When New York City first allowed restaurants to reopen after early pandemic lockdowns, bar director Sarah Morrissey returned to her post at Ernesto’s, a Basque restaurant on the Lower East Side, and started mixing sangria.
“We literally had no money to spend,” she recalls. “We were getting boxed wine for the kitchen. … I threw [in] any vermouth or sherry that was left open during the lockdown, and it just worked.”
In retrospect, it was the most punk rock of drink moves, scrappy and bucking the accepted tenets of good taste. And it shows what may be the future of sangria: less hazy Spanish road-trip romance, more creativity and edge.
The classic version of sangria calls for a wine base fortified with a small amount of spirit, often brandy or gin, plus chopped fruit and sugar, though it’s hardly a codified recipe. Today, bartenders are leaning into the format’s forgiving nature, which invites everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-style improvisation. Ingredient lists have grown long and ever more complex.
But don’t mistake complexity for preciousness. Morrissey likens sangria to a “more esoteric” Long Island Iced Tea or jungle juice, while bar director Brian Evans, who offers both white and red sangrias at New York’s recently reopened El Quijote, calls it “a more sophisticated version of your college bathtub punch.”
What started as Morrissey’s survivalist approach to sangria is now considerably more refined, but still leaves ample room for riffing. Bodega de las Estrellas’ boxed tempranillo—“It’s really good box wine!” says Morrissey—forms the base with which leftover by-the-glass offerings are blended, along with fino sherry and Madeira. “It makes our sangria more dynamic,” she adds. In the winter months, cinnamon syrup adds a seasonal accent; in spring and summer, a grapefruit version is used. Recalling the ever-in-flux nature of the infinity bottle, sometimes an ounce of amaro might be added too, if a bottle is nearly empty.
Meanwhile, at El Quijote, sangria was always part of the DNA of the historic Spanish restaurant, which first opened in the 1930s. When it reopened in February after a four-year closure with a redesigned interior and menu, the sangria required updating too, says Evans. He sought to keep the “lowbrow/highbrow mentality” and communal appeal of the drink, which is served in oversize 50-ounce pitchers packed with fruit and served with a colorful, “obnoxiously big” wooden spoon to hold back the ice when pouring.
The red sangria starts with an “affordable, youthful” garnacha and cava, plus a 10-year-old brandy de Jerez and Bonanto, a grape-based aperitivo that Evans likens to Aperol, but with more bitterness and a distinct cherry characteristic. Pineapple and lemon juices and cinnamon syrup add complexity, as does a balsamic vinegar reduction, for “an element of intrigue and an element of acid.
The “refreshing, zippy” white sangria, by comparison, mixes albariño with floral pisco and funky apple brandy, plus a French peach aperitivo, vanilla bean simple syrup, Bitter Truth cucumber bitters and verjus. Fever-Tree Sparkling Lemon adds effervescence. It may seem like a lot, but that’s partly why it works, says Evans. “With so many ingredients in the room, it’s hard to go wrong, as long as you keep the components of wine, fruit and mixer.”
Even those who grew up drinking traditional sangria in its Spanish homeland are experimenting with the format. “Here in the U.S., there is no fear in modernizing,” says Miguel Lancha, a Spanish native and cocktail director for ThinkFoodGroup, which includes José Andrés concepts barmini, Jaleo and Mercado Little Spain.
Lancha has embraced that point of view with his sangria “spheres,” elaborate molecular mixology–made orbs that dissolve in the mouth, and sangria “slushies” frozen with liquid nitrogen. A more recent recipe combines a citrus medley—yuzu, calamansi, Buddha’s hand, kumquat—with lemongrass and sugar into an oleo saccharum, which yields “a nice and deep flavor,” which Lancha then fortifies with gin. Mixed with cava and bianco vermouth, it becomes a bright, fresh, effervescent take on white sangria.
These drinks stray far beyond the confines of the Spanish standard—and that’s just fine, says Lancha. “Sangria’s not a recipe,” he says. “It’s an approach to combining wine with fruit.”
Perhaps most importantly, these new-wave sangrias underscore how far the format has come. What was once considered a dumping ground for less-than-desirable wine is now a showpiece. “It sparked a lightbulb in me,” says Evans of reconsidering the sangria blueprint. “You can transform what’s considered a throwaway, hangover-inducing, low-quality cocktail into something beautiful.”