Tapping Into the Cocktail Potential of Fortified Wine

Time to dust off that bottle of sherry.

April 27, 2023
Photo by MJ Kroeger

What do you think of when you hear "fortified wine?" If you're shrugging your shoulders, you're not alone. Fortified wines have been around since at least the 1200s, yet they remain the unsung heroes the cocktail world (unless you're a bartender; us bartenders won't stop talking about the stuff). Varieties like sherry, vermouth, Port, and Madeira are all beautifully complex with fascinating and tasty histories, yet they're typically relegated to dusty parlors meant for playing cards. And while the idea of an aperitivo is already woven into the cocktail cultures of France, Italy, and Spain, American drinkers haven't quite caught on yet. Here's hoping this can dispel some of those clouds of mystery around fortified wines and even inspire a cocktail or two.

What Is Fortified Wine?

Let's start with the basics: Fortified wine starts off as, you guessed it, wine. Fortification is the process of taking a wine and adding a distillate to it (also usually made from grapes), either during or after the initial fermentation process. Adding the distillate achieves two things simultaneously—it increases the alcohol content and stops fermentation. Fortification was popularized by the English in the 1600s as a great way to stop wines from spoiling on long sea voyages and then, like so many other early beverage innovations, they discovered that it was also delicious.

Post-fortification is where it gets really fun. A producer can mature their newly fortified wine for as long as they’d like, utilizing traditional processes determined by what category they fall into and what the legal designation of their bottling is.

  • Sherry is exclusively made in the Cádiz province of Spain, between Jerez de la Frontera, El Puerto de Santa Maria, and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Sherry's many expressions span from dry to rich: fino, manzanilla, oloroso, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, cream, and Pedro Ximenez—all blended and matured differently.
  • Port falls into three categories: white, ruby, and tawny, and comes solely from the Douro Valley of Portugal.
  • Madeira, the holy grail of fortified wines, is only produced on the Portuguese island of the same name. The process of making it is dizzyingly complex—heat it, cool it, heat it again, cool it again, expose it to oxygen, then stick it in a barrel in a heated room and let it sit for a few years—enough to command decadently high prices. All three of these categories—sherry, Port, and Madeira—are protected by a legal denomination in their respective countries, similar to Champagne. An Italian vintner, for example, can say that they make a "Port-style" fortified wine, but it cannot legally be labeled port, just as a sparkling wine made outside the Champagne region of France cannot call itself Champagne.

What is Vermouth?

Vermouth differentiates itself from Port, Madeira, and sherry in several ways, including by having more freedom when it comes to labeling—it can be made anywhere. Vermouth is crafted by adding sugar (usually grape sugar), a distillate, and a proprietary blend of botanicals to the fermented still wine. The renegade of the category (but no less special than its topical pals), vermouth's distinction is also highly regional—an Italian vermouth will taste vastly different from one produced in California, French aperitifs differ wildly from Spanish ones, and so on. Like wine, each type of vermouth will boast depth, complexity, and variety borne of its terroir, grape varietals used, and the herbs, roots, and other botanicals selected to bottle expressions (including dry, blanc, sweet, and rose). Different producers surrounded by different regional flora means we, the lucky drinkers, have a veritable smorgasbord of flavors and aromatics to enjoy in any given bottle. While vermouth-producing strongholds are still mostly contained to the Old World winemaking regions of France, Italy, and Spain, there is an ever-growing stream of talented producers such as Argentina's La Fuerza, Uruguay's Vermut Flores, California's Lo-Fi, and New York's Little City garnering well-deserved notice and inclusion on shelves.

I could go on for days about different vintage bottlings, or how I have a dream of one day buying a small cottage on the island of Madeira and working in a vineyard, or how white port and tonic is the best beach drink you could ask for (thank me later), but for now, let's dig into how you can enjoy fortified wines, now that you maybe know more than you did a few minutes ago.

How to Make Fortified Wine Cocktails

These beauties, being so complex and varied, can and should be treated as you would a bottle of wine: with love and curiosity. They are also lower in alcohol than distilled spirits—great for crushable enjoyment without being too boozy. For a simple, refreshing, all-season sipper, go for a simple highball. I love dry vermouth with club soda, lots of ice, and a lemon twist, the aforementioned white port and tonic with a lime wedge, or a high-acid sweet vermouth with spicy ginger beer and a sprig of fresh rosemary.

Fortified wines also make a truly lovely cocktail, with a luscious-but-light mouthfeel and richness of flavor. For example, switching up your dry vermouth will totally change your martini, much less the merits of intentionally pairing a small-batch gin with a complementary vermouth (the possibilities are truly endless).

A favorite concoction amongst bartenders (that hasn't yet made its way to the regular drink orders of the imbibing public) is the Bamboo—a dry, light mix of sherry, vermouth, and bitters. While the recipe is simple enough, you can dramatically alter the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel of the drink by switching up the types of sherry and vermouth you mix with. For example, if you tend to lean towards wines that are more on the zippy side, give Lo-Fi Dry Vermouth or Martini Ambrato a try and complement it with a richer, nuttier amontillado sherry. Many bartenders like to use a briny fino sherry in their Bamboo, which is delicious alongside a floral blanc vermouth like Cocchi Bianco or Routin Blanc.

And just for fun, I'll let you in on a secret: My personal favorite rendition of the Bamboo mixes in a bit of sake and plum bitters. As an Asian bartender I will find a way to unapologetically add sake and/or plum bitters to as many drinks as possible, and this combo is a real winner. Whatever your pleasure, this elegant showcase for an underappreciated yet very old category of drinks is highly deserving of more exploration. Stop by your local bottle shop and ask for recommendations, don't forget to store the bottle in the fridge, and the next time you're at a cocktail bar, order a Bamboo, sit back, and enjoy.

How will you be enjoying fortified wines this summer? Let us know below.

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Joanna Carpenter

Written by: Joanna Carpenter

Drinks Maker. Artist. Consultant. @thejoannac