For many—well, for me—sherry conjures memories of furtively swigging a sweet, creamy substance from a sticky bottle stowed in the back of grandma’s cupboard when no one was watching. Despite its low-quality reputation, the fortified wine is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated categories in the world of wines and spirits.
But that’s about to change: as we learned at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans in late July—think Comic-Con for the booze industry—sherry is the next big thing.
With varieties spanning the spectrum from thin and dry to viscous and sweet, the beverage is anything but new: It has been made in Spain for centuries and was integral to that county’s culture well before the British brought it home as a spoil of war in the late 16th Century. Stateside, it enjoyed early, immense popularity (we’re talking colonial-times early). The sherry cobbler—a mix of sherry, sugar, and citrus served over crushed ice—was so trendy in 19th Century America that it led to the rise of the straw so that those with rotted teeth could sip their cocktails pain-free.
Post-Prohibition, sherry was gradually pigeonholed as the forgettable sweet aperitif synonymous with brands like Harvey’s Bristol Cream—a bastardization of the traditional form. Dry sherries were nowhere to be found. Thus, with the rise of dry wine’s popularity in the second half of the Twentieth Century, sherry fell out of favor, tarnished by its false reputation of always having a cloying sweetness. “It’s a great lesson in how fashion so often fails us,” says Talia Baiocchi, author of Sherry (2014) and co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online magazine PUNCH.
Today, dry sherry is gaining traction. Part of that is the evolution of the American palate toward acidic, savory, and bitter flavors. Another is that chefs and sommeliers are realizing it pairs together well with food, from oysters to shrimp to Iberico ham. But its revival can be largely attributed to bartenders who’ve rediscovered its important role in many classic cocktail recipes. “The reclamation of sherry as a classic cocktail ingredient—and, perhaps more importantly, as a modern one—really acted as the gateway for sherry back into the consumer’s consciousness,” says Baiocchi.
WHAT IS SHERRY?
Certain aspects of sherry production remain constant: By law, it is made from white grapes grown in the “Sherry Triangle” anchored by the city of Jerez de la Frontera in the southwestern Spanish province of Cadiz, in which the very light, chalky soil, called albariza, uniquely maintains moisture during the rain-deprived summer months. The grapes are fermented, the resulting wine is blended with a grape spirit to up the alcohol content, and the boozy liquid is aged in barrels that are stored aboveground (as opposed to in a cellar). All sherries are produced using the solera method—in which different vintages are combined during years of barrel aging to create the final product.
But that’s where the similarities from one bottle to the next end. A good sherry’s flavor profile is extremely complex, and can range from notes of citrus, yeast, or sweet caramel on the nose followed by salty, savory, or nutty flavors on the tongue.
Many factors affect the end result—the location of the vineyard (or bodega) in relation to the nearby Atlantic Ocean, the alcohol content (ranging from 15% to 22%). But what most defines the style of sherry is the level of exposure to flor—a layer of yeast that grows at the top of most dry sherry barrels as they age, which prevents oxidation to varying degrees depending on how much the yeasty cap covers. Oxidized styles such as oloroso have shed their bright-fruit flavors entirely, giving way to more candied-fruit and nutty flavors. Sherries that have been partly or wholly protected from oxidation must be treated like other wine after opening—they should be consumed quickly to be fully enjoyed before losing freshness. I don’t think Grandma realized that.
As sherry’s popularity returns, so too has the interest in innovative production methods. One such style is known as en rama, in which bottling takes place when the juice is unfiltered, resulting in a cloudy liquid with more minerality. “En rama is one of the more fascinating developments of late,” says Rafael Mateo, owner of New York City’s Pata Negra, a Spanish-style wine bar featuring a long list of sherries. “It is pure. It is all the rage now.”
In order of lowest to highest exposure to oxidation, here are the most common styles of dry sherry and a recommended bottle for each:
Description: The classic and most widely available style. A full flor cap covers the barrel as it ages, and the spirit is therefore not exposed to air at all.
Bottle Recommendation: Equipo Navazos Macharnudo ($$$)
Description: This sub-style of fino “must be made in Sanlúcar de Barrameda,” says Mateo. This particular bottle is in the en rama style.
Bottle Recommendation: Barbadillo Solear en Rama ($)
Description: This style of sherry is partially aged with a full flor before being exposed to oxidation in the barrel. Mateo describes the style as “brown, dry, nutty, and complex.”
Bottle Recommendation: Lustau Los Arcos ($)
STYLE: PALO CORTADO
Description: The most enigmatic of dry sherries, this style falls somewhere between amontillado and oloroso on the oxidation spectrum and is classified as such at the discretion of the winemaker.
Bottle Recommendation: Rey Fernando de Castilla Antique ($$)
Description: This style is is wholly exposed to oxidation during barrel aging, giving it a darker color and richness.
Bottle Recommendation: El Maestro Sierra 15 anos ($)
Sherry’s return to cocktail menus has been as a sort of Trojan Horse, appearing first as a modifier rather than a base. (An explanation of those terms by way of example: gin or vodka is the base of a Martini, and vermouth is the modifier.) While speaking at a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail, Michael Callahan, General Manager and founding bartender of Singapore’s 28 Hong Kong Street, said, “You’re not seeing it used as a base that often.” But he believes that the more bartenders incorporate it, the more popular it will become: “By educating staff and patrons, they are going to start wanting more of it.”
In that spirit, here are a few of our favorites—one old, one adapted from a classic, and one new—to get you started ahead of the inevitable curve.
Adapted from: Recipes for Mixed Drinks by Hugo R. Ensslin (1916)
1.25 oz Amontillado Sherry
1.25 oz Rye
0.25 oz Grand Marnier
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist, for garnish
Add all ingredients except the garnish, to a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with the lemon twist.
From: Evan Bucholz, Brix and Rye, Greenport, NY
Background: While its exact origin is unknown, the cocktail was named after the play, “Adonis,” which debuted at the Bijou Theater on Broadway in 1884. This recipe is an interpretation of the original, which called only for two parts “dry sherry” and one part sweet vermouth.
1 oz Sweet Vermouth (preferably Carpano Antica)
1 oz Amontillado Sherry
1 oz Fino Sherry
Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except the lemon twist in a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir until chilled. Strain the cocktail into a cocktail glass. Express the oils from the lemon twist over the glass and drop it in as garnish.
From: John Myers, Bar Manager, Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine
2.5 oz amontillado
1 oz Byrhh
0.75 oz Aperol
Grapefruit twist, for garnish
Add all ingredients except the garnish, to a mixing glass. Fill with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe. Express the oils from a wide grapefruit twist over the glass and garnish with the spent twist.
Brett Moskowitz can be found on Twitter at @bmoskowitz.