"Red ink” has been a nickname for “cheap red wine” since at least 1863. The nickname was frequently used in Italian restaurants in America, which were called “red ink joints” by 1916. “Red ink” was commonly used in cities with large Italian populations in the early 1900s, such as New York City and San Francisco.
The term “red ink” has been seldom used after 1950—when higher quality red wine became widely available in the United States—and is of mostly historical interest today. The red wine term has nothing to do with the financial term “red ink,” meaning a monetary deficit.
Historical Dictionary of American Slang
ink n. cheap red wine; RED INK.
1917 Imbrie War Ambulance 115: Wine was “ink.”
1929 in OEDAS: Ink, wine. This use was restricted to red wine.
1938 New Yorker (Mar. 12) 36: Wine is an aid to the hashish smoker and all the pads sell cheap local “ink.”
1952 Steinbeck East of Eden 510: Get loaded with ink and they go nuts.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
red ink n. [mid-19C-1940s] (US) cheap red wine.
red ink joint n. [1940s] (US) a cheap Italian restaurant. [RED INK n. (2) + JOINT n. (3)]
(Oxford English Dictionary)
slang. Cheap red wine; also applied to some other inferior alcoholic drinks. Chiefly U.S.
1919 Red Cross Mag. Nov. 22/3 He at once took ten of his fellow students to a sixty-cent ‘red-ink’ and spaghetti dinner down on Tenth Street.
1926 J. BLACK You can’t Win xii. 153 Barrels of the deadly ‘foot juice’ or ‘red ink’, as the winos called it.
1930 N.Y. Times Mag. 16 Feb. 19 Today’s word ‘rum’ used in a broad sense to designate all kinds of forbidden liquors, may refer to..the ‘red ink’ of Greenwich Village.
1942 H. W. VAN LOON Lives 631 The wine problem was easily settled. Any kind of ‘red ink’—any kind of that cheap Chianti..would be satisfactory.
1952 E. O’NEILL Moon for Misbegotten III. 140 You’d lie awake..with..the wine of passion poets blab about, a sour aftertaste in your mouth of Dago red ink!
1976 W. H. CANAWAY Willow-Pattern War iii. 28 Lunch..was a real workaday snack this time: raclettes and rösti with a half-bottle of red ink.
Americans in Rome
By Henry P. Leland
New York, NY: Charles T. Evans
He calls it, if red wine, red ink, pink cider, red tea ; if white wine, balm of gooseberries, blood of turnips, apple juice, alum water, and slops for babes;...
30 August 1907, Fort Wayne (IN) Sentinel, pg. 8, col. 2:
“Well, champagne, cocktails, whisky and red ink,” explaining that red ink was the red wine that is served with some dinners in New York.
The Silent Bullet
(The Craig Kennedy Series)
By Arthur Benjamin Reeve
New York, NY: Harper & Brothers
At last we came to Albano’s little wine-shop, a dark, evil, malodorous place on the street level of a five-story, alleged “new-law” tenement. (...) Over a bottle of Albano’s famous California “red ink” we sat silently.
16 July 1911, Gazette-Telegraph (CO), magazine section, pg. 23:
“Ah, monsieur,” says the Franco-German proprietor affably, “taste some of our celebrated vin ordinaire. The newspaper men—they are such wags—call it red ink. My dear friend, it is not even ink! Prune juice, my dear sir, a little alcohol and water!”
April 1916, The Smart Set, pg. 16:
If one is an inhabitant of Greenwich village one knows well a small walled-in—brasserie, one calls it, if one has been in Paris—red-ink joint, in pure Manhattan-ese—on West Tenth Street.
January 1917, The Black Cat, pg. 29:
The clink of glasses in a certain Bohemian Red-Ink Joint mingled with the hilarious laughter of ealry morning revelers and the raucous notes of the cabaret girls’ alleged singing, and altogether suggested the general atmosphere of “the bars let down.”
10 February 1918, Duluth (MN) News Tribune, pg. 5:
Even the angleworms in our salad and the flies in our wine—or rather, red ink—didn’t bother us much after we’d learned how to avoid eating them.