Port lives amid a cloud of misconceptions: It’s often assumed to be overly sweet, and its red iterations are largely thought of as exclusively an after-dinner sip rather than as the versatile cocktail ingredient it can be. As for white port, many people haven’t even heard of it.
Of those who have, “Many people think it's sweet or a cooking wine,” says Stephanie Andrews, the beverage director at Billy Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But some white ports can be incredibly complex; others can be a perfect addition of acidity to back up the in-season fruits.”
“White port has an amazing textural element that reminds me of fresh spring fruits,” says Javelle Taft, the head bartender at Death & Co. NYC. “The flavor profile and acidity is reminiscent of green apples, unripe pears, juicy stone fruits like apricots and peaches.”
White port is diverse in its own right, ranging from sweet to oxidative to bone-dry and mixes well in a range of cocktails, from tropical-style to Port & Tonics. It’s lively and fresh, herbaceous and floral, a perfect backbone to bright, summery cocktails.
“It’s versatile in cocktails and not too obscure of an ingredient for an average cocktail enthusiast,” Westin Galleymore, the director of bars at Underbelly Hospitality in Houston. “Use it as a modifier, a base, or a split base.”
What Is White Port?
The fortified wine calls for white grapes grown in Portugal’s Douro Valley, using varieties including malvasia fina, rabigato, moscatel, viosinho, godello, arinto, codega do larinho, and others. It’s made in the same way as red port and other fortified wines, by adding grape brandy to the fermenting wine juice, which stops the fermentation process and yields a wine with a higher alcohol percentage (usually between 16% and 20%) and varying levels of sweetness, depending on when the grape brandy is added. Styles range from sweet (or lagrima) to doce to extra seco (bone-dry).
Mark Phelan, the beverage director at 16 On Center collective in Chicago, finds white port is “typically younger, lighter, and brighter than its red counterparts,” he says. Older iterations, ranging from 10 to up to 40 years old, will have richer colors and more complex aromas. Phelan marries either with “quality tonic and seasonal garnishes,” he says. “At 19.5% ABV and typically inexpensive, it makes a cheaper and more sessionable alternative to gin.”
The Pros’ Preferred Brands and Styles
Taft prefers Quinta do Infantado white port as the go-to at Death & Co. “It’s a bolder-style white port that’s rich and nutty on the nose but quite dry on the finish,” he says. “Drier-style ports are great to work with because you can add layers of flavors without it being sweet or marzipan-like.” If you prefer something with a little more oak and honey, “Fonseca white port is also a great option,” he suggests, which Andrews seconds.
Justin Lavenue, the co-owner of The Roosevelt Room in Austin, vouches for Fonseca Siroco and Taylor Fladgate Chip dry. “They make great substitutes for dry sherry and dry vermouth in cocktails,” he says.
Galleymore sticks to Warre’s white port—”Coming from a classic big port house, it hits just about everything you need in a cocktail approachable white port,” he says—though for “drinking neat and really jazzing things up,” Kopke white ports are in his glass.
How to Use White Port in Cocktails
Once you have a bottle, what do you do with it?
In Portugal, your clear answer regardless of the time of day is a White Port & Tonic, light-bodied, low-effort, easygoing, and pleasantly bitter. So why mess with a classic? With that in mind, Taft has a Port & Tonic riff on his Death & Co NYC menu, souping up the standard with Bonal, Chareau aloe liqueur, and cucumber bitters. “It fits the bill for tall, effervescent, and bitter,” he says.
Outside of that, Taft will bench blanc vermouth for white port in all sorts of cocktails. “White ports have a slightly higher sugar content than vermouths, which make them a touch more appealing when being used in Martini-style cocktails and two-part drinks,” he says. He uses it in place of dry vermouth in a twist on the Bamboo, where it’s joined by the traditional sherry as well as apricot liqueur and honey syrup.
And as with vermouth, Westin advises drinkers: “Keep it in the fridge after opening! I personally have found the non-vintage stuff is quite young and has not gone through the full oxidation of older white port. So, left out at room temp, the flavor changes after a week or two. The point being: Store it in the fridge after opening.” Plus, he finds grabbing a chilled bottle of white port and splashing cold tonic into it makes for a great pre-dinner drink.
Lavenue looks to white port as a substitute for other other fortified or aromatized wines, like vermouth and sherry, and for Americano-style wines such as Cocchi Americano or Lillet Blanc. “It makes a great modifier and can also work well as the base in many classic wine-based cocktails, such as [riffs on] a Sherry Cobbler or Chrysanthemum,” he says. In his twist on the latter, he adds a hefty pour of white port to the classic white-vermouth-and-Benedictine combination.
Billy Sunday’s Andrews goes in on the low-ABV trend, using white port “for a great spritz base,” or calls on the fortified wine “to tie together elements of a cocktail as a modifier.” Westin has also used it in tandem with white rum in fluffy egg-white cocktails and created riffs on the tonic classic.
“White port is such a great delivery vehicle for ‘wine’ notes, from soft and fruity to aromatic and floral or tannic and citrus-driven,” says Galleymore, who adds, “It really should be in every cocktail enthusiast's back pocket.”