Our New Favorite Low-Key Cocktail: The Port Tonic

While the Aperol Spritz has invited both vitriol and adoration, the humble Port Tonic—a sweet and playful blend of white fortified Port (like Kopke) and tonic water—has yet to make headlines in the United States in any meaningful way. When it comes to cocktails, Americans are quick to distance themselves from anything too sweet. Blue Nun Riesling? Don’t remind us. Those days are long forgotten.

The notion that a drink with sugar content can’t be taken seriously is an unfortunate one. When it comes to food, we rely on a balance of flavors, of sweet and salty, or sweet and spicy, or a combination of the two. Juxtaposition emboldens the palate, and to dismiss sugar out-of-hand is to ignore its importance. Champagne is nearly never vinified completely dry, and yet we drink it without objection. But a sweet and lively cocktail? The horror.

This rush to dismiss sweet drinks as unserious feels particularly unjust in the case of the Port Tonic. Fortified wine is nearly 20 percent alcohol by volume, too much for an apéritif, maybe. Cutting it with tonic was done by design. While drinking Port straight might be tantamount to chugging a martini before dinner, enjoying a Port made more reasonable by tonic water is not unlike sipping a glass of sparkling wine. With the alcohol kept in check, the possibilities of the evening unfold in new and interesting ways.

The history of the Port Tonic is inextricably linked to the Port trade itself. Tonic, a quinine-based mixer noted for its medicinal purposes (quinine is also the drug used prophylactically to address malaria), comes from Britain, and the British were responsible for transporting Port up and down Portugal’s Douro River. They were the ones, then, who thought to cut Port from its more potent form, to transform it into something both quaffable and practical. Portugal is now known, of course, for a host of smart wines, including inky reds and oxidative whites. Port and Madeira still provide gravitas and history to the country’s wine industry. It is a country of serious wine.

Still, find yourself at a Lisbon taberna on any given evening and you’re likely to encounter the humble Port Tonic. During my recent travels, my order of Tawny Port was interpreted, on several occasions as “Tonic Port,” and the drink arrived in my order’s stead. Served with a twist of lemon, the cocktail was always a surprise: Sweet, yes, but also refreshing, balanced by the almost sour notes of the tonic water. Could I drink more than one? Maybe not—but the Port Tonic is not made for marathon drinking, anyway. It’s a palate-primer, designed to set the table for the rest of the evening.

Which led me to wonder why the drink’s popularity remains challenged back home. For a country that amplifies nearly everything with sugar (have you read a ketchup label), it’s interesting that the drinks category turns so starkly away from the word sweet. The Port Tonic is undeniably sweet. But it’s also a historic, refreshing cocktail that served a purpose, and provided an answer to a question, that question being: How does one drink, but not too much, before dinner? Or, alternately, how does one justify a tipple or two in the midday sunshine? Knock it down a notch, the British taught us. Make the drink a little weaker, a little friendlier.

Late one morning, as I waited in line to climb the steps of the historic Bélem Tower, a 16th century limestone fortress perched high above the Tagus River, I spied a vendor, selling Port Tonics in tiny glasses. He measured out his Port with a metal jigger, retrieved two cubes of ice with metal tongs, topped my drink with frothy tonic and a lemon, and sent me on my way. As the line dripped forward, saturated with Saturday morning tourists, I sat down on a stone wall that overlooked the water, cocktail in hand. In the distance, a sailboat headed toward the horizon, adrift on undulating blue. A martini would have been too much, of course, for a morning like this, but a Port Tonic? It was just enough.

It’s time for Americans to give the Port Tonic its due. Never mind the sugar. The sugar was never the point. The Port Tonic deserves a seat at the dinner table. Welcome it with open arms.

The Port Tonic

Ingredients

4 ounces high-quality tonic water, like Fever-Tree

2 ounces white Port from a reputable producer, like Kopke.

A lemon twist, for garnish

Ice, for serving

Directions

Place several cubes of ice in a wine glass. Pour the Port directly over the ice and stir. Add the tonic to the glass and stir a second time, just to combine. Squeeze the lemon twist and drop it into the glass. Drink immediately.

Hannah Selinger’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Kitchn, RawStory.com, Edible Long Island, Edible East End, and numerous other regional and national publications. A Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, she writes the monthly wine column for the Southampton Press. Hannah lives with her husband, two sons, and two dogs in East Hampton, NY. Website: http://www.hannahselinger.net; Twitter: @hannahselinger; Instagram: @druishamericanprincess.