Wine Based Spirits - What You're Missing

The revival of hard liquor has been given the current generation of young drinkers a way to rebel against its predecessors. In Silicon Valley, where I spend most of my time selling booze, the hip thing has always been wine. Wine parties, wine tastings, wine cellars, wine and chesse, Robert Parker, 100 points, Bordeaux futures, big Napa cabs. The Steve Jobs-inspired techies high-tailed it out to California, bought their 49ers season tickets, went to the Grateful Dead reunion shows, became inspired by the passionate wine scene, and built their collections as fast as they built their microprocessors. However, like the child who rebels against his parents, this new wave of Facebook and Electronic Arts employees has decided to invest in whiskey, cocktail culture, and the well-mixed Manhattan. They prefer Bourbon and Branch to Chez Panisse. They have a booze cabinet with seventy open bottles of various hooch, rather than a wine cabinet with sealed vintages of Dunn Howell Mountain. Like the punks who railed against the mods, or the grunge-era stoners who lambasted the big hair and enthusiasm of the Sunset Strip, the new era of connoisseurship runs from Kentucky to Scotland, rather than Sonoma to Bordeaux.

It's a generational divide that pits wine against liquor, father against son, clean-shaven snob against bearded snob, but it doesn't have to be this way.

Wine drinkers find spirits to be harsh and disruptive. One or two cocktails and you're done for the night! How can you enjoy hard liquor without getting totally plastered? How do you pair it with a meal? Spirits drinkers consider wine too stuffy and antiquated. All this waiting and aging, money spent on temperature-controlled maturation! When do we get to drink it? Plus, once you open it the wine goes bad within a day or two! I want to nurse this thing over the next decade, man! This conversation goes on daily at K&L between our own staff members. The old school guys stick to their Bordeaux. The newer kids are interested in beer and Bourbon.

How do we bring these two diverging mentalities together? How do we unite the clans?

Sherry. Pineau des Charentes. Vermouth. Madeira. Port. Chinato. Amaro. Aperitif.

We do share some common ground.

I'm a man who wanders between both of these realms and I'm here to tell you that you can enjoy wine and liquor together. I'm currently sippng on a magnificantly concentrated Moscatel-based Sherry that comes from a small village in Spain called Chipona. Very little Sherry is produced from Moscatel grapes anymore because the varietal has been virtually wiped out in the Jerez region. Chipona's sandy soils, however, make it the perfect location to support the aromatic grape. The interesting thing about Chipona's Moscatel wine is that the dried grapes are so sweetly concentrated that they can only ferment to about one percent alcohol. Yet, the "wine" I'm drinking is listed at 17.5%.

This rich, sweet, soft, supple, orange-blossom, golden raisin and toffee flavored delight is mostly distilled grape spirit (i.e. brandy) mixed with hyper-sweet muscat wine and aged in a barrel. Most Chipona Sherries are matured in a solera system, meaning that younger wines are added into older stock to keep the flavor consistent. Over time, the Moscatel-brandy concoction gains an incredible level of depth and complexity, much like a fine Cognac or single malt whisky. I'm currently sipping on a glass of Cesar Florido Moscatel Especial, which is only $12.99 for a 375ml bottle. This particular Chipona wine has had a bit of arrope added to it – grape must that has been reduced to a blackish syrup, whcih darkens the color and adds a caramel note to the flavor profile. At less than 20% alcohol, I can enjoy the lush, exotic flavor of an aged, fortified, barrel-matured spirit, yet still remain sober enough to type this article! It is a Tuesday night afterall.

Wow, David, that sounds nice and all, but I'm just not interested in wine-based spirits. I like the romance of the Highlands and the rural tradition of Bardstown. These historical traditions are what drive my desire to learn more about whisk(e)y. I also love to geek out about distillation and cooperage. I love how a spirit will change after resting for years in an oak barrel. There's simply nothing like that in the wine-based spirits world, right?


First of all, people have been making wine in the Jerez region since around 700 BC. Between then and now those people have been conquered by more cultures than an urban food court. Yet, the wines are still produced in the old-fashioned, traditional method. Today most barrels in Jerez are imported from the States and are made of American white oak. While the barrels are seasoned with lesser wines to make sure the influence of the wood is less profound, the maturation in the barrel is far from neutral. According to Peter Liem:

Old fino and manzanilla casks (have) a biological memory acquired from many years of exposure to flor: each barrel will develop in different ways, with their differences becoming increasingly pronounced over time, and no two barrels will ever produce identical wines. Eduard Ojeda, technical director for the bodegas of the Grupo Estevez, uses the word "contamination," in a positive sense, to describe the effect of the individual yeast populations in each barrel and the distinctive personalities found in the resulting wines. "One of the most important things in Jerez is (the preservation of) thes old, well-contaminated casks," he says.

Barrel-aged, wine-based spirits not only mature in the barrel, but they interact with various biological barrel contaminants!! That's freakin' crazy.

Ultimately, you can get just as geeky with wine-based spirits as you can barrel-aged spirits if you so desire. What I think you're missing, as a drinker who chooses to abstain from WBS selections of quality, is the chance to experience a complexity that rivals the rich, concentrated core of a whisky like Glendronach, but at a proof that allows for more frequent and accessible sipping. Unlike Sherry, a bottle of Macallan owes very little of its flavor to the barley that created it. Wine-based spirits allow you to experience both the character of the grape and the spirit that is ultimately used to fortify it. They also offer 10, 20, 30, and 40 year old, barrel-aged expressions – just like your favorite whiskies.

It's really a win-win for everyone. I'm moving on from this Chipona to the new Cocchi Americano Rosa. That thing is really quite delicious. After that, some 20 year old, barrel-aged Sandeman Port. Three glasses of high-quality hooch that won't put me to sleep before my wife gets home. Wine-based spirits have completely changed the way I look at weeknights! You should join in on the fun.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll