A Very Sherry Situation
My first association with sherry was as a boy reading the Harry Potter books, in which the crazed, clairvoyant, and apparently alcoholic teacher, Professor Trelawney, is constantly described as smelling strongly of cooking sherry. Although I had no clue what sherry was, this association with the “crazy, spinster aunt” type stuck. I proceeded to live my life quite happily for some years before being untimely sucked into the world of cocktails, where I found myself avoiding recipes that called for all varieties of this mysterious sherry, never quite being sure of what it was or where I would start with it, not to mention the probably deep seated fear that I may eventually become a spinster myself if I tried it.
While others may not share my exact association with sherry, I have found many fellow cocktail hounds with a similar trepidation or uncertainty in approaching it, as well as a feeling that it seems a bit “old fashioned”. Some have perhaps tried it, but as is often the case with vermouth, they tried an old dusty bottle in their parents’ liquor cabinet that had long ago taken a turn for the worse.
While it seems old fashioned to some, it also appears to be quite hip at the same time, as cocktail menus sprout up almost daily with more and more sherry peppered all about them. People are not just learning about how to use sherry, they’re falling madly in love with the stuff, and I’ll be damned if you and I are left behind like a couple of jabronies. Let’s pull up our sleeves and give this stuff a proper consideration, both in terms of how it’s all made and how we can apply it to making cocktails. Maybe we’ll even drink a few along the way.
Sherry is a white wine that is, like vermouth, fortified after fermentation with a grape spirit, coming out generally somewhere between 15 and 25% ABV. Unlike vermouth, it is not aromatized with botanicals, and it is aged in oak after the fortification. This aging is done using a Solera system, in which younger wines from separate barrels are constantly added to older wines as some of that older wine is extracted to be bottled. Likewise that younger wine is replaced in its old barrel by an even younger wine. So in the end, what is in the bottle is a blend of wines of various ages, some young and some very old. This is why sherry, though aged, doesn’t feature an age statement. Further, the nature of this aging is key, as it separates several of the most common varieties, but more on that later.
Sherry is protected by a Denomination of Origin designation, and must be produced within the Sherry Triangle, between the cities of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María, all in the Andalucia province in the south of Spain. These unique terroirs (remember when we talked about that?), with their chalky limestone soil, produce the Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel grapes, the three varieties used for producing sherry.
There are many different varieties, and many different ways to classify and navigate through them, and we will take the simplest route, from the lightest to the darkest and most rich. But first, let’s mix up the most classic and essential of sherry drinks for our journey: The Sherry Cobbler.
It doesn’t get quite enough play these days outside of sherry-centric bars, but the Sherry Cobbler once drove the whole world simply mad, and is even credited for the invention of the straw (19th century teeth weren’t exactly up to the challenge of crushed ice).
No less a luminary than Charles Dickens waxes on about the drink in his The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, from 1844: “Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop. ‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry Cobbler when you name it long; cobbler, when you name it short.’”
Just sherry, sugar, crushed ice (absolutely key), some orange slices, and a garnish, it’s a true miracle of a drink. First served in the 1820’s or 30’s, it remained at the top of the mixed drink totem pole until around the turn of the century, and its about time we put it back up there.
Any kind of Sherry can be used, but the amount of sugar or syrup should be adjusted depending. If using a dry sherry (I prefer Amontillado, although Oloroso also works for an especially sharp cobbler), 1/2 oz will do, and if using a sweet sherry like a cream or Pedro Ximénez, you can use little to no sweetener.
4 oz Sherry (Amontillado, Oloroso, or even Cream, Pedro Ximénez, or East India)
1/2 oz Simple Syrup (none if using sweetened sherry)
2-3 orange slices
Add orange slices and simple syrup to a shaking tin and muddle. Add ice and sherry and shake well. Strain into Highball glass or goblet filled with crushed ice (no substitutes!) and garnish with a sprig of mint, a fresh orange slice, and fresh berries.
Manzanilla and Fino
The lightest in color of the commonly encountered varieties of sherry, Manzanilla and Fino are, like most varieties, very dry and made from the palomino grape. The key to these types of sherry is the “biological aging”, which happens thanks to the flor, the protective layer of yeast that forms as a cap on the wine as it ages, guarding it from the oxidation that would occur from constant contact with the air.
The only real difference between Fino and Manzanilla is their different terroir. Manzanilla is produced and aged much closer to the coast, in a cooler and more humid environment. This produces a more robust layer of flor, guarding it even more than Fino from oxidation. As a result of all these factors, Manzanilla has a lighter, saltier, and brighter profile compared to the greater nuttiness and herbal qualities of Fino. Both varieties are aged at least two years, with Fino generally using older wine than its counterpart, sometimes containing wine up to ten years old, around which time it starts to lose the layer of flor.
In terms of cocktailing, Fino and Manzanilla are called for perhaps more than any other kind of sherry, for their bright, citrusy, subtle qualities that serve to both refresh a drink and dry it out a bit.
The Bamboo is one of the most classic sherry cocktails as well as one of the most classic low ABV cocktails. First served in the 1890’s in either San Francisco or in Yokohama, Japan (by an American barman), the drink had spread across America by the 20th century, certainly the most successful light tipple of the time, as cocktail historian David Wondrich notes, “It looks like a cocktail, tastes like a cocktail, and punches like a six year old”. Because sometimes you need an intermission drink. This version adds a small measure of syrup to the original formula to keep the drink from getting too dry.
