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What is Fortified Wine?

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Wikimedia Commons

Intimidated by fortified wines like sherry and port? Don't be. Put simply, fortified wine is a blend of still wine and distilled spirit. Besides being your Grandma’s favorite kitchen staple, fortified wines have a lot to offer. Quite a few different varietals exist—think of this as a basic primer.

Spirited Additions

Fortified wines have existed for hundreds of years. Since ethanol is a natural antiseptic, adding it to anything kills off most of what could potentially spoil it. During colonial times, the heartiness of the fortified wine meant that it could be shipped long distances without compromising its flavor.

The distilled spirit, usually a grape brandy, is added either during or after a wine’s fermentation. During fermentation, Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast is added to the juice of grapes that have been slowly and gently squeezed and filtered. Over the course of fermentation, the yeast converts the grape's natural sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide.

As yeast cells can’t survive in high ethanol concentrations, the fermentation process stops when the wine’s alcohol content gets higher than 12-15 percent. This process can also be halted by the addition of a neutral spirit, as is done in port. Adding the spirit before fermentation is complete also ensures that much of the grape’s natural sugar remains in the final product.

Touring Port

This Portuguese product must be made of grapes that were grown and processed in the country's Douro region. By European Union law, anything labeled as port must originate here.

According to history, port was not created by sailors trying to preserve the Portuguese product. Instead, representatives from an English wine merchant chanced to visit the Abbot of Lamego in 1678. After tasting the sweet, smooth port and learning how it was fortified, they bought his entire stock and shipped the lot back to England.

In the following years, port became so popular that the port houses began shipping in grapes from other regions. When this news broke, the drink quickly lost popularity within England. This resulted in the passing of a legally-binding designation of origin to protect its definition, making port the third oldest appellation in the world.

A Sherry History

Under European law, sherry must come from the region around Jerez, Spain. Typically produced with white grapes, the wine base is allowed to ferment entirely before the grape brandy is added. From there, different blends are aged using various methods. Blends designated for Fino and Manzanilla sherry are then rested in barrels where they develop a yeast-like growth called "flor." This layer protects the liquid from excess oxidization, giving the final product a lighter color and drier taste.

Oloroso sherry, on the other hand, is more heavily fortified. As a result, the flor doesn’t develop, and the blend oxidizes. Since most of the natural sugar is processed during fermentation, sweet varietals of sherry are then sweetened with the juice from dried grapes.

Hit the Lab

Clair McLafferty

If you want a safe way to try out some new sherries, make yourself a sherry flip. (Nervous about the whole farm egg thing? Putting eggs in cocktails is a tradition that predates the word "cocktail." It’s also totally safe!)

Sherry Flip
4 dashes chocolate mole bitters
Whole farm egg
Short 0.5 oz Grade B maple syrup
2 oz Oloroso or other dry sherry

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin. Shake vigorously without ice for 20-30 seconds. Add ice and shake for another 17-20 seconds. Strain into a chilled rocks glass and enjoy.

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What's the Right Way to Make a Sazerac?
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If you pronounce New Orleans "New Or-leens," or if you can’t get enough of those Big Ass Beers sold on Bourbon Street, you’re probably not actually from New Orleans. But if you’re feeling adventurous and missing the Big Easy, a Sazerac might be just what the doctor ordered. 

‘Tails and Stories

A few hundred years ago, you might have actually gotten a doctor’s order for a Sazerac. One of the drink's origin stories claims that it was invented by New Orleans apothecary Antoine Amedie Peychaud. According to this tale, Mr. Peychaud mixed up the drink with his eponymous bitters and served it in an egg coupe in his shop. 

A more likely origin story states that the drink was invented by a different New Orleans resident (though in the same neighborhood). Around 1850, Sewell T. Taylor sold his bar to Aaron Bird and went into the import business. One of his products happened to be Sazerac-de-Forge et Fils brandy. While Taylor was importing, Bird renamed his bar the Sazerac House and began serving a house cocktail that featured Taylor’s brandy and, as the story goes, bitters made by his neighborhood apothecary, Mr. Peychaud.

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe's grape crops were decimated by an infestation of American aphids. In just four years, French wine production was cut by 67 percent, and even the most dedicated cognac drinkers switched to whiskey. For New Orleans, that meant switching to rye whiskey that was shipped to the city down the Ohio River and through the Mississippi. Thomas Handy, who owned the Sazerac Bar during that time period, likely switched the drink's main ingredient. This take on the signature cocktail is the one that found its way into the 1908 edition of The World's Drinks and How To Mix Them, with the recipe calling for "good whiskey," not Sazerac cognac. 

