We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: bartenders are a darned clever lot. Give them a brief, point them in the direction of a hero ingredient and task them with coming up with a concoction that’s different and delicious and they’re all over it.
The recent Graham’s Blend Series cocktail competition is a case in point. Never mind that most of those taking part had never worked with port as a base in their cocktails before, their mission to showcase the beauty and versatility of the product was well and truly accomplished.
Of course, it helped that the port in question had been specifically created with mixing in mind. Take Graham’s Blend N°5 for instance. With its perky and fruity but slightly dry combination of Malvasia Fina and Moscatel Galego grapes, this new age white port pairs like a dream with tonic. But under the direction of those taking part in the competition, we discovered how it can take on an array of flavoursome guises to suit all manner of occasions and palates – from crowd-pleasing spritzes designed for lazy summers on the beach, to Margarita-esque tipples for fun-filled evenings.
Ditto Graham’s Blend N°12, the exceptionally bright, extremely accessible ruby port reimagined for modern palates. Made from top notch Touriga Nacional grapes – ask any expert and they’ll tell you that these grapes are the business, renowned for their high tannins and big, juicy berry characteristics. That said, this blend has an additional super power in the flavour department: the high altitude grapes are hand-picked at night, then cold-fermented so none of those fabulous aromas or exquisite tastes have a chance to escape.
The result comes through in the taste: rich with just the right level of sweetness, complex yet approachable, and despite being bottled young and coming in at a very accessible 19% abv, it’s fabulously fresh yet unashamedly intense. Think of it as the perfect port for people who think they don’t like port – making an impression mixed in cocktails traversing the spectrum from light and refreshing aperitivo delights to stirred down drinks designed for nights of serious contemplation.
ADVENTURES IN PORTO
We tasted all of these creations and more in the first ever Graham’s Blend Series global final earlier this month. Here’s where Diogo Pilão, Cedric Philippe, Yannik Seeber, Shaun Stewart, Laurynas Lazdauksas, David Pfister and José Guerreiro representing Germany, Belgium, Austria, UK, Netherlands, Switzerland and Portugal respectively had their chance to shine.
They’d already proved their skills in their national finals and part of their prize – in addition to a very welcome 4.5 litres of Graham’s 10 Year Old Tawny Port if you don’t mind – was a three-day, money-can’t buy trip to Porto, home of Graham’s Port. More than a platform for them to show off their creations, the meticulously curated experience was a chance for the seven finalists to get to know each other and familiarise themselves with the history and heritage of the brand whilst soaking up the magic of the region that gives these very special blends their unique character.
Top marks to the team for hosting us in such fine style – particularly during our visit to Quinta dos Malvedos in the wondrous Douro region. Remember those special Touriga Nacional grapes we mentioned earlier? This is where they live, in the breathtakingly beautiful, mountainous vineyards which have been farmed by the Symington family for five generations. And having visited, we can understand why – it’s stunning. So too are the ports and wines it produces. We know, we sampled a few of them in a special tasting here and in the other restaurants we visited during our stay. A tour of the vineyards and winery, followed by a boat trip to Quinta do Bomfim, home to Dow’s Port and newly opened restaurant Bomfim 1896 for a top notch lunch by Michelin-starred chef Pedro Lemos was something we won’t forget in a hurry. Tip: if you’re ever in the region, you owe it to your palate to dine here – it’s a veritable feast for all of the senses.
But enough of the delectable appetisers and on to the main course, the reason why we were here: to find the winner of the inaugural Graham’s Blend Series Cocktail competition. While the previous two days had been all super chilled group gatherings, this is where our finalists went into single-minded presentation mode. Don’t get us wrong, there was still a caring-sharing vibe – if someone had misplaced a jigger or needed a shaker, one of their fellow competitors would jump in, only too happy to help. But still, this was a global final and who wouldn’t want to be crowned numero uno? Particularly when it means that as the competition grows, which it invariably will, you’ll always be the first on the leader board. Plus, let’s be honest here, what’s not to like about the chance to bag yourself a €1,000 cash prize and six months supply of Graham’s Blend N°5 and Blend N°12 for your bar?
