Wine-based cocktails rarely get real respect, but at NYC Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner's The Upholstery Room wine bar, a well-crafted list created by wine & beverage director Leo Schneemann features an array of drinks relying on wine as the heart of the concept. Schneemann shares the secrets behind the menu.
Mix: Few wine bars bother with cocktails, but at The Upholstery Store, you've done something special by creating a range of wine-based cocktails - why?
Leo Schneemann: The Upholstery Store is a very unique place with sort of a speakeasy feel. We've never had a liquor license, and we thought that creating a list of unique wine based cocktails would add to that special feeling. The more we created, the more we noticed that a lot of people were asking for even more wine based cocktails. We make each drink unique by mixing different herbs, teas and some other ingredients, creating infusions and blends based on the recipe. We also have a lot of regulars and our bartenders have learned their tastes. It can be fun to create a unique wine cocktail on the spot and is how we have created some of our best!
Mix: There's a long history of wine-based drinks, but customers are generally unfamiliar with the idea beyond spiked sparkling wine creations - how have your guests responded? Has it taken much hand-selling?
Schneemann: Yes, there is a long history of wine based drinks, especially if you realize that Gluhwein dates back until the 17th century. Back then, they infused the wine with different spices and herbs to keep themselves cool. The wine available wasn't always the best, so to enhance the flavor they added spices and herbs. Nobody really knows when they started serving Gluhwein as a warm beverage, but piping hot Gluhwein is a very traditional drink in Austria- especially in the Christmas markets. That is how we serve it at all of our restaurants- hot and spicy- a perfect winter cocktail!
Guests are often happily surprised to find our unique cocktail menu. Yes, wines by the glass naturally are the better seller, but people generally react to our cocktails with great interest and don't need much encouragement. Personally, I think that they are a wonderful way to begin an evening because sometimes you meet for drinks before going to dinner and don't want to be flying by the time you get your main course! Since they are mixed drinks, one or two before dinner is the perfect way to ease into the evening.
Mix: You've gone beyond the easy and expected, into such things as adding in tea to the mix, or making wine infusions and sours - have you found any cocktail concepts that simply don't work with wine?
Schneemann: I have yet to find anything specific that doesn’t work with wine. It's just about balancing and mixing the right things together in a way that enhances the natural flavors of the ingredients. The important thing is not to force it. Each wine has its own unique characteristics and then you can find different things, teas, herbs and spices that play into those natural notes and create a synergistic flavor.
Mix: Wine lovers can be notoriously fussy about how wine is treated - how do you disarm wine snobs who look down on wine cocktails?
Schneemann: I think that there must be something for everybody. That’s why we offer not just wine cocktails, but also we a huge range of wines by the glass, which I make a point to change quite often. I don’t think that you should look down on something like wine cocktails because they alter the flavor of wine. Wine cocktails have in fact been around for many hundreds of years and are intended to enhance wine, not mistreat it!
Mix: Do some wines - styles, regions, varietals - work better than others in wine cocktails?
Schneemann: There is nothing to say about regions or wine styles. Grape varietals do matter a lot. Take, for example, a Sauvignon Blanc with ripe lychee notes, or Riesling with a nice flavor of apricot or white peaches. Of course these elements will make a difference in making drinks with them. You just have to respect the wine and balance the flavors with something sweet, spicy, or acidic. However you need to mix it to create something that (hopefully) presents the wine in a way that is even better than its original state.
Mix: Now that winter is here, any plans for warm wine cocktails, punches and the like?
Schneemann: Of course! We serve Gluhwein all winter long at each restaurant. Not only is it a beautiful drink, but people love our authentic recipe and it fills you with warmth and holiday spirit.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Schneemann: The Bamboo! It's a Sauvignon Blanc mixed with jasmine tea and fresh ginger. Served on the rocks (we make our ice cubes from Fiji water). The fresh ginger really adds something to the drink. Combined with jasmine tea it is so healthy. Ginger is the best remedy to keep away a winter cold!