PX sherry has a long history of being used in place of simple syrup, but at Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher, beverage director Brian Kane is taking that mode of thinking a step further. He calls on a variety of sweet wines, such as Madeira, vin santo and late-harvest riesling, in place of simple or infused syrup.
“The integration of sweeter wines in cocktails was a tactical movement to bridge the gap between the wine program and cocktails,” Kane explains. “We wanted to introduce sweet wines by the glass to cocktail drinkers who didn’t know they liked wine, or didn’t know much about them.”
No, he’s not boiling down wine with sugar to make a syrup: most often, it’s a pure substitution, he assures. Typically, these wines are used in classic cocktails—Manhattans and Negroni riffs—in place of vermouth, which is itself a fortified wine, though it lacks the concentrated sweetness of many dessert-style bottlings.
“Vermouth is essentially a sweet wine,” he reasoned, so “we decided to explore alternative ingredients in place of vermouth. The result was a cocktail with slightly different texture.”
Of course, it helps to have access to a restaurant with a full wine program, where leftover measures of dessert wine might potentially be within reach. (“It wouldn’t be financially reasonable to have an aged vin santo in your fridge at home to mix into Negroni variations,” Kane points out.) But, like PX, oxidized wines like Madeira are “utterly indestructible,” he says, so if you have an open bottle already on hand, there’s no reason not to experiment with splashing some into a mixing glass.
Certainly, the swap requires a little tinkering to find the right balance. But, when used properly, wine can add subtle umami notes or acidity to mixed drinks, along with necessary sweetness. Here, three sweet wines to experiment with in cocktails.
Kane favors the Rare Wine Company’s single-varietal Madeira series, especially the sweet, nutty Boston Bual, which he says works in place of sugar in a classic Mojito. The higher-acid Charleston Sercial meanwhile provides “orange zest and toffee notes” that work well in Old-Fashioned variations, when used in place of sugar or simple syrups.
For a shandy-inspired cocktail, Kane mixes Victory Prima Pils with grapefruit juice and a touch of late-harvest riesling. The wine adds “so much more depth than honey syrup or simple syrup,” he insists, adding that it also creates brightness thanks to its high acidity. “It’s like adding electricity to a cocktail.”
Kane typically swaps in Vin Santo from Tuscany for honey syrup, which has a similar viscosity and roundness. He particularly likes it in a Penicillin variation, in place of the drink’s signature honey-ginger syrup. “It’s a very expensive Penicillin,” he warns, “but it’s good.”