There are few things more central to Spanish cuisine than sangria, introduced to the U.S. at the 1964 World’s Fair but drunk as a household staple, often instead of water, in Spain for decades before then. Alcohol was a way to kill the bacteria so often found in local water at the time, and fresh fruit and spices enhanced the flavor.
You can’t judge a Spanish restaurant by its name or its cover, but you can judge it by its sangria. Each region and restaurant has its own version of the wine-based punch. So when Taha Ismail was developing the beverage program for Arroz, a Washington, D.C., eatery focused on Spanish rice and small plates, he wanted to put his own twist on the party cocktail.
The most traditional way to make sangria is with Rioja red, from one of Spain’s most famous wine regions. But for something brighter, Ismail chose rosé; while it’s usually marketed as a spring and summer wine, it’s something he likes to drink year-round. Ismail makes the drink in 10-gallon batches, mixing the wine with lychee (which you can buy in a can), St. Germain elderflower liqueur and vodka before letting it sit for 48 hours. He adds citrus — in this case, grapefruit and lime — before serving.
The restaurant goes through about four batches of 10 gallons of sangria per day, said Ismail, now the beverage director and a partner in Mike Isabella Concepts, the restaurant group founded by the restauranteur of Top Chef fame. But any batch you make at home will be much smaller, he said, which means it really only needs to sit for two hours.
The individualistic nature of the drink also makes it forgiving (and accordingly, perfect for entertaining). Hosts can tailor ingredients to complement their menu or fit their preferences.
Anyone can build their own sangria with these elements, Ismail says:
- citrus (lime, grapefruit, orange, lemon, or a combination);
- a base spirit (vodka, tequila, brandy, rum);
- wine, preferably Spanish;
- herbs (rosemary and thyme are nice for winter, but mint is nice, too);
- sugar, if you want something sweeter. Ismail favors agave or honey over table sugar, but turbinado sugar in the raw can also add nice body, he says
Whatever the combination, “keep Spain in mind” when choosing your flavors, says Ismail, who took home the 2017 RAMMY Award for best cocktail program earlier this year. And while common advice is to use the cheapest wine you can, the key to a good Sangria is choosing a wine you’d like to drink on its own, he said.
Rosé Sangria from Arroz
Courtesy of Taha Ismail
10 pieces Lychee (canned)
4.5 oz Lychee water (from the can)
4 oz St. Germaine elderflower liqueur
3.5 oz Absolut Elyx (or your favorite vodka) 1-750 mL bottle rosé (preferably grenache rosé)
1.5 oz lime juice (add after maceration)
4 oz grapefruit juice (add after maceration)
Combine all ingredients and let macerate for two hours. Top with citrus and serve.
We’re closing out 2017 with 12 days of cocktails, a series of traditional and unusual holiday drink recipes from bartenders, mixologists and beverage directors across the country. Find them as they’re published here.