1 1/2 oz Dry Vermouth (Dolin)
1 1/2 oz Fino Sherry (Cruz del Mar)
Barspoon of Rich Simple Syrup (BG Reynolds)
2 dashes Aromatic Bitters (Australian Bitters Company)
2 dashes Orange Bitters (Australian Bitters Company)
Stir ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Smoke in Mirrors
Smoke in Mirrors, a drink from the editors of PUNCH, the online cocktail and spirits bible, uses Manzanilla to show how sherry can play a leading role alongside a smaller measure of a heavy hitting spirit like mezcal, keeping the proof down without sacrificing any flavor. The Rosé Syrup is a brilliant sweetener, and can easily be made at home by heating a measure of Rosé wine in a pan and then stirring in an equal measure of refined sugar until dissolved (then obviously let it cool).
Smoke in Mirrors
1 1/2 oz Manzanilla Sherry (Hidalgo la Gitana)
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
3/4 oz smoky Mezcal (Mezcal Vago Espadin)
3/4 oz Rosé Syrup
Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass
Amontillado is a Fino or Manzanilla Sherry that has been further aged without flor, beyond the biological aging, allowing the wine to oxidize and become darker and richer. The flor can either deplete naturally after three to seven years (when the flor no longer has any nutrients to feed on), or as is seen more commonly, it can be intentionally eliminated after a time by further fortifying the wine.
While still dry, Amontillados often have a greater presence of oak and a rich, nutty profile. These, along with Olorosos, can play well with big bold Barrel aged spirits like whiskey or rum, again drying them out like sherry always does, while still marrying nicely with the smooth rich notes of the spirit.
On Flowering Meadows
I made this drink, On Flowering Meadows, in a specific attempt to make a low ABV cocktail that refreshed while still carrying enough weight to feel like a proper drink, without using a base spirit. Amontillado meets its match in Don Ciccio and Figli’s Cinque Aperitivo, an American made Italian style liqueur, they are brightened up with lemon and passionfruit, and lengthened with soda.
On Flowering Meadows
1 1/2 oz Amontillado Sherry (Yuste Aurora)
1 oz Cinque Aperitivo
3/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice
3/4 oz Small Hand Foods Passionfruit Syrup
2 droppers of Mister Bitters Fig and Cinnamon Bitters
Shake all ingredients except for club soda with ice and strain over fresh ice cubes in a Highball glass. Top with club soda and garnish with a flower of some kind if you can manage.
Oloroso, which means fragrant, is a dark, heavily oxidized sherry that begins from a heavier wine, usually a second pressing of the palomino grapes. It is aged without flor, achieved by fortifying right away up to 18 or 19%, which is often naturally raised even further due to the evaporation, up to around 23 or 24%. The resulting wine is dry, but with a full bodied, almost sweet first impression thanks to its big aromas of walnut, leather, and tobacco.
This cocktail, the Foghorn, is a real doozy, and is by no means light and lovely like so many of the others we are featuring here. I intended it as a kind of dessert drink, balancing the sweetness of the other ingredients with the dry but still full bodied flavors of oloroso. Sherry often serves as a kind of cocktail glue, like bitters sometimes can as well, making sure everything comes together for a polished whole, and that is certainly true here.
2 oz Real McCoy 5 Year Barbados Rum
3/4 oz Zucca Rabarbaro Amaro
3/4 oz Oloroso Sherry (Cruz del Mar)
1/4 oz St. George Raspberry Brandy
1/4 oz El Guapo Creole Pecan Orgeat
3-4 dashes Aromatic Bitters (Bitter Housewife)
Stir all ingredients with ice and strain over a large ice cube in an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a couple of fresh raspberries.
Sweet Sherries (Pedro Ximénez, Cream, East India)
All the sherries we have talked about thus far are dry and made from the Palomino grape, but that’s not the whole story!
Pedro Ximenez (PX)
Pedro Ximénez (PX) is perhaps the most significant sweet variety, made from grapes of the same name. These grapes are picked very ripe and are often allowed to dry in the sun, which concentrates their sugars. Then, during fermentation, the wine is stopped short of finishing, thus keeping some of the sugars from converting into alcohol and retaining sweetness. It is then aged in a process similar to Olorosos. The resulting wine is full of big fig, date, spice, and chocolate flavors and aromas.
Cream sherry generally takes an Amontillado, or sometimes an Oloroso, and blends it with Pedro Ximénez, creating a sweet but balanced wine that retains some bit of dryness. Some creams, however, simply add grape must to sweeten them, making a more artificially sweetened version.
East India Sherry
East India Sherry is a cream style variety whose name refers to the British East India Company, who used to ship sherry of this style on ships to South and Southeast Asia. Generally a blend of Oloroso and some Pedro Ximénez, the time spent on the ships was noted as improving the wine to a significant degree, due to both the sloshing about in the oak barrel and the exposure to very high temperatures. This is recreated to a degree now (by Lustau, the only producer to make this style) by aging the blended sherry in the hottest corner of the bodega. The wine is sweet, but not as sweet as some cream sherries, sporting a blend of 80% Oloroso and 20% Pedro Ximénez.
Hey, Little Buddy!
The Hey, Little Buddy! takes Lustau’s East India Sherry, with its mild sweetness and uses it to support one of my favorite whiskies, Leopold Bros.’ American Small Batch Whiskey, a rare and unique bourbon in which the raw materials (corn, rye) shine through more prominently than the oak influence. This lovely pairing is then zapped with some passionfruit and lemon for a sweet refresher. If it’s an especially hot summer day, don’t hesitate to top with some club soda for extra hydration.
Hey, Little Buddy!
1 1/2 oz Leopold American Small Batch Whiskey
1/2 oz Lustau East India Solera Sherry
1/2 oz Small Hand Foods Passionfruit Syrup
1/2 oz fresh lemon juice
2 dashes Miracle Mile Barrel Aged Forbidden Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain over a large ice cube in an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a long lemon twist.
If you want to explore the nitty gritty details of Sherry further, sherrynotes.com is a wonderful resource for all things Sherry!