A toast to getting in the mood

Valentine’s Day is this Sunday and with it comes a lot of heightened expectations. Along with overpriced flowers, heart-shaped chocolates and prix-fixe dinners comes the real possibility of amorous activities. But what if one is not actually in the mood when the moment arrives?

Fear not, because there is a long history of the reputed aphrodisiac qualities of various types of alcohol. According to one recent study, drinking alcohol “increases subjective sexual desire, arousal and pleasure for many women,” and numerous other studies hint at the same thing. It has to do with blood alcohol levels, elevated testosterone, disinhibiting psychological processing and increased circulation, as well as a pronounced “placebo effect.”

Is there any truth to it? Perhaps. The belief that alcohol has aphrodisiac properties goes about as far back as Valentine’s Day itself. But in the greater realm of cocktails, wine and spirits, four specific items stand out.


Maybe you’ve heard the story of Vincent Van Gogh, the eccentric artist who, while under the influence of absinthe, cut off his own ear and presented it to his favorite prostitute. Today’s absinthe is a far cry from the absinthe of Van Gogh’s day. It is still high proof (often well over 100 proof), and still has an odd vegetal-anise flavor. But what today’s absinthe lacks is thujone, the psychoactive ingredient derived from wormwood that drove many people to depravity at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s.

However the mystique still remains. If knocking out one’s inhibitions by virtue of extra-high proof alcohol is what constitutes romance to you, than come on in Mr. Van Gogh.

There are several Bay Area producers of absinthe. My favorite is Emperor Norton made by the Raff Distillerie on Treasure Island. Made with 100 percent California grape brandy it weighs in at 136 proof — or almost double the alcohol of vanilla vodka.


Dorothy Parker had a famous limerick: “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”

Martinis, whether gin or vodka, contain more alcohol than your average mixed drink. Typically a cocktail has one shot or about 1½ ounces of alcohol in it. Martinis have 2½ to 3 ounces of liquor. So do the math in Ms. Parker’s escalation. So much for inhibitions, or decision making.

Also figure that gin is usually higher proof than vodka. Most vodka is 80 proof, where gin typically starts at about 90 proof and goes up And since about 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed directly through the stomach (an unusuality in digestion) the higher the proof the more rapid the effect.

Try San Francisco’s No. 209 gin in your martini. Its soft mouthfeel is palatable (even for non-gin drinkers) and the 92 proof “isn’t an accident,” the company proudly states. Its kosher version is 94 proof; read into that what you will.

When it comes to wine, Champagne is the king of romance. Part of the allure may be the opulence or perhaps it is the well-established belief that bubbles carry alcohol more quickly into the blood stream. Whatever the case, consider this — you don’t present newlyweds on the eve of their honeymoon with pinot grigio glasses, do you?

Luckily for us California produces many excellent sparkling wines, some of which are owned and operated by French Champagne houses. A favorite is Domaine Carneros (founded by Taittinger), which, in addition to typical brut méthode champenoise wines, also produces a rosé, a demi-sec and an ultra-brut option.

Red Wine

In 2009 Italian wine makers from the Chianti region in Italy commissioned a study that found that regular and moderate drinking of red wine (surprise, surprise) offered a boost to women’s “sexual desire, lubrication and overall sexual function as compared to the teetotaler status.”

Since Chianti is typically at least 75 percent sangiovese, up to 10 percent canaiolo and up to 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, merlot or syrah, that leaves the door open for a lot of wines. I recommend the sangiovese from Jacuzzi Vineyards. Raise a toast to good blood flow!

The downside to this is that most scientific studies agree that heavy alcohol intake has a negative effect on libido. So whatever your preference, moderation is the key. And remember, just thinking that you are turned on is part of the equation, so whatever works for you, works for you, regardless of what anyone else says.

Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender” as well as an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at www.jeffburkhart.net and contact him at [email protected].