What do you do with leftover wine? You could conjure it into vinegar or break out some fruits and spices and make a crowd-pleasing sangria or mulled wine.
But may we introduce you to wine syrups? Combining equal parts wine and sugar, these sustainable syrups add layers of flavor to spritzes and sours. “In bars or at home, making wine syrup is a great way to deal with those older bottles that cannot be served again, especially old bubbly,” says Ivy Mix, the co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda and co-founder of Speed Rack. Instead of pouring the last dregs of a bubbly bottle down the drain (the process also works with red, white and orange wines and sherry), she whips up wine syrups.
“The first step is to find a wine that piques your interest,” says Anthony Escalante, the bar manager at Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix. “Something that has unique flavor profiles or acidity that you want to concentrate and use to add complexity to a cocktail.”
From there, the recipe is relatively straightforward, calling for equal parts wine and sweetener, and heating to combine. Chantal Tseng, the founder of Cocktails for End Times and formerly the bar manager and senior bartender at the now-closed Mockingbird Hill in Washington, D.C., reduces her wine with cane sugar, simmering it over low heat. “You can also add other elements, such as lemon and orange zest or spices,” she says. “Just be sure to strain out the solids when you’re done.”
Mix’s Speed Rack co-founder, Lynnette Marrero, says, “You want to be gentle with the temperature when making wine syrups. You do not want to caramelize the wine.” She prefers cooking her wine syrups via sous vide.
With those simple steps in mind, the method can be applied to almost any category of wine.
Bubbles and Blancs
When it comes to wine syrups, Mix enjoys working with the last splashes of previously opened bottles. “I particularly love making syrups with bubbles that have gone flat—cava, Champagne, prosecco and so forth, though I tend toward the cava and Champagnes.” She saves the last quarter of a bottle of bubbles, which would normally get discarded at Leyenda, and cooks it with raw acacia honey to make her Bright Lights, a cocktail calling for sotol, tequila and verjus.
Marrero points out that you can use fresh bottles of bubbly as well. “If you’re working with fresh bubbly, open the bottle and let it sit for an hour to lose its effervescence,” she says. She makes her syrup using a cup of wine plus a cup of sugar and says the mix will keep in the fridge for up to a month.
Escalante prefers working with still white wines, just not oak-aged ones. Instead, he gravitates to wines with more unique qualities: robust fruit flavors or bright acidity (think pinot blanc, xarel-lo or grenache blanc). He finds the sweetness of the syrup will amplify these flavor profiles. “Being a fan of white wines, I lean toward my personal favorites when making wine syrups,” he says. “I love citrus and tropical flavors, so I enjoy making syrups with wines that have those qualities.”
Sauvignon blancs from New Zealand have proven successful for him. “They tend to have fun tropical flavors like passion fruit or guava,” he says. He balances out those tropical notes with a dash of salt in his recipe to avoid the syrup leaning overly saccharine. “I use this in almost any variation of a Daisy or to brighten up any variation of a spritz.”
Pinks and Oranges
Marrero has made wine syrups from rosé and orange wines, as well as from fino, amontillado and oloroso sherries. She prefers to use the syrups from rosé and orange wines in spritzes with agave-based spirits and pisco.
With syrups made from orange (or skin-contact) wines, the extended fermentation process undergone by the wine makes for a rich, textured syrup. It can help build layers of body within a cocktail while keeping sweetness to a minimum. Depending on the length of the grapes’ maceration, skin-contact wine syrups can also add a savory, umami quality to a cocktail.
Marrero points out that syrups made from manzanilla and fino add depth and a dash of salinity when paired with white spirits in sours, while the sweeter amontillado or oloroso styles of sherry render syrups that work well as a sweetener in cocktails with aged spirits, such as Old Fashioned riffs.
Tseng uses an oloroso sherry syrup to balance the spices of a traditional Wassail. She makes the warm, spiced drink, then reduces any leftovers to make a spiced Wassail Syrup, further utilizing it in a bourbon-based citrus sour. “I try to keep the equal-parts rule in effect when I make these,” she says. “Reducing wine or beer already translates to making the base sweeter. When water and alcohol evaporate, the wine gets sweeter, even without the addition of sugar. I often just start by adding a half cup of sugar, then taste and add more if I need. Remember, as far as temperature goes, always keep it low and on a simmer at most. Try to avoid boiling the mixture to preserve the wine characteristics.”
You can also use red wines in a syrup, but be warned that these types of wine can be tricky to play with. Tseng is happy to work with wines that aren't too expensive but have good fruit character—“zinfandels, syrahs or Spanish table reds,” she says. That said, she adds, “It's best to avoid wines that are too tannic.”
When Mix works with bigger red wines, she typically opts for superfine sugar as her sweetener but has also used honey and even maple syrup in a malbec-based syrup. “I usually like to bring out the flavors of the wine itself,” she says.
While Marrero is game to use any leftover wine or wine that may go off, she also says, “Overly oaky wines and tannic wines can be tricky to use, especially when adding heat. With these ‘chewy’ wines, I add a little bit of water to the recipe to balance that out.”