In Spain, serious bartenders don’t talk about the Kalimotxo, says Simone Caporale, co-owner of Barcelona cocktail bar Sips. Try it, and “they’ll start throwing tomatoes and stones at you.”
While the super simple mix of red wine and cola may be stigmatized in Spain as a drink for tourists and students, that hasn’t stopped bartenders from riffing on the simple highball. After all, when maligned drinks from the Midori Sour to the Long Island Iced Tea are ripe for reinvention, the Kalimotxo is fair game, too.
“It’s a drink I took with me in every country that I’ve lived in,” says Alf del Portillo, co-owner and head bartender at Quattro Teste in Lisbon, who left the Basque Country more than 10 years ago. He now has a version on tap at his bar, as well as an amaro-spiked variation that nods to wife and co-owner Marta’s Italian roots.
The combination of red wine and cola appears all around the world, from South Africa’s katemba to Chile’s jote. The name of the Spanish version, sometimes spelled calimocho, was bestowed during a festival in the Basque region in the 1970s: “A member of the group organizing the festival discovered that the thousands of liters of wine they bought was off,” says del Portillo, but it became palatable when mixed with Coke. Details vary depending on who’s telling the story, but a waiter named Kalimero is generally credited with devising the combo; the drink is named for him and someone else nicknamed Motxo (“ugly,” in Basque banter).
While the classic is typically an equal-parts mix of red wine and Coca-Cola—often sloshed together in a half-emptied 2-liter Coke bottle—del Portillo has adjusted that ratio to roughly one part Rioja to two parts cola, fortified with high-proof vodka in his classic version, and Amaro Lucano and Branca Menta in his amaro variation. “A little higher proof on this drink benefits it immensely,” he notes.
In Spain, del Portillo adds, some incorporate crème de mûre (a type of blackberry liqueur) “to fruit up the drink.” His version incorporates that dark fruit flavor via a lacto-fermented raspberry cordial, the taste of which he likens to lambic beer. In addition, the acidity and salt from the cordial help balance the sweetness of the other ingredients.
The revitalized Kalimotxo has landed stateside, too. Brian Evans, of New York Spanish restaurant El Quijote, describes his version as “a traditional red wine and cola meets the Cuba Libre,” another cola-based highball. His recipe, which is typically served at the restaurant in the warmer months, includes both garnacha, a Spanish red wine, and a Spanish sweet vermouth, along with pineapple rum and a half-ounce of Ramazzotti Amaro. Instead of Coke, the drink is lengthened with Casamara Club Alta, a nonalcoholic “sparkling amaro.”
“The simplest things are the most attractive,” Evans says of bartenders’ temptation to “overcomplicate” the highball. “I recognize that instead of two ingredients, we’re playing with six or seven. But that’s the thrill: Take a [classic] formula and modernize it, express ourselves.”
Perhaps most telling of all: Even Kalimotxo-wary Caporale has a found a way to refract the wine-and-soft drink template into the Pink Chihuahua, a highball that marries sherry (it’s still Spanish wine, after all) and bubbly blood orange soda with two types of gin. Since even a squeeze of lemon can help freshen the classic in its original format, he observes, a citrusy soft drink plus orange-infused gin creates an elevated, albeit distant, variation. After all, he admits, “it tastes delicious if it’s well-made.”