Cocktails that are scintillating starters

A cocktail can be a particularly festive way to begin an evening out. But today's super-sized martinis or Manhattans aren't always the most suitable drink for before-dinner quaffing. All that alcohol can ruin the palate for food or fine wine, making the rest of the meal a little beside the point. You could always start with a glass of wine or skip cocktail hour altogether, but why not look for a compromise? There are drinks out there with the complexity, the "sit-back-and-enjoy" feeling of a cocktail that won't make you slide off your barstool.

Wine and fortified wine cocktails have been making a big comeback. With alcohol percentages that top out around 20 percent, fortified wines such as sherry and port are assertive enough to stand up to other ingredients but mellow enough to sip on an empty stomach. Wine-based cocktails usually wind up being fortified as well, with small additions of hard liquor to balance out the drink, but the overall potency is still tempered by the low alcohol content of the main ingredient.

At Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar, the cocktail list includes the Ice Vine Martini. The base of the drink is Selaks 2006 Ice Wine from the east coast of New Zealand. Paul Tebbets adds a little Ciroc Vodka (distilled from grapes rather than grain) and some lime juice to balance out the sweetness of the wine. This drink is finished with a few ice wine-soaked house-made raisins and a lime wheel.

A drink like the Ice Vine Martini eases the transition to drinking wine with dinner. At Mio Kitchen and Wine bar, another wine-focused restaurant, the cocktail list typically concentrates on lighter alcohol drinks. The Port Cocktail is surprisingly simple to make and equally easy to drink. Sweet but complex with a hint of spiciness from muddled mint, this drink makes it easy to forget the cold winds outside and start anticipating the delicious dinner to come.

The Falling Leaves cocktail tastes as poetic as it sounds, a complex mix of Riesling, St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, orange vodka, honey syrup (like simple syrup but made with honey) and a dash of Peychaud's bitters.

Champagne cocktails probably have played a pivotal role in reintroducing wine cocktails to bartenders. Mio's is a clever inversion of the usual alcohol base with a champagne float. Instead, champagne (or sparkling wine) with a hint of orange flower water gets a float of sweet vermouth.

At Casbah, the new winter cocktail menu includes the tantalizingly titled Chocolate Violet Royale, made from Charles de Fere sparkling wine, creme de violette liqueur and house-made chocolate bitters, the perfect drink for conjuring up Valentine's Day on any early spring evening.

Nine on Nine offers a classic version of one of the most classic drinks -- the French 75. Some make this drink with cognac, but here you can try the original gin-based recipe. There is one modern twist. Nine on Nine likes to use Juniper Green Organic gin, which is combined with fresh lemon juice, a little simple syrup and, of course, champagne.

• China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or Follow her on Twitter at

Ice Vine Martini

  • 3 ounces Selaks Ice Wine: East Coast New Zealand 2006
  • 1.5 ounces Ciroc Vodka
  • Juice of 1/4 lime
  • Lime wheel
  • Ice wine-soaked golden raisins, to garnish

Combine ice wine, vodka and lime juice in an ice-filled shaker. Vigorously shake for 30 seconds.

Strain into a cocktail (martini) glass and garnish with the lime wheel and the raisins.

Serves 1.

-- Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar, Shadyside

Port Cocktail

  • 3 ounces Sandeman's Founder's Reserve
  • 1 orange slice
  • 3 leaves fresh mint

Slightly muddle orange and mint in a rocks glass. Add ice, then port. Gently stir for 30 seconds.

Serves 1.

-- Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar, Aspinwall

The Bamboo Cocktail

  • 1 ounce dry vermouth
  • 1 ounce dry sherry
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • 1 orange twist

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add everything but the orange twist. Stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a cocktail (martini) glass and garnish with the orange twist.

Serves 1.

-- Adapted from "The Museum of the American Cocktail Pocket Recipe Guide" by Robert Hess and Anistatia Miller (Ready Writers, 2007)


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