When you think of Port (if you do think of Port), you might envision an austere after-dinner drink in a tiny crystal glass. But thanks to the cocktail revolution, this fortified wine is busting out of its traditional role and into creative concoctions made for cozy winter entertaining.
I sat down for a drink (or two) with Jim Meehan, proprietor of one of New York’s favorite cocktail dens, PDT, and author of The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy, to learn about Port cocktails past and present.
Is there a historical precedent for Port cocktails?
Big time, big time. My favorite old Port cocktail – the one that got me into mixing with it – is called the Coffee Cocktail. It shows up first in, I believe, 1887, in Jerry Thomas’s bartenders guide. It’s equal parts cognac and Port, a little bit of sugar, shaken with a whole egg, and garnished with grated nutmeg. I remember looking at that recipe in this old copy of the book and thinking, this is insane. But I made it, and it’s one of my favorite drinks to this day. So a lot of times when someone’s had a cognac drink and they want another one as a nightcap, I’ll suggest a coffee cocktail. That’s an example of one of the old drinks, but I could name four or five of them. The Chancellor cocktail shows up in the Esquire drink book in 1947. It’s scotch with dry vermouth and Port. And it’s great.
How did you go about creating cocktails with Port?
I started out by nosing it, and tasting it, and trying to find flavors in the Port that I could tease out by mixing with them. Pouring some port, getting my nose in there. What fruit is in there? What spices are in there? What herbs are in there? What is the structure? Is it tannin? I try to be simple, not too exhaustive.
One Port I was mixing with has this stemmy earthiness that I thought oolong tea would help accentuate and reinforce. And I mixed it with a bourbon that’s Port-finished [aged in Port barrels],”Jim says. “Initially, Port seems like a third wheel when mixed with two old friends: bourbon and iced tea. But in this case, the third element brings stability to the first two by rejoining the bourbon with the cask it formerly rested in.
2 oz. Noval Black Port
2 oz. Brewed oolong tea (room temperature)
1 oz. Angel’s Envy Bourbon
Build over ice in a wine glass
Garnish with a mint sprig
Since talking Port with Jim, I’ve been emboldened to do plenty of experimenting myself, including substituting it for sweet vermouth in my go-to drink, the Manhattan. The result is a ripe, rich, deep-purple riff on tradition.
My Port of Manhattan cocktail
2 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz. Port
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine in a shaker with cracked ice and serve in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.