flavor. Consider, marshall’s Charaillon cocktail, which features a young Pineau des Charentes White in the starring role. To play up Pineau des Charentes’ naturally fruity notes, marshall doubles down with fresh cantaloupe juice. A teaspoon of vanilla yogurt adds lush body. “Vanilla specifically enhances and pairs with the melon, stone fruit and white flower quality of the Pineau des Charentes,” she says.
Yet it plays well in stronger drinks, too. It’s that adaptability that appeals to Javelle Taft, head bartender at Death & Co. in New York City. Depending on the age and style of the bottling, “it’s versatile enough to be a base spirit or used as a modifier,” Taft says. While young varieties of Pineau des Charentes can feature robust “juicy fruit notes,” those aged longer in oak can be “grassy and dry.” The latter style works particularly well in place of vermouth, he says.
In Taft’s Je Ne Sais Quoi, Pineau des Charentes takes exactly that role, balancing out a tall, effervescent refresher that also features reposado tequila, chile pepper–flavored vodka and gingery spice. The result, Taft says, is exactly the drink “I want to selfishly enjoy outside on a patio all summer.”