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How to Create Your Own Sangria

Start with this bartender-developed base, then add the fruit and wine of your choice.

June/July 2017 Issue
photos: Scott Phillips
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As someone who works behind the bar, I know how controversial crafting a drink can be. Just look at the volumes compiled about the “proper” martini, a two-ingredient cocktail. And guests are constantly telling me about their interpretations of how to make an old fashioned. But few drinks elicit such passionate distrust as sangria, that lightly spiced and sweetened wine cocktail traditionally consumed during the summer in Portugal and Spain.

I think the reason so many people view this libation with skepticism is that they have tried only the sweet, syrupy versions served at mediocre restaurants. Well-made sangria, though, can be a wonderfully complex beverage as versatile with food as it is delicious on its own. Sangria pairs, perhaps obviously, with Spanish foods like paella, dried fruits, hard cheeses, oily almonds, cured meats, and chilled shellfish. It also goes well with all kinds of summertime dinner fare from Tex-Mex to barbecue to burgers.

A customizable drink

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that there’s one specific recipe for sangria and that anything else isn’t real. The only requirement to making sangria is that it contains wine. Everything else is based on personal preference. I start with an all-purpose sangria base, basically a mix of simple syrup, freshly squeezed (always) orange juice, brandy, and a dash of bitters. To that, I add a bottle of decent wine (see “Which wine?” below) and fruit, always some citrus and then whatever else is at its seasonal best. Because I go light on the amount of syrup, the resulting drink is not at all cloying; instead, it’s refined and refreshing. Don’t believe me? Follow the tips here, make my basic recipe, and discover for yourself just how sensational sangria can be.

A very simple syrup

Sangria should be a little sweet. Because sugar doesn’t dissolve easily in cold liquid, a simple syrup, in which the sugar is dissolved in hot water and then cooled, works best. I make a rich simple syrup, which means a sugar-to-water ratio of 2-to-1. Because you need to add less syrup, the wine’s flavor stays more pronounced. If you want to get fancy, add a stick of cinnamon or a vanilla bean to the mix. Use leftover syrup to sweeten iced tea, lemonade, or cocktails.

Bring on the brandy

Why fortify your sangria with more booze? Why not? Aside from adding some kick, brandy contributes depth of flavor that wine alone can’t match. Try heavier European brandies, such as Cognac, for red-wine sangrias and lighter California brandies for white.

Spice is nice

A tiny amount of aromatic bitters makes sangria taste more sophisticated. Angostura is probably the most popular brand, and I like its earthy spice flavor. Used in all kinds of cocktails, this concentrated flavoring is based on a bitter herb called gentian plus a proprietary mix of other herbs and spices. Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters or Peychaud’s Bitters are other good choices.

Which wine?

For a classic red sangria, choose something light but with some character, like an inexpensive Spanish Garnacha. For a summery sangria blanca, opt for a citrusy and floral white, like a Spanish Albariño. If you’re looking for something fun and not so traditional, grab a Spanish cava, which will give the drink a little fizz so long as it’s added just before serving. Whatever you choose, don’t think that spending $5 on a bottle of wine is going to yield delicious results. Choose a wine you’d drink on its own.

Fun with Fruit

Part of the joy of making sangria is showcasing your favorite fresh fruit. I go heavy on the citrus, using assorted kinds to make up half of the total amount of fruit I’m using. For the other fruit, grapes, kiwi, and fresh berries are among my go-tos, but try apples, peaches, plums, mango, melon, or pineapple in yours. And never mind that old frat-boy adage that all of the alcohol eventually resides inside the fruit—that’s nonsense. After a reasonable period of time in the liquid, the alcohol content of the fruit will be exactly the same as the alcohol content of the sangria, and no more.

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