Here’s how it went down (in order of presentation…)
Shaun Stewart (UK)
Five was the magic number for UK competitor, Shaun Stewart. Using Graham’s Blend N°5 as his base, he chose five ingredients to represent the fifth generation of the Symington family who are currently running the show; the five cousins who are responsible for creating the Graham’s Blend Series, the Graham’s Blend Series competition and who, in true Symington tradition, continue to respect the brand’s past whilst innovating the port category.
As per the brief, he kept things simple with his Margarita-style cocktail by using readily available ingredients that heroed the stone fruit notes he picked out in his chosen blend. The cocktail name meanwhile was an appreciative nod to the Malvasia Fina grapes and Alberto Soares, the illustrator responsible for designing the striking bottles.
40ml Graham’s Blend N°5
20ml reposado tequila
15ml peach liqueur
15ml fresh lime juice
10ml agave syrup
Garnished with discarded grapefruit zest and fresh basil
Diogo Pilão (Germany)
Here representing Germany but also looking to do his native Portugal proud, Diogo presented a seemingly simple but very complex cocktail based on the Fluffy Garibaldi made famous at Dante in New York. Light and fresh, the airy concoction featured Graham’s Blend N°12 Ruby Port from the north of Portugal and oranges from the south, bound together with strawberries, the fruit he remembers his parents eating paired with whipped cream.
The hard work was in the prep: milk washing, infusions, sous vide etc – which meant all Diogo had to do while giving his presentation was whip the whole thing into shape using a hand blender. The result was a soft, lightly creamy low abv cocktail that would be welcome on any brunch menu.
140ml aerated pre-mix*
10ml vanilla syrup
Build highball glass, no garnish.
Milk-washed, strawberry-infused Graham’s Blend N°12 Ruby Port:
500ml Graham’s Blend N°12 Ruby Port
Sous-vide: 60mins at 60°c
#2 Milk wash:
500ml strawberry-infused Graham’s Blend N° 12 Ruby Port
500ml freshly pressed orange juice
30 ml freshly pressed lemon juice
Pour the mix of port, orange and lemon into: 250ml milk (3,5-3,8%). Let it sit, stir and strain through a coffee filter.
Laurynas Lazdauksas (Amsterdam)
Laurynas looked to the seaside of his native Lithuania for his crowd-pleasing, spritz-style ‘Dunes’ cocktail. Easy to drink and easy enough for anyone to make, the drink called on three ingredients: one part cordial, two parts Graham’s Blend N°5, three parts dry sparkling wine or Cava, simply built over ice. That said, there was a serious intention at its core: sustainability, with Laurynas collecting leftover grapefruit and ginger peels from the bar and boiling them up with hibiscus and cinnamon to create a bitter-sweet cordial that was just the ticket for a Graham’s Blend N°5-based cocktail.
60ml Graham’s Blend N°5
30ml grapefruit/hibiscus cordial
120ml with dry Cava to top
Garnish: mint spring
David Pfister (Switzerland)
If we were in any doubt as to the protagonist in David’s glass, we only needed to look at the colour of his shirt: its rich, ruby tone captured the look, taste and intensity of his Red Curtain cocktail perfectly. This was the most bartender-y of the cocktails on offer – stirred down, sharp and strong. Partnering Graham’s Blend N°12 with another grape-based product, cognac, the addition of homemade redcurrant cordial added an agreeable tang (with the leftover pulp made into a fruit leather garnish). A touch of Carpano Botanic Bitter rounded the drink off nicely.
40ml Graham’s Blend N°12
20ml Camus VS cognac
20ml homemade redcurrant cordial
1 barspoon of Carpano Botanic Bitter
José Guerreiro (Portugal)
Hot and cold, light and dark, bitter and sweet all came together in José’s Night & Day. Inspired by the classic Singapore Sling, the drink combined both Graham’s Blends – N°12 representing night and N°5 the day. The name also took into account the fact that the low abv cocktail could be consumed at any time of day, through to the evening.
Bartender turned barista José combined both of his crafts in his drink: one part was made in a French press, with water boiled just-so, before combining with the Blend N°5 infusion and shaken over ice.
