This past fall I had the good fortune to visit the lovely, dreamy city of Lisbon, Portugal — old and genteel, vibrant and colorful, next to the sea and brimming with good food. I sipped this drink on one of my first evenings there, and fell in love. It's the classic Portuguese apéritif, and many people would say it is a summer drink. But I think it's just the right pre-dinner drink for fall and winter, and here's why.
Port wine is a sweet wine, fortified with brandy or other spirits, and it is one of the most famous exports of Portugal. It has a rather dusty reputation these days; you think of Victorian gentlemen passing the port after dinner while the ladies retire to the parlor. But I have an abiding love for port; its richness and sweetness come with an abundance of intense flavors that aren't found in many other wines.
Port and tonic, however, uses an even less-well known port: White port. This wine is made with any of four dozen grapes approved for port, and it has the sweetness of ruby port without as much of the body. It's much lighter and fresher than most dessert wines, and, as this piece in the Seattle Weekly points out, it has something of the flavor and character of the French Lillet. It's rounder and richer, though, than Lillet; its flavor lingers a little on the tongue, and the honeyed fruit flavors taste ripe instead of herbed or astringent.
Many bars and restaurants in Portugal serve a refreshing glass of white port mixed with tonic over ice, with a slice of orange, before dinner. It's sweet, but not too sweet, and awakens the appetite.
Now, many people would say that this is a summer drink. And of course this is delicious and refreshing on a hot summer day. But I find that the honeyed character of the wine suits fall and winter just as well. It has the light, refreshing characteristic of a good apéritif, but it's not nearly as crisp as a gin and tonic, or even Lillet. With a squeeze of orange, it's my current favorite way to start a fancy dinner.
Have you ever tried a port and tonic? You may have difficulty finding white port; I could only find a version of white port from California. This won't be as complex as a good Portuguese white port, but this is supposed to be an easy-drinking, inexpensive wine (and cocktail!). This bottle cost me $5, but I enjoyed it very much. Now, do make up the difference on good tonic water. I am a big fan of Q Tonic from Brooklyn; it's much less sweet than big-brand tonic, and full of really delicious flavors.
Port and Tonic
Makes 1 drink
good-quality tonic water, such as Fevertree or Q Tonic
Orange slice, to garnish
Pack a highball glass with ice. Pour in the tonic, then the port. Stir lightly. Squeeze the orange slice a bit into the drink. Sip and enjoy!
(Images: Faith Durand)