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A conversation with A.J. Rathbun

Wine Cocktails by A.J. Rathbun

Wine Cocktails by A.J. Rathbun

I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a friend of a friend via the interwebs, Mr. A.J. Rathbun. He is a swell dude chock-full of cocktail knowledge, with videos and books to prove it! I was so impressed with his mixology skillz that I decided to make him the very first “Guest Swiller”. [Click his name above for a bio.]

Being a wino, I just love his book, Wine Cocktails. Since the Summer season is upon us, there is no better time to start experimenting with your wine. I hope you enjoy this lil’ Q & A session. Happy Drinking!

1. What are some trends you’ve been seeing in the use of wine in cocktails in the United States?

I think there’s been an influx of creativity in the usage of wine in cocktails and other drinks, which has been leading to both more interesting drink menus, and ones that include more wine cocktails.

Until the last, oh, ten years in most spots the only drinks with wine on most menus would be Sangria and traditional Champagne and sparkling wine drinks such as the Mimosa and Bellini. But now, drinks that use wine and its relatives in shaken cocktails both as the base and as a secondary ingredients are popping up everywhere. Also, more home bartenders are serving up wine cocktails and an increased range of Champagne drinks.

2. What types of wine are being used more frequently? White, red, sparkling, sweet and dessert wines, aromatic and other fortified wines, etc.

Sparkling and aromatic wines (I’m putting the vermouth family in here, as well as things like Lillet and Dubonnet) are used more often, as they’re more traditional and in more classic drinks, and also a little safer for both pro and home bartenders. But, on a percentage basis, the increase is across the wine family and perhaps even larger in those wines traditional drank solo: white, reds, desserts. Those wine family members haven’t been used a regularly, and now are being used more, even ones seen rarely in the past, such as port and sherry. I think when weighing out red and white, white may have a larger % increase, just because it wasn’t used hardly at all in mixed drinks and bartenders are now realizing how versatile it can be.

3. How are different types of wine used in cocktails? Why do mixologists use a specific wine rather than a liqueur or other spirit or another wine?

As mentioned briefly, I think wines are being used both as a base spirit, so the main ingredient in a drink, and then mixed with fruits juices (always great with wine), other mixers such as ginger ale, as well as liqueurs and more. Also, wines are being used more as a secondary ingredient, mixed with gin, vodka, rum, and other bases. Champagne and sparkling wine also fit into the above, sometimes being the main player in a drink, but more and more being used to add that touch of sparkle and flair to a drink. As far as why a mixologist or bartender would use a specific wine, I would hope that in most cases it would be for taste reasons (as opposed to because they’ve been given a bottle, or think the name is catchy, etc) and for mixability and seasonality reasons. For example, when creating a summertime drink, white wines tend to go well both because they have a lighter, but flavorful taste, that won’t weigh you down but will still bring flavor to the shaker. So, as an example, take the C & C, from Wine Cocktails. I knew I wanted to create a drink that worked well with late summer favorites fresh raspberries and fresh mint, and wanted it to be a drink that was ideal for summer afternoon soirées. I picked a white French Chablis to play around with, because I thought would be light enough to play with the fresh fruit and herb, while not getting overwhelmed. After experimenting, I also added a touch of simple and syrup and Chambord (doubling up on the raspberry taste), and voila! Summertime deliciousness. I think that most good drink creators go through much the same process when using wine in cocktails.

4. What are some traditional ways wine is used versus new ways to incorporate it?

I think in the past (and I touched on this a bit) it was usually solely used as a base spirit, and usually in built drinks (so, no shaken but either made in a pitcher or over ice)—unless you jump back to the first cocktail renaissance, when wine was used in a wider variety of drinks (I’m thinking late 1800s, early 1900s here). Today, wines and wine cousins are being used in shaken drinks, as accompaniments as well as main ingredients, and to add a touch of flavor in smaller amounts. Also, more of those older drinks alluded to are being re-discovered, which then influences new drinks.

5. What are some classic wine cocktails that are popular?

There are a number of sparkling and Champagne cocktails that almost all cocktail lovers know, such as the Mimosa, the Bellini, and the Kir and Kir Royale, and then a few wine drinks such as the Sangria. If you move away from the States though, there are more wine-based drinks in regular rotation. For example, in Italy, the Spritz (which is a combination of Aperol and sparkling wine Prosecco) is known even in small hill town cafes and bars. Really, throughout Europe wine has been mixed with fruits juices, liqueurs, and more forever. This has been another influence on the American wine cocktail resurgence, as more cocktail creators are traveling, and are being influenced by international drink menus.

Rosé Squirt from Wine Cocktails

Rosé Squirt

Serves 2

Hey, are you having a flashback to summers when those big grouchy kids were bringing you down, taking your hat, calling you squirt? Don’t let those memories tarnish your sunshiny afternoons and evenings. Remember two things and you’ll be able to relax in suitable summer fashion. First, those kids were just jealous (and would be even more so if they knew about the beautiful hot-weather bashes you have now), and second, you have the last laugh because you now know that the Squirt is a tall, refreshing, bubbly drink that goes with a backyard barbecue or luscious lawn party, or with sitting with that perfect person as the sun goes down in July.


Ice cubes

2 ounces maraschino liqueur

6 ounces dry rosé

Chilled club soda

2 maraschino cherries for garnish


1. Fill 2 highball glasses three-quarters full with ice cubes. Add 1 ounce maraschino liqueur and 3 ounces rosé to each glass. Stir briefly.

2. Fill each glass almost to the top with the chilled club soda. Stir again, a bit more than briefly. Drop a cherry on top and serve.


Cactus Berry from Wine Cocktails

Cactus Berry

Serves 2

Don’t be afraid: The Cactus Berry (a cousin of the margarita that’s taken a trip into a winery) doesn’t involve any small piercing thorns that might turn a south-of-the-border soirée into a quick trip to the local first-aid station for cheek stitching. This mix does have a bit of a bite, though, so you’ll want to ensure your safety by doing any sort of hat dancing, attempts at tangoing, or cactus scaling earlier in the evening.


Ice cubes

3 ounces Merlot

3 ounces white tequila

1 1⁄2 ounces Cointreau

1 ounce fresh lime juice

2 lime slices for garnish


1. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway full with ice cubes. Add the Merlot, white tequila, Cointreau, and lime juice. Shake exceedingly well (as if you were shaking cactus thorns from your hands).

2. Strain the mix into 2 cocktail glasses. Garnish with the lime slices and serve.