The origins of the Sazerac’s name is vague. It’s possible that it was a nod to the fact that it was the bar's house cocktail, but it’s also possible that it’s a reference to the brand of brandy. In those days, “cocktail” referred to a specific alcoholic drink format. As put forth by The Balance and Columbian Repository in 1806, a “cock-tail” is “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.” If you wanted this type of drink with whiskey in it, you would ask for a Whiskey Cocktail. If you wanted Sazerac brandy (until the aphid plague, at least), you'd ask for a Sazerac cocktail.

Hit the Lab

Sazerac Recipe:

2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
.25 oz simple syrup (or a sugar cube)
2 oz good rye whiskey (use the good stuff)
lemon peel for garnish

Place the sugar cube into an absinthe-rinsed rocks glass. Dash the bitters onto the cube and muddle. Add whiskey and one large ice cube and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0
What’s the Right Way to Make a Caipirinha?
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Flickr User Janice Waltzer // CC BY 2.0

The Rio Olympics start in just a few weeks, and all eyes are on Brazil. To celebrate, we decided to focus on the country’s most famous cocktail creation: the Caipirinha.

In form, the Caipirinha is pretty much a Brazilian Daiquiri. It’s made from sugar, lime, and cachaça. Cachaça could be considered a cousin to rum, but it is altogether unique. While most rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from fresh sugarcane juice.

Unlike rum, which can be made anywhere, cachaça can only be made in Brazil. Though it’s often sold unaged, it is usually matured in woods that are native to Brazil, like peanut and balm. As with wine, beer, and whiskey, different kinds of wood affect the product inside differently.

The classifications of cachaça aren’t based on the type of cask in which it’s aged. It can get a bit confusing: Spirit that is not stored in wood or is kept in stainless steel vats before it’s bottled is often called branca (white). But cachaça aged in wood that doesn’t color the liquor may also be labeled as branca. This category goes under several other names, including prata (silver) and clássica (classic).

Cachaça that’s stored or aged in wood is usually labeled as amarela (yellow), in reference to its color. These may also be labeled as ouro (gold). Envelhecida (aged) cachaça, a subtype of amarela, is a bit more involved: it’s considered aged if more than 50 percent of the content of the bottle has been aged for at least a year in a barrel that’s 700 liters or smaller.

Cachaça is the “third most produced distilled drink in the world,” according to Alcohol In Latin America: A Social and Cultural History. Though more than 5000 brands existed in 2008, it was relatively ignored outside of Brazil until the recent resurgence of craft cocktails. In fact, until 2013, it had to be labeled “Brazilian rum” to be imported into the U.S. As a result, it’s often mistaken by many people for being a type of rum.

Unfortunately, we don’t really know anything definite about the origins of the Caipirinha. Like the Mojito and the Old Fashioned, the formula was perhaps first used in folk medicine. Carlos Lima, the executive director of IBRAC (the Brazilian Institute of Cachaça) told Casa e Jardim that a mix of lime, garlic, and honey with a pour of cachaça was probably used in São Paulo around 1918 as a remedy for the Spanish Flu.

As the story goes, someone eventually decided to skip the garlic and honey. Then, to balance the acidity of the lime, sugar was added. Over time, the drink spread into bars, ice entered the equation, and it became the Caipirinha we know today.

HIT THE LAB

Like the Mojito, the classic Caipirinha recipe is quite simple, but it’s also been the subject of many, many variations. We’ve included the International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe as well as a modern take on the drink.

Caipirinha
Modified from the IBA website.

2 ounces Cachaça
1/2 of a lime
1 tablespoon sugar

Muddle lime and sugar in an Old Fashioned glass. Fill with ice and pour cachaça over it. Stir and enjoy.

Prata B. (Puerto Rico Asta Ah Brazil)
Recipe by Luis Ramos, bar manager of Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco.

1 3/4 ounces Avua Prata Cachaça
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce pineapple gomme syrup
1/2 ounce Pedro Ximenez sherry
1/4 ounce Punt e Mes
Grated nutmeg, lime zest, lime wheel for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a Collins glass. Add crushed ice and stir until glass frosts. Top glass with grated nutmeg, lime zest, and lime wheel.

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