Alton Brown's Secret Ingredient For Irresistible Sangria

For a man with solid boots in Southern stomping grounds, it's surprising that renowned chef Alton Brown took so long to discover the best ingredient ever for making sangria. Brown himself admits this when explaining how his personal sangria recipe evolved, detailing an evening in 2017 when he enjoyed tapas and sangria at Mateo restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. It's "one of those ideas that's so brilliant that it actually hurts me to not have thought of it," he explains in his sangria's official recipe.

The ingredient is about as Deep South as one can get, especially when sipped from a glass bottle. It's called Cheerwine, which boasts many slogans, including the "Nectar of North Carolina" and "Born in the South. Raised in a glass." This drink also takes center stage in countless bars, eateries, festivals, and backyard barbecue parties across the entire American South. Originating in North Carolina in 1917, Brown's "aha" moment with it in Durham a century later is especially historically fitting.

The history of Cheerwine

When considering Cheerwine for a sangria recipe, it's worth noting that its name is a bit misleading — because there's zero wine in Cheerwine. In fact, it's not an alcoholic beverage, so there's no need to worry about it complementing or clashing with the actual alcohol in your sangria. 

Cheerwine is a soft drink, characterized by its fizzy, sweet, and flavorful profile. The original Cheerwine ingredients, which still define its taste today, actually emerged during a country-wide sugar shortage in 1917. But that didn't stop its founder, L.D. Peeler, from crafting a carbonated drink with a unique ingredient for that era: wild cherry flavoring. Its rich, burgundy-red hue, combined with an extra infusion of cheer-inducing effervescence, naturally led to Cheerwine's name. 

By the 1950s, even U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was known to sip on the regional bubbly drink. Eisenhower reportedly proclaimed, "Ike likes!" upon tasting it. It's no surprise that Alton Brown embraced Cheerwine more than 60 years after Eisenhower's endorsement, leading to his popular Cheerwine sangria. While acknowledging that the idea for his drink came from Mateo in North Carolina, Brown recreates it with his own unique twist.

How to make Alton Brown's Cheerwine Sangria

The foundation of many sangria recipes is red wine, citrus juice, fruit, and brandy. While variations might include carbonation, liqueurs, and sweeteners — ranging from spicy additions to adding raspberry and thyme — Alton Brown's Cheerwine sangria takes a slightly different path. Brown's recipe eliminates direct sugars and veers heavily into the cheery-cherry camp. 

Brown openly divulges his exact recipe to anyone with cherry-flavored cocktail proclivities, but be forewarned: Cherry sodas other than Cheerwine are a big no-no. In his own words, Brown states, "Do not ... I repeat, do not use cherry Coke." Only Cheerwine from North Carolina will make magic happen in your glass. Brown also prefers red wine from Spain's Rioja region for his recipe. 

According to Brown's website — and endorsed by Cheerwine with a "cheers to you" — the ingredients for this bubbly good time include a good red wine, Triple sec (or a similar orange liqueur), brandy, cherry bitters, peaches, mangos, basil leaves, and a few cans of chilled Cheerwine (which is available for purchase through Cheerwine's website).

Brown notes that using fresh fruit is always a good idea if it's available, though frozen works too. For ultimate visual appeal, showcase the brilliant crimson and citrus hues of Cheerwine sangria in glass cups. Whether they're for wine, brandy, or even a Mason jar, any festive container works. Make sure to chill the sangria before serving, and splash with a squeeze of fresh orange juice. Serve in a chilled glass.