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Editor's Note: Christophe Hille and Chris Ronis are the chief operating officer and managing partner, respectively, of Northern Spy Food Co. in New York City. Follow them on Twitter @nothernspyfood.
Borrowing from that old saw, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade," we say, "When the community board denies you a full liquor license, make aperitif cocktails."
We discovered a whole world of crafty and delightful drinks that are stronger and weirder than wine, perfect for creating cocktails or enjoying alone. Most are variations on a theme: a base of wine, fortified with grape spirits or brandy to reach 15-20% alcohol by volume and flavored with an array of complex and highly-guarded herbs, spices, fruits and aging regimes.
Some, such as sherries, are their own category of wine, with long-established rules governing grape varieties, region of production and classification. To find these beverages, wander to where your local liquor store keeps the bottles that seem to belong in your grandma's booze cupboard. Below are a few of our favorites and cocktail recipes to go with them.
1. Lillet Blanc
We'll start with Lillet Blanc, one of the easiest to find bottles and, for some people, the "starter" aperitif wine. Snobs might turn their nose up at it and say that it's not what it used to be prior to 1986, when it was called Kina Lillet and was more alcoholic and bitter. Ignore them. People smart enough to order it are enjoying themselves just fine. It's perfectly sweetened, pleasantly boozy for an aperitif and marked by a unique bitter orange flavor. We use it throughout the year in our cocktails, as in this spicy watermelon drink we call the Salvadoran Fence (our restaurant space was once a Latin American nightclub that sold stolen electronics out of the basement):
2 ounces Lillet Blanc
1/2 ounce Punt e Mes Aperitif (Viable substitute: Carpano Antica)
1 ounce watermelon juice or a few big chunks of ripe watermelon
1/2 ounce simple syrup*
Torn basil leaves
Squeeze of lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
*To make your own simple syrup, take equal parts sugar and water, and simmer until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Muddle the torn basil, a slice of jalapeno, a squeeze of lime juice and the chunks of watermelon in the bottom of a mixing glass. Add the rest of the ingredients and cracked ice, shake well, and strain over ice into a tall Collins glass. Garnish with a basil leaf and slice of watermelon, or some pieces of pickled watermelon rind if you want to win the local mixologist competition.
2. Manzanilla sherry
It is no exaggeration to say that if you enjoy great food -- whether New American, regional Italian, Bengali, modern Spanish, old-fashioned German or Southern barbecue -- and you're not considering sherry as a companion beverage, you're missing out. With the exception of the wonderful world of Rieslings, no other wine category exhibits such a range of aromas, styles and compatibility with food. But, sherry isn't just another hallowed wine variety for reverent sipping. The lighter and younger styles make terrific foundations for more party-oriented outings. The East River Defense is one of the original cocktails that our friend Erick Castro, the bartender and proprietor of Polite Provisions in San Diego, created for us. It's essentially sherry lemonade with a whiff of a salty sailor. We serve it year-round.
East River Defense
3 ounces Manzanilla sherry (recommended brand: Lustau)
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 ounce simple syrup
3 dashes grapefruit bitters (recommended brand: Scrappy's)