50ml Graham’s Blend N°5
15ml Graham’s Blend N°12
50ml pineapple juice
5ml flower honey
6g infusion of dried red fruits
40ml hot water (93*graus)
40ml G’Vine Flouration gin
20ml triple sec
2 dashes cherry bitters
Garnish: orange peel and verbena flower
Yannik Seeber (Austria)
Travel and adventurers sparked the idea for Yannik’s aptly named cocktail Viajante Vermelho aka The Red Traveller. His ingredients were sourced from all around the world, Portugal for the port obviously, unified with Scotland (peated whisky), France (pear liqueur), Peru (palo santo) and Mexico (limes). In less capable hands the whisky and palo santo syrup would have overpowered the lower abv blended port but somehow, Yannik managed to get everything to talk fluently in the glass.
Viajante Vermelho (The Red Traveller)
40ml Grahams Blend N°12
20ml peated whisky
20ml orange juice
20ml pear liqueur
20ml palo santo syrup
15ml lemon juice
3 dashes plum bitters
Cedric Philippe (Belgium)
The last presentation of the day came from a quietly confident Cedric Philippe who took us back to the glamour of the 1920s with The Grape Gatsby. Referencing the liquid version of Ernest Hemingway’s popular book Death In The Afternoon as inspiration, the drink included two dashes of absinthe for 1920s decadence, a touch of agricole rhum “for the dance moves”, Graham’s Blend N°5 “to replicate the excellent hosting skills and choice location,” we’d experienced with Champagne for the last element in the party – “bubbles and good times.” Crisp and elegant in taste it also looked the part with its bright yellow, edible flower garnish.
The Grape Gatsby
50ml Graham’s Blend N°5
7.5ml Clairin rum
2 dashes absinthe
Topped with Champagne
AND THE WINNER IS…
And just like that, it was over – seven very different, very exciting and very quaffable port-based cocktails which could easily win any non-port drinker over. As well as the judging panel comprising Charlotte Symington, Senior Marketing Manager and member of the fifth generation of the Symington family, Hannes Desmedt, sommelier and bartender, bartender Iolanda Lourinha and The Cocktail Lovers.
In the end it was David Pfister who took the top spot. Why? His drink ticked all the boxes for us: it looked like a cocktail but tasted of port and rather cleverly, the complete opposite is also true. “We could feel the presence of the Blend Nº12, both in aroma and on the palate,” Iolanda commented. “Everything was very well thought and structured, from the introduction of Blend Nº12 and his inspiration on love, to the elegant and careful choice of a Nick and Nora glassware. It was an elegant, modern but above all, a classic drink.” Hannes agreed. “The bartending world is finally starting to discover the great complexity of fortified wines such as port. And are creating fantastic, delicious creations with these wines. As a professional sommelier, I love it when we can bring out the vinous notes of the wine in a perfectly balanced cocktail. And during the Graham’s Blend series global cocktail competition, where the level was tremendously high, David’s cocktail just stood out in all its simplicity. It was so well balanced, so pure and presented with such respect for the Port wine that I was surprised we hadn’t been able to discover it before. Every detail was right, every action was carefully carried out and every sip invited another. Simply blissful.”
Cedric Philippe came in second, with a delighted Yannik coming in a close third. Cedric’s prize was a €500 cash prize and two cases of Blend Nº5 & Blend Nº12 for his bar, while Yannik took home €200, with a case each of Blend Nº5 & Blend Nº12 for his bar to follow in due course.
The last word goes to Charlotte Symington: “We created the Blend Series to showcase how versatile and approachable port can be as well as unlock the potential we know port has within the world of mixology. Therefore, it was fantastic to see – and taste – all the inventive cocktails created by our grand finalists in the first ever Graham’s Blend Series Competition. Each brought such a high level of creativity, skill and passion that they made it very difficult for the jury to crown our winner. However, we made the unanimous decision that David’s ‘Red Curtain’ allowed the port to shine through and be the hero of the serve. Elegant and sophisticated, this was the type of drink we had in mind when we created Graham’s Blend Nº12.”