Port, Portugal’s famed fortified wine, isn’t just for grandparents anymore

It’s safe to say that Portugal is having a moment. Instagram feeds are full of vacation photos from the bustling streets of Lisbon to the pristine beaches of the Algarve, and this year the country’s national airline, TAP, launched several new direct routes, including service to Toronto’s Pearson airport (the route last ran 21 years ago).

The country’s national drink is also having a bit of a renaissance. Throughout Portugal, port — the sweet fortified wine that’s often served after meals — is making its way into cocktails.

“The young generation doesn’t like port because they think it’s too sweet and too strong and they remember their grandparents drinking it,” says Carla Cardoso of the Pacheca winery in Portugal’s famed Douro Valley, from which port and other wines hail.

Pacheca, like other port makers, now offers four varieties: the traditional ruby and tawny, and the newer white and a rose (or pink).

While bartenders and winemakers alike agree that traditional ruby port is off-limits for mixing — “No, no, no, no, no” said Darcilia Silva, bartender at the Six Senses hotel in the Duoro Valley, when asked if it could be used in a cocktail — tawny port and the white and rose varieties are fair game.

Darcilia Silva, bartender at Six Senses, is considering creating a port and tequila cocktail. • Photo by Andrea Janus

Darcilia Silva, bartender at Six Senses, is considering creating a port and tequila cocktail. • Photo by Andrea Janus

At most bars, a porto tonico (a port and tonic, a twist on the traditional gin and tonic) is fairly common. Francisca Lobao, owner of Capela Incomum, a cozy bar in a converted chapel at the end of a narrow lane in Porto — the birthplace of port — believes many Portuguese still prefer traditional cocktails with hard liquor like gin, or a ruby port after dinner. But she says port and tonics are growing in popularity, including at weddings and other celebrations.

But elsewhere, extensive drink menus reveal a willingness to experiment, and it’s thanks in part to the recent arrival of rose ports on the market. At Base, an outdoor bar in a rooftop park in Porto, the traditional Brazilian Caipirinha, a popular cocktail in Portugal, is made with port.

And at DeCastro Gaia, the restaurant run by the Porto Cruz distillery in Gaia, across the Douro River from Porto, port wines can be found in myriad cocktails. In 2010, Porto Cruz developed a pink port expressly for that purpose, according to head waiter Nuno Moreno. “We had the demand — people wanted to have something to use in cocktails,” he says.

Head into the heart of Portugal’s wine country, the Douro Valley, and you’ll find definite creativity with port cocktails. At the Six Senses, Silva created the Miss Bulleit, a cocktail that features a 10-year-old white port and Bulleit whiskey, as well as strawberry jam, rosemary and ginger syrups, lemon juice, an egg white and Peychaud’s bitters.

Asked what inspired the drink, which looks pretty but comes on strong, Silva has a one-word reply: heartbreak.

“It’s not very sweet and then you have the whisky so it’s a little bit strong, then you have the ginger, which is spicy, so there’s a lot of feelings,” she says. “It’s strong. And complicated.”

Next up? A port cocktail with tequila, she says. “Tequila has a strong flavour, but let’s see. I think it’s not impossible.” 

Leave a comment